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Beanie Sigel

The B.Coming (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

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Time was, jail -- or just the threat of it -- might at least spur some growth in an artist. In today's hip-hop world, however, the "prison album" (recorded before or even during one's hitch in the stony lonesome) has become so common that no one expects anything but the same lunkheaded and violent musings that landed their creator in the joint. So the fact that Jay-Z's handpicked successor, Beanie Sigel -- who was accused of attempted murder, but got a year on a weapons charge -- actually sounds agonized, perhaps even repentant about his actions, puts him one step ahead of the game.

Has it actually made him a better MC, though? The B.Coming sounds A-mazing; its deep, rich grooves might even represent the epitome of the sped-up soul-sample gimmick that's become Bean's trademark. But the guy on top of those beats remains the same forceful, yet limited rhymer; the real genius of "Feel It in the Air," for example, is the resurrected Heavy D's production, thick with paranoid atmosphere the verses don't quite nail. And then Beanie drops a "short-temper-with-a-long-gun" snoozer like "Flatline," and you start to understand a later couplet: "It's like the man upstairs tryin' to pass me a lesson/But I can't catch him."

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