Ludacris, Ride or Die Vol. III, 8Ball, Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Mystikal, Method Man & Redman, Ghostface Killah, Wu-Tang Clan, Lil Keke, and Lil Bow Wow

Beat Box

Phases and Stages

A no-show for almost the entirety of 2001, hip-hop finally got game in the fourth quarter last year. Ludacris' Word of Mouf (Def Jam South) has hutched the charts since then, what with dem hos in different "Area Codes." The Dirty South rises yet again, "the royal penis" clean and ready with a ribbed-for-laughter follow-up to 2000's triple-P breakthrough, Back for the First Time. Laughs let up at halftime, but when ATLien from another planet puts on the Ritz ("Rollout (My Business)"), or just chills on the home stoop ("Growing Pains"), Luda's bark is balls-out. Young Cris Bridges has been all over the field, in fact, putting the hurt on a tired Ryde or Die Vol. III, In the "R" We Trust (Interscope), then helping 8Ball's high, Almost Famous (JCor). 'Ball's street is a familiar one, but when LC, Konkrete, and P. Diddy hit the huddle, gettin' crunked comes natch. Cypress Hill knows about getting cross-eyed, Stoned Raiders (Columbia) packing plenty bowl. Slick as the grooves are ("Psychedelic Vision"), lyrically, this bowl may be cashed -- career chronologies ("Kronologik") ain't good third-down conversions. Mobb Deep, Infamy (Loud/Columbia), runs a conservative offense -- gangsta glories -- but the two biggest plays here are the Lil' Mo soul of opener "Pray For Me" and Ronald Isley silking the closer, "There I Go Again." Nas, Stillmatic (Columbia), drops it all -- gangsta ("Smokin'"), sex ("Rewind"), whack jobs; "Ether" puts the sleeper on Jay-Z. Unplugged. Plug in Nas instead: "Rule," aka Tears for Fears' "Everbody Wants to Rule the World," and Mary J. Blige's "Braveheart Party" for starters. "Blood of a slave, heart of a king," is the opening title cut chant, and he ain't lyin'. Nas rules. Ditto the scouting report on Busta Rhymes' Genesis (J). Label CEO Clive Davis' intro and Rhymes' chuckled response signal a kinder, gentler Busta, from a defused "Shut 'Em Down 2002" and hip-swaying "Truck Volume" to the new millennium bounce of "Make It Hurt" and Mary J. Blige doing both -- bouncin'/hurtin' -- on "There's Only One." P. Diddy advises "Pass the Courvoisier," but Busta's new beginnings are dope. Mystikal, Tarantula (Jive), takes up the rasp where Busta left off, showing us what he's working with on "Shake That Ass" rebound "P***y Crook." Mostly, Tarantula's still about ass, creepier than 2000's Let's Get Ready, but then who except a Crescent City boy raps about gumbo pie and means gumbo pie? Redman & Method Man can't quite prop the LP's sagging backside with "I Get Started," but then the midsection of their otherwise-grade-A soundtrack How High (Def Jam) is flabby. Still, drop 4 the CD B4 the DVD. Another streaking Wu-Tang satellite, Ghostface Killah's Bulletproof Wallets (Epic), is also a full-pad workout prior to the real match. Ghost and Rae(kwon) always make the street sound condo cool, slinging harsh words with honeyed R&B. Wu-Tang Clan's Iron Flag (Loud), could be dog-tagged the same, album No. 4 being a return to championship form after rebuilders Wu-Tang Forever and The W. "Rules" is the WTC on the WTC, while Flavor Flav settles the mood on "Soul Power" and Raekwon works some of that groove on the Ray Charles-kissed "One of These Days." Ronald Isley is indeed "Back in the Game." As are the Shaolin MCs of Iron Flag, even though this game's MVP comes from the bench: Houston's Lil Keke (Da Don), whose Platinum in Da Ghetto (Koch) is down South slick. Lil Bow Wow, Doggie Bag (So So Def), there's a lot of ground to cover before you're Da Don. Spike the ball, dogg.

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