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Mr. Lif
I Phantom
(Definitive Jux)
Hot on the heels of this summer's scathing Emergency Rations EP, Boston hip-hop savant Mr. Lif has big ambitions for his debut full-length. I Phantom is a rap opera, a fourteen-track song cycle that chronicles the life, death and resurrection of its unnamed hero, a B-boy stuck in a samsara of shitty jobs, violence, exploitation and the occasional nuclear holocaust. Lif's rhymes bristle with authority and intelligence; they're lectures on political dissent and cultural philosophy coded in parables of everyday life. The production, supplied mostly by Def Jux headman El-P, is dense and restless, hitting everything from meaty funk to bitmapped static to retro-futurist electro. Spin this disc after seeing 8 Mile; your brain will thank you for it. -- Heller

The Roots
Phrenology
(MCA)
The world's greatest hip-hop band again supplies plenty of brain food for soulquarian documentarians who wonder where hip-hop is headed in the 21st century. Serving up interludes that sound like outtakes from a Bad Brains recording session and some spastic, bombastic percussion, Phrenology also features a loose jam with Cody Chesnutt ("The Seed (2.0)") and guest appearances by skronk funkster James Blood Ulmer ("The Water") and extended family member Jill Scott ("Complexity"). The Roots have produced a record that is simultaneously their most experimental and their most accessible. -- Mayo

Scarface
The Fix
(Def Jam South)
On his seventh solo record, Geto Boy vet and Def Jam South president Scarface cooks up his dopest record yet. There are still street-thug tales to sate longtime fans, but "What Can I Do?" -- a pensive look at the gloomy poetics of depression -- show listeners that there's more to this hip-hop don than recycled tales of drugs, guns and money. "Someday," featuring Faith Evans, and "Heaven," with Kelly Price, bring out the gospel in this G. During "On My Block," Scarface masterfully paints the street corner as an extended metaphor for all the pride, beauty and tragedy that co-exist in our urban neighborhoods. The fix is in. -- Mayo

JAZZ

Ben Allison
Peace Pipe
(Palmetto Records)
Thirty-five-year-old bassist Ben Allison is proof that jazz is alive and well. Stretching out on material by Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate and even Neil Young, Allison and his messengers slide effortlessly between moods and grooves on Peace Pipe. He plays his composition "Third Rail," which is inspired by the music of Duke Ellington and the subways of New York City, by using a folded MetroCard for a pick. How's that for realism? -- Hutchinson

Jane Bunnett, Stanley Cowell and Dewey Redman
Spirituals and Dedications
(Justin Time)
After a decade of lucratively exploring the earthy rhythms of Cuba, soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett decided to get a little more celestial this time around. Spirituals and Dedications is an homage to the gospel spirit of Charles Mingus and Nina Simone, cast in a decidedly post-bop light. The tone here moves from tender balladry to abstraction, from folk to vintage avant-garde; "Illusion Suite" is dark and spectral, while Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "A Laugh for Rory" swings with wit and playfulness. Tenor man Dewey Redman, a bit more restrained now than in his free-blowing days, sculpts arresting solos on the spiritual "Shadrac" as well as Mingus's own hymnal blues, "Ecclusiastics." With the benefit of Dean Bowman's sonorous baritone voice and Stanley Cowell's magisterial command of the keys, these ten songs soar with grace and soul. Heavenly. -- Heller

Chicago Underground Duo
Axis and Alignment
(Thrill Jockey)
Sometimes Trio, sometimes Quartet, sometimes Orchestra, the Chicago Underground collective has released its first album as a duo: just core members Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek. Taylor is a member of the renowned avant-rock outfit Tortoise, and both he and Mazurek belong to Isotope 217, a group that pumps out a mutant funk/fusion amalgam. Axis and Alignment, though, gives the two musicians a more open frontier to explore, and explore it they do. Layered with overdubs, these songs piece together passages of cornet, vibes, keys, guitar and percussion in miniature movements that are brainy yet melodic and accessible: Think of a stripped-down Art Ensemble of Chicago (Taylor has played with both Fred Anderson and Malachi Favors of the AEC) or a laptop-addled Miles. Though the tones sometimes verge on the antiseptic, the Duo knows how to use such frigid textures to its advantage, invigorating its sound with bracing improvisation and freshness. -- Heller

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