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Listening Room: Kanye West Vs. 50 Cent, Kenny Chesney and more...
Kanye West, "Graduation" (Rock-A-Fella) ***
50 Cent, "Curtis" (Aftermath/Interscope) **1/2
Kanye West threw down something of a gauntlet when he moved the release of his third album from Sept. 18 to Sept. 11 -- in direct competition with 50 Cent's third release. There's no real fear Biggie-Tupac style fatalities, however, especially since, while the rhymes are certainly flying, they're not necessarily aimed at each other. If there has to be a winner in this showdown, it's West by a syllable or two; while his "Graduation" isn't quite as triumphant as 2005's epic "Late Registration," it's an typically clever and ambitious work, perhaps a bit more street-oriented than its two predecessors but still stretching traditional hip-hop conventions -- usually to good effect -- as West gets the most out of fresh samples (Steely Dan on "Champion," Daft Punk on "Stronger," Can (!) on "Drunk & Hot Girls," Laura Nyro on the soaring "The Glory") and carefully deployed guests such as Coldplay's Chris Martin ("Homecoming"), Detroit's Dwele ("Flashing Lights"), Lil Wayne ("Barry Bonds") and T-Pain ("Good Life"). Where his self-described "dissertation" falls short is that even after all his success, West still wears a pile of chips on his shoulder that lead him to diss back at those who diss him -- taking some particularly sharp shots at Jay-Z on "Big Brother" -- when on "Late Registration" in particular he showed a greater inclination towards high-mindedness.
On "Curtis," meanwhile, 50 Cent (real name Curtis Jackson -- get it?) shows a realization that the gansta/thug character he's traded on since 2002 is limited as well. So while shots ring out at the beginning of "My Gun," he also makes a conscious effort to embrace a more musical path, instilling a bit more melody into his flow and riding alongside high-profile vocalists such as Justin Timberlake (on the Timbaland-produced "Avo Technology"), Robin Thicke ("Follow My Lead") and Mary J. Blige ("All of Me"). But "Curtis" still has its feet firmly planted in the street, and in the strip clubs, rolling with MC pals such as longtime patron Eminem, Akon, Havoc and G-Unit cohorts Young Buck and Tony Yayo. 50's shortcoming is an ironic one; for all the brawn of his lyrics, his deliver remains a bit soft and is easily subsumed by those around him. That leaves the spare, synthesizer-dominated post-Dr. Dre soundscape to define the album's sonic character, which is hardly as effective or identifiable as a genuinely commanding MC.
Kenny Chesney, "Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates" BNA: ***
Kenny Chesney wants to go deep with us, even if the country superstar didn't write any of the 11 songs on his latest album. But in "Better as a Memory" he's found a ballad that speaks to his own life as a single buck who had a moment in the marital spotlight (with actress Renee Zellweger) and fesses up to feeling a void in his life. There's also a more emotional slipstream running through tracks such as "Wife and Kids," "Dancin' For Groceries," "Scare Me" and "Demons." But it's not just a pile of hankies, either; Chesney picks and grins his way through the morning-after ode "Got a Little Crazy," celebrates immaturity ("Just Not Today") and hard work ("Shiftwork," a duet with George Strait) and lets the lust fly on "Wild Ride," a kind of Motley Crue with a twang song featuring rock guitarist Joe Walsh. The fun quotient may not be as high as some of his other albums, but Chesney wears the emotional depth well this time out.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY:
Akron/Family, "Love is Simple" (Young God): This second full-length finds the eclectic New York collective in slightly more polished but still recklessly joyous form.
Black Francis, "Bluefinger" (Cooking Vinyl): Frank Black returns to his Pixies [i]nome de rock[/i] for the first time since the group's break-up in 1992.
Elvis Costello, "My Aim is True (Deluxe Edition)" (Hip-O): Costello celebrates the 20th anniversary of his debut with this vastly expanded version, loaded with previously unreleased material.
Flynville Train, "Flynville Train" (Show Dog Nashville): The debut release by the you-know-what kickin' country-rock band from Toby Keith's label.
The Go! Team, "Proof of Youth" (Sub Pop): Public Enemy's Chuck D is among the guest on the British modern rock troupe's follow-up to its Mercury Prize-nominated 2005 debut.
Ha Ha Tonka, "Buckle in the Bible Belt" (Bloodshot): Four-part harmonies and a rock-twang blend are hallmarks of this Ozark band's debut.
Joe Henry, "Civilians" (Anti-) The singer, songwriter, producer and Madonna's brother-in-law collaborates with Van Dyke Parks, Bill Frisell and others on his 10th studio album.
Hot Hot Heat, "Happiness Ltd." (Sire/London): The Canadian quartet began working on its third album in January of 2005, when it also hit the road to support its last release, "Elevator."
Kool G Rap, "Half a Klip" (Latchkey/Chinga Chinga): DJ Premier and Marley Marl are among those helping the legendary old school MC on his latest effort.
Orange, "Escape from L.A." (Hellcat): The Los Angeles punk rockers' second album surprises with a cover of Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon."
Johnathan Rice, "Further North" (Reprise): The British expatriate's sophomore album includes guest vocals by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis.
Lionel Richie, "Live in Paris" (Island): The former Commodore's first-ever concert album as a solo act might just have you "Dancing on a Ceiling" and listening to it, well, "All Night Long."
Shout Out Louds, "Our Ill Wills" (Merge): The Swedish indie pop group's second album was produced by Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn & John.
Various Artists, "Sowing the Seeds: The 10th Anniversary" (Appleseed): This two-CD celebration features the first recorded collaboration by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger as well as tracks by Jackson Browne, Wyclef Jean, Donovan and actor Tim Robbins.
Ann Wilson, "Hope & Glory" (Zoe): Heart's singer delivers a politically pointed set of covers, dueting with Elton John, k.d. Lang, Gretchen Wilson, Alison Krauss, sister and Heart partner Nancy Wilson and others.
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