The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102

(Def Jam)

Atlanta breakout star Young Jeezy claims not to be a rapper so much as a motivational speaker. In a recent interview with Prefix, he said, "I think a rapper would be somebody that does something for money. A motivational speaker is a type of person who goes out of the way to cater to people that listen to him, like people that actually live the shit he's sayin' and been through the shit that he's been through." It's unclear where this peculiar definition of what a motivational speaker is came from, but I would certainly agree that Jeezy's not exactly a great rapper. He slowly growls in couplets more than he flows, and his freestyle catchphrases make Lil Jon's "What?!?!" seems like Rakim lyrics. That being said, Thug Motivation 102 is light years better than 2005's way-overrated Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, and a welcome surprise from a rapper I had once discounted entirely.

The Inspiration opens with "Hypnotize," a synth-y, sinister monster crawl whose chorus sounds like the gangsta rap version of black metal—sludgy, creepy, and more than a little awesome. The rest of the album lightens up ever so slightly with guest spots from Kanye and T.I., and "Go Getta," which features R. Kelly laying down the best hook of the winter.

The bottom line is that Jeezy is never going to be an emcee who will dazzle you with brilliant, slippery lyrics and tongue-twisting rhymes. But with The Inspiration's ambitious, superhero beats, a dedicated vision, and a wildly intense focus, he demonstrates how to carve out a new avenue in a mostly-tired genre of coke-and-guns rap. CHAS BOWIE


Doctor's Advocate


If one considers that, in the world of postmodern popular culture, a potential star's greatest asset is their harnessing and manipulation of the legacies of others, then the Game could well be considered a high-art genius. He is an ultramodern rap star in that he has basically never had to write songs about anything; his songs have served more the purpose of preemptive legacy development, defining historical significance, "the war to be a rap legend," etc. That said, it is increasingly difficult to tell with every unfolding track of this, his follow-up to the multi-platinum The Documentary, whether he is a subversive PoMo cultural scientist or more stunningly oblivious than one can easily conceive. The sheer gall and insanity of his record being called Doctor's Advocate when there is, in fact, no Dr. Dre contribution of any kind, is chief among these confusing, intentional-weirdness-or-sheer-dunderheadedness quandaries, and the content of the entire record follows suit. He is frequently and flagrantly contradictory, and the lyrics relating to his interpersonal and business situations with former collaborators Dre and 50 Cent (of which there are many) are sometimes aggressively obscure and sometimes, as on the verge-of-tears title track, bluntly forthright.

Iconographic debris of the history of West Coast rap repeats endlessly: chronic smoke, '64 Impalas, and, of course, Dr. Dre are referenced on basically every song on the album, and the record's near exact replication of his debut's cover (with different color scheme) lends it all even more of an air of pop art. It is a record that is utterly, and terribly, engrossing in its potential for sheer conceptual analysis. It will truly keep your head ringin'. SAM MICKENS


Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards


Absorbing a 56-song, three-disc collection from Tom Waits is no easy task, but it's certainly enjoyable when there's this much worthwhile material to relish. More than half of the material is new work recorded with wife and longtime collaborator Kathleen Brennan; the remaining tracks include previously unreleased and rare material, much of which was either "buried underneath the house" (as Waits asserts in the liner notes), or had been created in the context of one of his many cinematic endeavors. Thematically divided into the Waits holy trinity of hedonism, heartbreak, and rebellion, each disc tackles those subjects with all the haunting wisdom and otherworldly ambience that makes Waits such an enduring, mesmerizing storyteller.

The first disc, Brawlers, jumps into the fray with an emphasis on dusty juke-joint jams like the roadhouse rumble of "Fish in the Jailhouse" and the threatening, haggard swagger of "Puttin' on the Dog." Bawlers brings his reflective (and often resigned) side into sweet relief, trolling his catalog for misty-eyed ruminations on lonely hearts ("Goodnight Irene"), dangerous seductions ("Little Drop of Poison"), and waning passions ("It's Over"). Bastards closes the collection out with a focus on what is arguably Waits' strongest skill—character sketches of forgotten folks living stubbornly on the margins of life. From terrifying instrumental dirges like "Redrum" to colorfully disturbing recitations of Charles Bukowski poems and unsettling bedtime stories, he lays down a timeless soundtrack that is both a nightmarish gaze at unvarnished subject matter and utterly moving in its humane execution. If you've ever doubted that Waits should be canonized as a national treasure, this collection will swiftly change your mind. HANNAH LEVIN