Talib Kweli; Jay-Z 

Quality; The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse

Talib Kweli has a welterweight's agility and Jay-Z has a middleweight's saunter, but the rappers have claimed the heavyweight titles in their respective rings. After defining the parameters of underground hip-hop in 1998 as half of Black Star, Kweli has since dedicated himself to shredding those parameters, renouncing the asceticism of minimalist beats and "positive" raps. Jay-Z, meanwhile, has violated all of hard rap's muscle-bound limitations with a cold-eyed aplomb that has proved to be as profitable as it is prolific. Now, the two have released their most iconoclastic albums yet.

With Kweli, the achievement is a matter of degree -- not, as he proclaims, of quality. From his first rock-tinged rap "Rush," the onetime paragon of hip-hop virtue celebrates his will to do it all -- "Fight, fuck, get buck wild/Kill, chill, make love, have child." The same refusal to accept boundaries fired Reflection Eternal, Kweli's 2000 CD with DJ Hi-Tek, and Quality suffers by losing the focus imposed by a single DJ. But if Bilal's crooning can't spark the embalmed doo-wop of "Talk to You (Lil' Darlin')," and Doug Wimbish's bass doesn't redeem the pro-firearm apologetics of "Gun Music," far more often the rotating guest artists and producers rise to the challenge.

Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2 is a double CD that shares little more than a name with last year's predecessor. Whereas the first volume's slow-simmering, soul-rap stew made up in smooth flava what it lacked in nutrition, The Blueprint 2 opens with Hova's neurotic fear that it was all "A Dream," then goes on to attack that fear with every weapon in his expensive arsenal. For every hard and smooth track, there's a crazy experimentation like the cacophonous "Hovi Baby" or a goofy yet endearing throwaway like "As One," an Earth, Wind & Fire remake as shameless as any Puff Daddy hit. In fact, this wildly uneven sprawl recalls the greatest record Puffy will ever be associated with -- the Notorious B.I.G.'s final testament, Life After Death. Where Hova will go from here, no blueprint could predict.

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