Xzibit's highly anticipated third album, a messy stew of multiple producers and room-crowding guests, neatly sums up both the pleasures and the limitations of today's chart-topping hip-pop. Trouble is, though this Angeleno (by way of Detroit) hangs with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eminem (fellow travelers on this year's biggest rap tour, Up in Smoke), he doesn't bring much juice to the party as a lyricist or a rapper. His compadres, all in excellent form as guests on Restless, deliver unique personalities and voices that the "mad, vicious" Xzibit, with his habit of slamming triple-A rhymes at end-of-phrase downbeats, doesn't have yet. He's a welcome guest but can be a dreary host.

Still, there's a lot to enjoy here. For one thing, X's producers never let him down. Battle Cat surprises the most with unpredictably subtle percussive treats. Soopafly provides goofy Benny Hill ding-a-ling on "Fuckin' You Right" (which informs ladies that sex on the side is all to serve them better). Dre and his partners lay out more 2001-style slinky beats and heavy-metal string-section riffs. But Xzibit, whose previous albums from 1996 and 1998 failed to break big, raps too much about his music and its alleged effect on the world. It's a curious experience in meta-reality: You figure that this Xzibit CD must be talking about some alternate world where he did indeed "rearrange the whole game with [his] rugged sound" and he is in fact "too complex to break down in black and white," and where Xzibit, unlike other rappers, who have "nothing to say," is "push[ing] the culture."

Nevertheless, Xzibit makes it all sound hard and sweet. More and more detached from the sonic tropes that defined hip-hop when it first hit, kings like Dre and his extended family deliver solid pop tunes built on funky/catchy percussive hooks attached to memorable choruses. Their style is built on rap not as revolution, but as the latest evolution in the eternal pop marketplace -- a marketplace that continues to provide tasty goods.


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