Some may cock an eyebrow at my Arabic-pop timing, but Tea in Marrakech and Hakim were long in the pipeline, scheduled for an October release that came too late. Party Music, on the other hand, was pushed back in August from its scheduled 9/11 release by corporate shenanigans, and arrives not a moment too soon.

(Def Jux) Like most alt-rappers, he's got the logorrhea bad, and although he's figured out a lot for a 25-year-old, only a 21-year-old is gonna get that much smarter parsing every last detail of whatever the fuck he's talking about. But sometimes his meanings are there for the taking, as on the thematic "9-5ers Anthem," and the self-fulfilling "No Regrets," about an 87-year-old outsider artist on her obscure and happy deathbed. The beats have a subtile logic of their own, like the medina saxophone on one cut that sets up the heavenly houris on the next. And anybody (well, this being alt-rap, any heterosexual male) can use this Inspirational Verse: "Life's not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy." A MINUS

(Ropeadope) They claim jazz so hard that either they're inordinately proud of that stupid flute feature or they don't know what they're doing, which is nailing an instrumental funk situated somewhere between the MG's and the Meters. Master DJ Kid Koala is one crucial attraction—probably supplied the cracker-barrel riffs on their name. Another is rapper James "Blurum 13" Sobers, whose "Reverse Psychology" mines a tradition that goes back to Dr. Hook's "Levitate." B PLUS

(Silvertone) Dragged bitching and moaning down to Fat Possum, Mississippi, to sing a sheaf of nonhits written by rubes in overalls he'd never heard of, the great totem of Chicago blues gets large on the pop process in which a producer induces an artist with more talent than concept to make a good album. That Dennis Herring boasts among his credits Counting Crows and Jars of Clay only proves George Martin's Law: You can lead a horse with no name to the mic, but you can't hum a few bars of "Love Me Do" and expect him to sing it for you. And since this producer also collects antique amplifiers, not only did he introduce his new property to the untapped songbook of Junior Kimbrough et al., he hooked the property's snazzy guitar to machines so raunchy they make his old Chess stuff sound like Motown. Adding a showman's drama to the kind of material that normally requires a porch or roadhouse, he created a landmark of neoprimitivism. May it outsell every soul record he's ever made soon enough for him to try it again. A MINUS

HAKIM Live in America: The Lion Roars
(Mondo Melodia) The Egyptian sha'bi style reigned over by this good-looking country lad cum college grad remains sufficiently exotic stateside to resist piddling distinctions, but one thing can surely be said about his 95-minute virtual best-of: It never stops. The Cairo horns that sound so stately in most Middle Eastern pop are riotous, and while I couldn't tell you which percussion interlude goes where without consulting a scorecard, any one can get you going. What it evokes for me is a classic James Brown show with fewer rest stops and a less brilliantly elaborated bottom—the kind of high-energy ritual fools think primitive but we know as a specialty of urban society in the electric age. A MINUS

ETTA JAMES Blue Gardenia
(Private Music) Churning out an album a year as she advances on 65, James has actually gotten better, settling into her iconicity more confidently than, for instance, Buddy Guy. Next to Aretha, she's the greatest black woman singer of the rock era hands down. Yet rock doesn't bring out the best in her, because it tempts her to overstate, and resisting temptation has never been her gift. On this straightforward standards collection, cut like the 1994 Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady with Cedar Walton and friends, she takes it easy, letting the songs do the talking and leaving you to wonder whether her modest melodic variations bespeak sly musicality or weathered pipes. Both, bank on it. In 1994, the Billie shtick seemed slightly presumptuous. No more. A MINUS

(Shadow) Eighteen bites of the vinyl-friendly "downtempo instrumental" and/or "abstract hiphop" Mush Music label featuring precisely one artist in my recall vocabulary, Aesop Rock. Starts with three instrumentals faster and more content-conscious than was the illbient norm back when there was illbient. Since all are deeply funky in a DJ Shadow Attends Handsome Boy Modeling School kind of way, the rap tracks are like gravel folding into asphalt. And although the two acid jazz demonstrations shoulda stayed in Chi-town, the sax and Hammond B-3 moments later are just more displaced sonics in a waking dreamscape of nothing but. A MINUS

(Reprise) Obviously it's not perky enough, funky enough either, but their best (and third) album in 15 years (and probably last ever) sounds an awful lot like what kids today call pop. Electronic aura, hooks up front, Bernard Albrecht as boyish as Damon Albarn if not an actual young person, and generalized lyrics affirming a pre-9/11 reality. Give "Crystal" or the attempted Billy Corgan comeback "Turn My Way" a host of video cuties and innocents will think the mysterioso raveups are a new species of fun. Which in the better world we all deserve they'd deserve to be. A MINUS

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