This Week's Album Releases

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Will Smith | Willennium Columbia

Will Smith | Willennium Columbia

It only takes a glance at the comparative sales figures of gangsta-rappers and their more "conscious", politically-aware colleagues to see that hip-hop is less a matter of what's being said than the way in which it's being said; no other pop-music genre relies quite as heavily on sheer in-your-face attitude, often at the expense of meaning.

Which is, of course, rap's special magic: save for a few notable exceptions - "The Message", a few tracks by Public Enemy and Arrested Development - hip-hop is essentially a case of making much ado about nothing; so it's perfectly appropriate that Will Smith should be the paradigm (fresh) prince of the genre.

After all, when it comes to the routine brags and boasts that constitute the bulk of a rapper's lyrical armoury, who's going to match Big Willy, the richest and most popular exponent of the form?

As he reflects in "Freakin' It", "Let's get this straight: how'd you measure a rapper, what makes an MC great? Is it the sales? Twenty mill. Is it the cars? Bentleys. Is it the women? Jada [Pinkett, his actress wife]. Is it the money? Please! ".

And by rap's simple logic of fiscal priority, his argument is untouchable - though that doesn't stop some critics from taking pot-shots at Smith's cuddly image. "I read in Rap Pages , they referred to me as soft," he acknowledges drily, "Yeah - more like Micro soft!".

Game, set and match to the self-styled "Bill Gates of the rap game", one of the few rappers around with the ability to make affluent arrogance seem not just acceptable but actually oddly appealing.

Willennium differs from most rap albums in the inoffensive cleanliness of its lyrics, the all-round family entertainer following his grandmother's wise advice that, "Smart folks don't need to put no cursing in their rhymes".

Likewise, Smith fulfills his obligations as the biggest black star of his generation by bringing an optimistic slant to the album's most streetwise narrative, "Afro Angel", in which the reality of gangsta glamour is measured (and found seriously wanting) in terms of its effect on the wayward youth's family.

Not that the Fresh Prince has completely abandoned his musical roots: some of the album's best tracks feature contributions from rap pioneers such as Biz Markie, Slick Rick and Kool Moe Dee, and there are a few bravura scratch showcases from his long-time partner Jazzy Jeff, the "old-skool transformer", to use Smith's apposite description.

As for his millennial message on "Will 2K", it appears that, mercifully, he doesn't have one. Other celebrities, please take note.

The Corrs | Unplugged Eastwest

You might think it wasn't that much of a stretch for a folk group to go Unplugged, and you'd be right, except that in this case the acoustic stricture has been interpreted to afford full orchestral accompaniment, courtesy of the Irish Film Orchestra.

So while most Unplugged sessions offer the chance to hear familiar songs in a rawer, earthier form than usual, these versions are every bit as sophisticated as the studio originals. And even more so, in some cases: the ubiquitous "What Can I Do?" is borne aloft on a sedan chair of courtly strings and fluttering piano, their tentative promptings solidified by the eventual entry of bold drums a verse or two into the song.

Others are less affected (in all senses), especially "Toss The Feathers", a slice of hardcore fiddly-diddly that is here dubiously blessed with a bodhran break, the folkie equivalent of a drum solo.

Elsewhere, familiar hits such as "So Young" and "Runaway" are interspersed with cover versions such as REM's "Everybody Hurts" (fine) and Hendrix's "Little Wing" (less fine), plus a couple of new Corrs numbers, "Radio" and "At Your Side", which showcase the sisters' lissome harmonies to their best advantage.

Sleek and professional, it's an odds-on Christmas chart-topper.

Tin Tin Out | Eleven To Fly Virgin

Tin Tin Out duo Lindsay Edwards and Darren Stokes have exerted a discreet but increasingly powerful influence on recent British pop. Besides their own dance-pop reworkings of songs such as "Always Something There To Remind Me" and "Here's Where The Story Ends", they've also been involved in a production capacity with hits such as Des'ree's "You Got To Be" and The Corrs' "What Can I Do", where their gentle touch proved most effective.

Their latest success is Emma Bunton's hit version of Edie Brickell's "What I Am", the weakest of the 11 tracks here, thanks to Emma's saccharine vocals and lines like "Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box/Religion is the smile on a dog".

But with Wendy Page on vocals elsewhere, things improve markedly: her voice has a questing naïveté suggestive of someone taking the first tentative steps from innocence to experience, an impression heightened by the string arrangements and subtle touches Edwards and Stokes bring to songs such as "Weird" and "Language Of Fingers".

The result is the missing link between Kate Bush and Steps, sophisticated modern pop with ideas above its station, and the means to realise those ideas without jeopardising its commercial potential.

Dr Dre | 2001 Interscope

When folks criticise Will Smith's style of rap for being too soft, this is the kind of hard stuff he's being compared to.

In its "Explicit Version" - the implicit version must surely be an instrumental album - 2001 features tracks titled "Fuck You", "Bitch Niggaz", "Let's Get High" and "Murder Ink", plus some tedious skits covering subjects such as pornography and people getting blown up by car bombs.

Laugh? I nearly did. The album is intended as a follow-up to Dre's 1993 smash hit The Chronic, and thus features the G-funk auteur as only an occasional presence on his own LP, most of the vocal duties being carried out by old Dogg Pound chums Kurupt, Snoop and Nate Dogg, along with his latest protégé Eminem.

It's a depressing, hopelessly dated record which finds Dre, in one of his few raps, still proclaiming his "love for the streets" despite having "moved out of the 'hood for good" to avoid meeting the same fate as 2Pac - as he says, "niggas can't hit what niggas can't see".

But there's no acknowledgement from any of those involved of their own contribution to the frayed social fabric of black neighbourhoods in America. And why should there be, when they have the option of just moving out?

Bob Marley | Chant Down Babylon Island

A decade or two ago, certain reggae purists would refer to Island Records as "Babylon". Whatever the label's transgressions, one doubts this kind of thing would have happened while Chris Blackwell was running the company. Worse yet, this album of remixed rap "duets" with the late singer appears to be the work of his own family.

Misrepresentative and mendacious, it opens with a news report of Marley's shooting, as if to link this prophet of peace with the likes of murdered American rappers 2Pac and Biggie Smalls, before dragging a noble reputation through the dust of another era.

It's not that the remixes are particularly deficient - although the sluggish grooves do lack the originals' 21-jewelled, hand-tooled precision - simply that few of the collaborators deserve the accolade of being linked with Marley.

It's fine when sensibilities are relatively in accord, as with Chuck D's additional chant of "strong, we be stronger" in the militant anthem "Survival", but who could possibly have thought that the uplifting "Rebel Music" might be improved by the addition of Krayzie Bone's tawdry babble about body-bags?

And if Bob had really wanted to duet with Aerosmith, I rather think he might have done it while he was alive, don't you?