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CD Pick: Kanye West, "The College Dropout"

Kanye West

THE COLLEGE DROPOUT

Roc-a-Fella

Never one for understatement, Kanye West has said that if his abilities as a rapper come close to the quality of the music he has produced for Jay-Z ("Takeover"), Ludacris ("Stand Up"), and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"), he would undoubtedly "kill the game." At last glance, the rap game was still breathing, but with his fine first solo album as a rapper, the Chicago-based West has certainly raised the bar on what mainstream hip-hop can and should be. Yes, he can make party jams like the hilarious "The New Workout Plan," but West's gift is his attention to matters beyond women and superficial symbols of self-worth. He isn't the sharpest rapper, but lyrically, he's already superior to much of what's currently clogging urban radio playlists. Racism, daily struggles of regular folk, and family life are the main topics occupying his mind. A gospel interlude, "I'll Fly Away," leads into "Spaceship," with West as a hard-working man who just can't seem to catch a break. "Through the Wire," the first single, is already a well-deserved hit, and may be the first song performed by someone with jaws wired shut. (West recorded the song shortly after surviving a near-fatal car accident in 2002.) There are guest turns by Jay-Z on "Never Let Me Down," Common and Talib Kweli on "Get 'Em High," and Twista, who lends his speed-demon flow to "Slow Jamz." Smart and skillful, West is one of the few rap artists who gives listeners an irrefutable reason to believe the hype.

RENEE GRAHAM

Nellie McKay

GET AWAY FROM ME

Columbia Records

Nineteen-year-old pop ingenue Nellie McKay is a self-proclaimed misfit who feels a greater connection with the eccentric drunks at the East Village jazz clubs where she sharpened her chops than with her own peers. And it's hard to imagine her double-disc debut, "Get Away from Me," finding a niche within her age group. The album, which was helmed by legendary Beatles producer Geoff Emerick, is a precocious mix of jazz, dance beats, and irreverent lyrics delivered in a Doris Day voice laced with barbed anger. It's clear that McKay is a talent to be reckoned with, as she wrote the entire album, on which she sings and plays piano and organ. But like her fellow alternative rock early bloomer Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, her zeal to express everything inside of her can sometimes cause her to seem obsessed by her own vision. Album opener "David" features an easy reggae groove, tinkling piano, and orchestrated filigrees that add an elegant show tune quality, while "Sari" features an offbeat rap, a la Debbie Harry, that's layered with sarcasm as McKay pokes fun at politics and herself. "Baby Watch Your Back" unleashes a funk melody over an overblown, saucy dance beat that evokes Jacques Dutronc, while the jitterbugging "It's a Pose" opens the second disc with a teasing attack on men for everything from over-talking AC/DC to starting wars. McKay's truly unique musical medley may scream outcast, but also artist.

SARAH TOMLINSON

Rosana

MARCO REGISTRADA

Universal Music Latino

Singer-songwriter Rosana Arbelo is Spain's answer to Melissa Etheridge by way of Dave Matthews. Fortunately Arbelo, who goes simply by Rosana, melds the best of both acts: She revs up with a rootsy rocker one minute only to descend into an acoustic ballad the next. She and Jarabe de Palo are what you'd call the leaders of Spain's new folk underground. On "Marca Registrada," a raw double album recorded live during concerts in Malaga and Madrid, Rosana seems confident playing the rocker and balladeer, and the audience loves her for it. Half of the album is previously recorded songs; the new material comes across as standard arena rock. It's a departure from the smooth-as-silk tropical shadings of her earlier work, particularly "Lunas Rotas" and "Nuevas Lunas." Some of the new songs hinge too much on the bombastic accompaniment, and in place of Rosana's nuanced singing comes plenty of electric guitar and drums. That said, the languorous "Recuerdos de un Amor" is a heartbreaker; she sounds so distraught that any minute now she'll stop singing mid-sentence and flee the stage. The live recording brings some pesky audience sing-alongs, but then again, Rosana's pop songs are prime material for such an affair.

JAMES REED

Habib Koite and

Bamada

FOLY!

World Village

How many times have you hacked through CD cellophane, excited to recapture a band's live sizzle but found only its songs instead? Well, how's this for a bald statement: That will not happen on "Foly!," the double-live disc from Habib Koite and Bamada. It has all the elements that envelop their audiences: exotic instruments, intoxicating rhythms, and completely Malian music that easily transcends continental boundaries. It even replicates the band's stamina. The album delivers almost two and a half hours of music, along with Koite's fractured English patter, even though the show was recorded entirely in non-English-speaking Europe, mostly during a summer tour in 2002. Although the band is only six players, they play about 20 instruments among them. On "Foly!," just as on stage, balafon master Keletigui Diabate and tama (talking drum) dervish Mahamadou Kone shine above the other sidemen. It's fair to ask -- will the uninitiated like the album? And of course, the answer rests on individual taste. The best way to know would be to turn out for the band's local performance this weekend. No doubt, you'll want to pick up "Foly!" afterward. The group performs at Somerville Theatre on Sunday.

MICHAEL PRAGER Twista

KAMIKAZE

Atlantic

Thanks to the success of this disc's first single, the sly "Slow Jamz," Twista is the first breakout act of the new year. But the luxurious sound and feel of the single belies what most of the CD is about and much of the MC's past work. Twista has guested on numerous other artists' works and he's best known for his hot-wired tongue, incredibly rapid flow as well as his hardcore worldview. Many of the songs here are simple vehicles for the rapper to spout off with dizzying alliteration, furious internal rhyme schemes, and rapid-fire verbiage. At times, it's mesmerizing and, at times, he comes across like the Yngwie Malmsteen of hip-hop as he's all technical flash but little soul. His subject matter is nothing but typical gangsta blather with lots of boasting and misogyny and it tends to get tiring. But when he's good, as he is on the grungy opening "Get Me" or on the raucous duet with Ludacris, "Higher," the results can be thrilling. For someone with Twista's reputation, the production, by numerous artists including the white-hot Kanye West, R. Kelly, and Toxic, is a bit slick -- you'd hope for less sheen and more grit. The results are ultimately inconsistent, but there's plenty that here that firmly establishes Twista as an MC to reckon with. KEN CAPOBIANCO

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