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Thievery Corporation
The Richest Man in Babylon
(ESL Music)
The latest effort by Washington, D.C.'s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton is a musical exploration that crosses continents and splices stylistic genres. Cultural anthropologists in the best sense of the world, the lads build a hodgepodge of organic sounds that range from Afro-Cuban to reggae to Icelandic soul; "OVID (HOPE)" is an ethereal song sung in Farsi. The Richest Man in Babylon is a chilling musical offering that gives voice to the world's exiles, some of whom appear in the book of photographs included in the CD insert. -- Mayo

2 Many DJ's
As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Part 2
(Pias)
This import compilation from Belgium's 2 Many DJ's duo - Stephen and David Dewaele of Soulwax -- is a mind-blowing example of the art of the DJ, both in content and dexterity. Sometimes blending three songs simultaneously, the Dewaeles find the rhythmic balance between Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Royskopp's digital "Eple." Elsewhere, Destiny's Child is fused with 10cc while New Order mingles with the Detroit Grand Pubahs. Thank God for these 2: Where else are you gonna find the Stooges, Adult. and Lords of Acid all sharing electronic condominium rights? -- Lemieux

HIP-HOP/RAP

Afu-Ra
Life Force Radio
(Koch)
A protegé of Jeru the Damaja, Afu-Ra shares his teacher's view of hip-hop as a martial art in which wisdom is as important as lethal moves and killer technique. This old-school approach is underlined via production by DJ Premier and cameos from venerable names such as Guru, Big Daddy Kane and -- believe it or not -- Teena Marie. (M.O.P. and the RZA also turn up.) As such, there's a mildly retro feel to tracks like the raucous "Hip Hop," in which Afu-Ra spits back-in-the-day boasts: "Head first/With a verse/My excerpts got Eskimos in igloos sweatin'." But Life Force Radio comes through loudest and clearest on "Lyrical Monster," a title that fits Afu-Ra like a black belt. -- Roberts

AZ
Aziatic
(Motown)
While Jay-Z and Nas wasted time battling over who is the King of New York, AZ ended up producing the City That Never Sleep's sleeper hit of the year. Too bad so few heard it. Ever since the debacle over the Firm -- the ill-fated Dr. Dre-produced supergroup featuring Nas, Foxy Brown and Nature -- AZ has struggled to establish his own identity and get his music heard on urban radio stations. But with Aziatic, AZ put the smackdown on rival crews with an intoxicating blend of old-school samples and well-crafted verses. -- Mayo

MC Paul Barman
Paulellujah!
(Coup d'Etat)
The most talked-about white rapper of the year was, well, not Paul Barman. But maybe it should have been. A Brown University grad, unabashed name-dropper and überliterate, Barman paired with Prince Paul to find funk where it didn't previously exist -- in rhymes about multi-national bookstore chains and feminist writer Erica Jong. Still, his pedigree does not prevent him from occasionally diving into the toilet -- as evidenced by the enjoyably adolescent "Burping & Farting" -- or from demonstrating the same machismo that mars so much mainstream rap. ("Cock Mobster" is Barman's wish list of future conquests, full of couplets such as "Winona Ryder?/I'm goin' inside her.") And with his nasal twinge and overly articulated phrasings, Barman can be insufferable and annoying. But his persistence, humor and sense of self -- as depracating as it sometimes is -- make Paulellujah! an undeniably guilty pleasure. -- Bond

J-Live
All of the Above
(Coup d'Etat)
A Brooklyn-born MC and eighth-grade teacher, J-Live has something to say about the state of hip-hop, about life as an artist, about relationships and about his home town. And he says it so eloquently on All of the Above, a highly musical solo effort that places the longtime hero of the New York rap underground in the spotlight for a change. J-Live's delivery is informal and friendly in tracks such as "Like This Anna," in which he takes the unusual approach of reminding a female peer of how special she is; elsewhere, he's direct and damning in his assesment of mainstream rap without posturing or just picking a fight. All of the Above is lyrical jazz, directed by an eminently likable and articulate bandleader. -- Bond

Missy Elliott
Under Construction
(Elektra)
Although Elliott isn't known for Western Union rap, she delivers a clear anti-hatred message during her latest CD's intro. But with the exception of "Can You Hear Me," a sentimental tribute to Aaliyah and Lisa Lopes made with the surviving members of TLC, the disc is more concerned with sounds than speechifying. Along with collaborator Timbaland, Elliott creates one terrific musical backdrop after another, each more clever and entertaining than the last. Guest star Method Man is at his best during "Bring the Pain," and Jay-Z gets loose on "Back in the Day," even quoting "Whoomp! (There It Is)." Still, Elliott is the architect of Under Construction, which is built more solidly than most of what passes for finished product. -- Roberts

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