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Hip-hop hooray? Tough to say what to make of new discs from Brown, Jay-Z

TThe Kanye West/50 Cent "battle" turned out to be a real sissy fight.

Neither album was particularly great. Neither resuscitated the music industry. Neither "saved" hip-hop. And both will (and should) be quickly forgotten.

This week, however, hip-hop got a shot in the arm, for whatever it's worth. Jay-Z dropped his new album. Chris Brown did the same. Between the two lies the chasm of modern hip-hop/R&B credibility.

Brown's "Exclusive" is expected to sell more than half a million copies right out of the box, and will likely match the double platinum success of the 18-year-old's self-titled debut album. Hailed as the industry's wunderkind of the moment, and consistently compared to self-proclaimed "King of Pop" Michael Jackson, Brown entered heady territory at a tender age -- he was only 16 when his first album became a smash, and at 18, is releasing an album he claims is aimed at an "older audience."

That's pretty funny. By the accelerated standards of present-day pop stardom, Brown is now at his career's midpoint. He's a teenager, and already, entering his "mature" phase. Oh, please. Give the kid a break. And give me a break, too, while you're at it.

If "Exclusive" is indeed aimed at older audiences, then older audiences must like songs about gettin' it on. "Exclusive" is almost exclusively concerned with booty calls, hook-ups and couplings in the night.

All fine, subject-matter-wise -- Brown is joining a long line of R&B singers obsessed with sex -- but the kid has come up a bit thin on the content side of the equation. He's a good singer in the overwrought, over-emoting, love-lorn mode of modern R&B. His tunes, however, are pretty lame, particularly when he hauls out the dreaded "special guests," a de rigeur act for today's R&B/hip-hop set.

Brown should've thought twice before texting pals T-Pain (whose performance is T-Painful to listen to), Big Boi and Lil Wayne. None of them have much to add.

None of this is likely to matter. Brown has been pegged as this year's burning star, and nothing save an act of God or Kanye will alter his trajectory.

Is "Exclusive" any good? If you're a teenager who likes modern R&B, it's probably great. If you're not, it probably isn't. It has all been done before, and better. But without a sense of history, everything sounds new.

Far more interesting is "American Gangster," Jay-Z's bid for continued hip-hop domination. It's telling that the album -- inspired by the new Denzel Washington vehicle of the same name, based on the life of drug smuggler/hustler Frank Lucas -- is at its core a throwback to the era of "Superfly," big horns and greasy '70s funk.

The record is already being hailed as a masterpiece. That might be going a hyperbolic mile or two north of reasonable assessment. "Gangster" is a gas, though, and is surely a record more worthy of hype than Kanye's and Fiddy's latest combined.

Jay-Z retired from music a while back, you might recall, after his album "Kingdom Come" failed to reignite his creative animus and was received by the public as a bit of a failure. So "Gangster" is a comeback effort. Tapping into his own perception of the Lucas psyche has liberated Jay-Z, but more importantly, it seems to have made him hungry again -- something that's tough to pull off when you're richer than God and Trump combined, and you crawl home from the clubs to find Beyonce curled up on your couch every night.

Jay-Z has the fire again, and "Gangster" is brimming with energy. It represents no forward step for hip-hop, though. From its Brooklyn-based beats to its Beastie Boys-style shout-outs, its "Superfly" stomp to its horn-laden '70s cop show vibe, "Gangster" is nothing if it's not old-school.

If you're indeed looking for something that's actually new and different in hip-hop, you probably shouldn't be looking where the hype tells you to look.

The same day that Brown and Jay-Z dropped their much-touted records, Tool/A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan offered his debut effort under the Puscifer moniker, with no help from a record label. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard indie chart, No. 25 on Billboard's Top 200.

More importantly, the record -- a creepily brilliant pastiche of hip-hop, electronic music and just plain Maynard-style weirdness -- is brilliant. In fact, it's more brilliant than "Exclusive" and "American Gangster" combined.

I have no idea what any of this means. I am certain, though, that it's getting pretty weird out there. Better grab on to something solid.


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