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This week's reviews: Blige heads strong hip-hop list

Once again, hip-hop artists hijack the release schedules as the industry hopes to harvest last-minute holiday sales. Check the lineup in the capsule reviews below:

> Mary J. Blige gives us a "deft blend of sugar and sweat," Edna Gundersen states, among many other perceptive observations that, if I excerpted them all, would disqualify this entry for capsule status.

> Lupe Fiasco's The Cool offers "intricate wordplay" over the "Coolest beats of the year," Steve Jones raves.

> Chingy "adds a little substance to his usual lifestyles of the young and flashy," Steve observes.

> Jaheim's fourth album showcases "the sound of maturity," says Steve (yes, it was another busy review week for Steve).

> Kirk Franklin displays his "knack for framing matters of faith in everyday terms," Steve sums up.

> "There’s nothing compelling about (Birdman's) street narratives," Steve realizes.

> Scarface continues to address his reality-based subject matter with "the voice of authority," Steve says.

Full reviews and links follow.

> Spotlight album of the week:

Mary J. Blige, Growing Pains: * * * Pains and gains

R&B’s favorite drama queen once again hires an entourage of producers and writers to escort her through a new soulful and soapy diary entry. For fans of Blige’s musical self-help series, Growing Pains doesn’t upgrade the message or language, but as a motivator, it’s a big step up from 2005’s slick and comfortable The Breakthrough.

A deft blend of sugar and sweat, her eighth studio album in 15 years delivers an encouraging throwback: In spots, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul reclaims her crown with dazzling payoffs, particularly on the libidinous Grown Woman, featuring Ludacris, and the brazen Work That with Busta Rhymes (currently an inescapable iPod ad).

Lyrically, the feminist mantras do little to improve on Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman bromides, but Blige’s booty-kicking vocals provide more than enough girl power. (For all her psychobabble about womanly pride and the path to self-awareness, Blige takes a curious turn on Feel Like a Woman as she encourages a man to satisfy her lust for handbags and shoes.)

While Blige’s swaggering wild child is a joy to witness, when she’s licking the wounds of her inner child, the results are less satisfying depending on the degree of sermonizing. And yet, with an artist as emotionally open as Blige, voice trumps vocabulary. Her vulnerability and vocal prowess are undeniable, and resistance melts away as her voice, aching above the fragile piano of Smoke or belting mightily on the dance blast Just Fine, commands and communicates with startling clarity. — Edna Gundersen

>>Download: Fade Away, Smoke, Til the Morning, Just Fine >>Consider: Work That, Feel Like a Woman >>Skip: Roses, Nowhere Fast

> More notable albums:

Lupe Fiasco, The Cool: * * * * No loopy fiasco here

Lupe Fiasco’s much-hyped 2006 debut, Food & Liquor, arrived to a warm critical (three Grammy nominations) but chilly retail reception. His newest should only add to his esteem as an artist, and maybe the rapper that helped make skateboarding cool will also score better with SoundScan as well. He has certainly done his part with a 19-track gem that showcases his intricate wordplay on everything from the rap industry and celebrity life to gun-toting youth and sexual violence. It’s all thoughtfully packaged over the Coolest beats of the year. — Steve Jones

>>Download: Superstar, Hi-Definition, Hip-Hop Saved My Life, Intruder Alert, Dumb It Down, Little Weapon >>Skip: Fighters

Chingy, Hate It or Love It: * * 1/2 Hip-hop with added heft

The St. Louis rapper has always come up with catchy tunes, but on his fourth album he adds a little substance to his usual lifestyles of the young and flashy. He gets plenty of help from a star-studded guest list that includes Ludacris, with whom he’s patched up differences, rejoining the Disturbing tha Peace crew. In addition to the expected party-starters, he also addresses poverty and hip-hop’s critics and pays tribute to the women that raised him. — Jones

>>Download: Fly Like Me, Gimme Dat, Lovely Ladies, How We Feel, Spend Some $ >>Skip: All Aboard (Ride It), 2 Kool 2 Dance

Jaheim, The Makings of a Man: * * * Maturing R&B

On his fourth album, Jaheim seems to be outgrowing his thug tendencies, but he still gives voice to the common man. Taking inspiration from the classic soul of the ‘70s, he croons passionately about love that lasts and love that fails. He also sings about the importance of family and owning up to one’s mistakes. Lonely, his update of Bobby Womack’s If You Think You’re Lonely Now, has the feel of a classic with updated sensibilities. It is the sound of maturity. — Jones

>>Download: Lonely, Have You Ever, Life of a Thug, She Ain’t You, Never >>Skip: Make a Wish, Just Don’t Have a Clue

Kirk Franklin, The Fight of My Life: * * * 1/2 Gospel for the masses

Franklin has always had a knack for framing matters of faith in everyday terms. He delves into people’s and society’s struggles to find answers to life’s difficult questions. But while the search isn’t easy, Franklin not only offers hope but also keeps it funky. He understands that to reach the youth, you have to get them to listen first. And his exuberance can be counted on to lighten the weightiest topics. — Jones

>>Download: Declaration (This Is It!), Little Boy, A Whole Nation, Jesus >>Skip: I Like Me

Birdman, 5 Star Stunna: * * Two star snoozer

As CEO of Cash Money Records (the company that brought you bling), Brian “Birdman” Williams has always had the goods to brag about his riches. But talking trash and rapping expertly aren’t necessarily the same thing. So while he gives up a good catchphrase occasionally, there’s nothing compelling about his street narratives. Luckily for him, labelmate/surrogate son Lil’ Wayne is on about a third of the tracks, and he does a little stunning of his own. — Jones

>>Download: 100 Million, Believe Dat, Pop Bottles, Head Busta >>Skip: Wet Paint, All the Time

Scarface, Made * * * 1/2 Mind still playing tricks

Few rappers are as adept as Scarface at detailing the harsh realities and psychological burdens of everyday inner city life. When he rhymes about his Big Dog Status — earned over a 20-year career — it’s no idle boast, but a statement of facts. Whether he’s talking about hood economics, the effects of poverty or industry posers, he does it with a voice of authority. — Jones

>>Download: Never, Go, Boy Meets Girls, Who Do You Believe In >>Skip: Git Out My Face

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