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Listening Room: T.I., Jennifer Hudson and more...
T.I., "Paper Trail" (Grand Hustle/Atlantic) ***
Drama is always a part of good rap, and T.I. has it in abundance these days. The Atlanta MC/actor/entrepreneur (Real name Clifford "Tip" Harris) recorded his sixth studio album effectively under house arrest after being convicted of illegal firearms possession; he's now facing a year in jail, probably starting in the spring. So "Paper Trail" -- whose title is taken from the fact T.I. actually wrote his rhymes free-hand rather than freestyling -- is understandably preoccupied with his situation and the gamut of emotions that stem from it. He is by turns defiant ("I'm Illy," "No Matter What") and contrite ("Slide Show," "You Ain't Missing Nothing") and, on "Ready For Whatever," both at the same time. And while he seldom explores more broad-view implications of his actions T.I. does take a couple moments to ruminate on a more general context. "My Life Your Entertainment" bears an anti-celebrity message, although the rapper confesses that "I'd do it all again/That's the funny thing about it," while in "Live Your Life" he chastises the hip-hop game for its materialism and "poor morality." At 16 tracks "Paper Trail" runs a bit long, as if T.I. is trying to stock fans up with material to tide them over during his incarceration. It does, however, have plenty of highlights to cherry-pick from iTunes, including some particularly effective guest appearances. Rihanna provides a yodeling hook on "Live Your Life," while smooth vocals by Usher and John Legend add emotional heft to "My Life Your Entertainment" and "Slide Show," respectively. Justin Timberlake sings on and produces the epic closing track "Dead and Gone," and Ludacris and B.o.B. are on board for the celebratory "On Top of the World." "Paper Trail's" marquee track -- "Swagger Like Us" with Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil' Wayne -- is fun, too, if a bit messy with its cross-cutting "guess who" vocal arrangement. So if this does wind up being the last we hear of T.I. for awhile (although with 70 tracks penned for "Paper Trail" it's likely he has a couple more albums in the can), the man is hardly leaving us wanting for more.
Jennifer Hudson, "Jennifer Hudson" (Arista): *** It's been more than four years since "American Idol" and a year and a half since "Dreamgirls;" we expected to hear from Jennifer Hudson well before this. But what she may have lost in momentum is largely justified by a debut album that's surprisingly understated -- in a good way -- gives her plenty of room for vocal fireworks which, to Hudson's credit, she doles out judiciously over these 13 tracks (including the "Dreamgirls" show-stopper "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going"). "Jennifer Hudson" is a meticulous set, of course, carefully covering pop, R&B and even gospel bases, pairing her with top-shelf producers and writers (Timbaland, Ne-Yo, StarGate, Missy Elliott, the Underdogs, Polow Da Don, Dianne Warren, Tank) and offer low-key collaborations with Ludacris (the sassy "Pocketbook"), fellow "Idol" Fantasia ("I'm His Only Woman"), T-Pain (the gentle "What's Wrong (Go Away)") and Robin Thicke ("Giving Myself"). The end result is a tasteful showcase that's more restrained than we could have expected -- and is all the better for it.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY:
Anberlin, "New Surrender" (Universal Republic): The Florida modern rock quintet moves to a major label and enlists a new producer, Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy, New Found Glory).
Joseph Arthur & the Lonely Astronauts, "Temporary People" (Lonely/Astronaut): The New York rocker's latest project comes on the heels of a series of EPs he released earlier this year.
Bayside, "Shudder" (Victory): The Long Island quartet went West, to Santa Monica, to record its seventh album.
Ani DiFranco, "Red Letter Year" (Righteous Babe): The singer-songwriter takes a joyful turn on her latest release, which was recorded in New Orleans with guests such as the Rebirth BrassBand and C.C. Adcock.
Dion, "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock" (Saguaro Road): The Wanderer celebrates icons such as Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and more on this all-covers set.
Ben Folds, "Way to Normal" (Epic): The Nashville-based piano man keeps his profanity-laced humor intact on his third solo album since disbanding Ben Folds Five.
Grateful Dead, "Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978" (GDP/Rhino): A two-CD, one DVD commemoration of the veteran group's historic concerts at the pyramids three decades ago.
Jack's Mannequin, "The Glass Passenger" (Sire): The second album from Something Corporate frontman Andrew McMahan's supposed "side" project.
John Brown's Body, "Amplify" (Easy Star): Several new members invigorate the East Coast group's latest blend of Jamaican and African styles.
Kinky, "Barracuda" (Kin-Kon/Nettwerk): Catch the Mexican electronic rock troupe's fourth album digitally now, since it won't come out in hard copy until February.
Taj Mahal, "Maestro" (Heads Up): The veteran folk and blues singer celebrates four decades of music-making on his first new release in five years, joined by Los Lobos, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley and more.
Tom Morello, "The Fabled City" (Epic): Dropping his Highwayman moniker, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist delivers a second set of highly political songs with help from Shooter Jennings and System of a Down's Serj Tankian.
Murs, "Murs For President" (Warner Bros.): Can't wait to hear the Los Angeles rapper's platform for the economy.
Les Paul & Friends, "A Tribute to a Legend" (Immergent): The famed guitarist and inventor is joined by Slash, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora, Peter Frampton and others on this 10-song salute.
Kellie Pickler, "Kellie Pickler" (BNA/19): The second album from the "American Idol" finalist includes a re-recorded version of "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You" form her first album as well as a co-write with Taylor Swift on "Best Days of Your Life."
Joshua Radin, "Simple Times" (New Independent): The singer-songwriter is joined by Patti Griffin and Meiko on his sophomore album.
Todd Rundgren, "Arena" (Hi Fi): The wizard and true star goes for a more mainstream rock sound on his first studio album in four years.
Boz Scaggs, "Speak Low" (Decca): Scaggs makes some idiosyncratic choices from the Great American Songbook on his first new studio album since 2003's jazzy "But Beautiful."
Pete Seeger, "At 89" (Appleseed): Age has not dampened the legendary and iconic artist's enthusiasm for folk music -- or socio-political messages.
Sen Dog, "Diary of a Mad Dog" (Suburban Noize): The first full-fledged solo album from the Cypress Hill MC.
James Taylor, "Covers" (Hear Music): Sweet Baby James and his Band of Legends take on songs by the Temptations, Leonard Cohen, the Spinners, Junior Walker & the All-Stars, the Drifters and others. (See story, page XX.)
Robin Thicke, "Something Else" (StarTrak/Interscope): The smooth singer follows a soulful path on the follow-up to his platinum 2006 album "The Evolution of Robin Thicke."
This week's hottest holiday-themed releases: Mary Chain Carpenter, "Come Darkness, Come Twilight: Twelve Songs of Christmas" (Zoe/Rounder); Melissa Etheridge, "A New Thought For Christmas" (Island); Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, "Jingle All the Way" (Rounder); the Fleshtones, "Stocking Stuffer" (Yep Roc); Faith Hill, "Joy to the World" (Warner Bros.); Spyro Gyra, "A Night Before Christmas" (Heads Up)
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