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LIL WAYNE
Tha Carter III
(Cash Money/Young Money/Universal Motown Records)

Lil Wayne seems to be having an identity crisis. On various tracks on Tha Carter III, he proclaims himself the king, the president, Martin Luther King, a Cajun and a Martian. And on the track 'I'm Me," from the EP The Leak (which is packaged with Tha Carter III), he takes a quick potshot at a fellow Louisianan: 'I know the game is crazy, it's more crazy than it's ever been/I'm married to that crazy bitch, call me Kevin Federline." After more than a year of mix tapes, cryptic YouTube appearances, guest spots, gossip and Internet leaks from the album, Weezy has finally dropped the long-awaited prize. Thank God it lives up to the hype.

It's true that Tha Carter III is uneven, split between slick radio-friendly club jams like the salacious No. 1 single 'Lollipop" ('She said he so sweet/make her wanna lick the rapper") and the Reggaeton-infused 'Got Money" (featuring T-Pain) and fits of dramatic weirdness and experimental production. Weezy's lazy, raspy delivery is seductive largely because of its unhurried confidence, punctuated by his ubiquitous, stoned giggle. He claims never to write lyrics before recording, and many of the tracks that do sound completely freestyle offer a slightly scary (and occasionally hard to follow) look into Weezy's mind " like 'Playing with Fire," which features Wayne ricocheting between declamations of grandeur and desperately, intensely vocalized fits of paranoia and depression, along with fantasies of murder, suicide and hell. ('When you great, it's not murder, it's assassinate/so assassinate me, bitch/'cause I'm doing the same shit Martin Luther King did"). The almost 10-minute 'Don't Get It" is like listening in on a smoke-filled philosophical diatribe that touches on prejudice in drug laws, the Rev. Al Sharpton's dubious morality, and sex offenders " all with no hooks or chorus. But just when you doubt him, Weezy proves he can still whip up an instant classic like the hilarious, confectionary 'Mrs. Officer," which describes a brief romance with a female cop ('All she wants me to do/is f--k the police").

All that ricocheting between styles can leave your head spinning. And it's true that Tha Carter III is less a coherent album than a collection of singles that knock against each other, often awkwardly. But in the end, it's a pastiche of individual gems, which provides solid evidence for Weezy's own asserted answer to the Who-is-Lil-Wayne? question: maybe the greatest rapper alive.

JAMES HUNTER
The Hard Way
(Hear Music)

English dark horse James Hunter hit like an atom bomb in 2006 with his Grammy Award-nominated debut People Gonna Talk, a skintight, exuberant platter of vintage-sounding soul originals that seemed to have emerged, shiny as a sharkskin suit, from a time capsule sealed up in Memphis circa 1965. With his follow-up, The Hard Way, he's made it a one-two knockout punch.

The 43-year-old Hunter writes with a direct line to the sound of the Stax and Motown sides he listened to growing up, though he trades Southern grit and Motor City heat for a slick, uptown, Jackie Wilson-style sound. It's perfect, then, that for The Hard Way he paired up with the king of on-point soul " Allen Toussaint, who joined Hunter at London's Toe Rag studios to play piano on five tracks. (The story goes that Toussaint, impressed with Hunter's style, approached the Englishman backstage at last year's Americana Music Association awards, where both artists had been recognized for their 2006 projects.)

The New Orleans style only makes it onto the record with a Professor Longhair-style flourish that opens the track 'Believe Me Baby," but Toussaint's legacy as an architect of R&B magic is evident on the entire record; Touissant breathes soul into it like blowing up a balloon. The restrained energy of Stax-style horn arrangements stand out on the album just as it did on People Gonna Talk, but with Toussaint on board, piano comes to the forefront as well: It's civilized soul, sweet and bright and utterly precise. The title track, on which Toussaint sings, could easily have come from his own late-1960's catalogue.

The Hard Way is another cavalcade of tasty soul candy from Hunter that " were it actually 1965 " would be battering the R&B charts with hit after hit.

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