Ras Kass 

Institutionalized

Ras Kass' recent incarceration is not just a theme, but an obsession on his new album, the most intensely psychological and unapologetically self-absorbed thing he's ever produced. Jail was not exactly a salutary experience for the emcee, whose most political track, "Shine," describes the humiliation of being strip-searched in minute and sordid detail (this ain't Abu Ghraib, incidentally -- this is some sick LA County shit). Still, Kass obviously got to spend a lot of time soul-searching and courting the muse, so these new songs have more emotional depth and immediacy than you'll find in most hip-hop. Although the specter of Biggie Smalls is a ubiquitous (if largely unacknowledged) presence throughout Institutionalized -- swiping both motifs and actual rhymes -- Ras Kass reveals enough about his own interior life to make his raps seem incredibly personal, if not completely original.

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