Jay-Z (Def Jam)

Although rapper Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter) may be new to mainstream America, he has been a rising star in the hip-hop community for years. On the strength of some well-placed cameos and his solid 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, the Brooklyn-born artist was anointed by many as the heir to fallen idols Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., the gangsta rappers who were gunned down in 1996 and 1997, respectively. With Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life topping Billboard's pop album chart for three consecutive weeks following its Sept. 29 release, Jay-Z has far outgrown his cult status. Like the two murdered rappers, he's a street poet who delivers his tales of drugs, dollars and women in an almost deadpan style. Yet he's far from humorless. Witness his current hit "Hard Knock Life," one of four Vol. 2 songs released as singles. With a major assist from producer D.J. Mark the 45 King, Jay-Z reimagines an anthem from Broadway's Annie and makes it a grimly funny ode to ghetto life.

Bottom line: Winning album from hip hop's newest star

Beck (DGC)

Album Of The Week

Bob Dylan was famously booed for going electric three decades ago, but Beck Hansen—the 28-year-old wunderkind whose wordplay and musical wit have earned him comparisons to the rock laureate—isn't likely to be Bronx-cheered by rock purists for going acoustic now. Actually, on Beck's new CD, his first since 1996's widely acclaimed Odelay, guitars and keyboards are plugged-in on some tracks. And in the hands of Beck and his inventive sidemen (including Odelay's drummer Joey Waronker and multi-instrumentalist Smokey Hormel), acoustic instruments (harmonica, piano, upright bass, cello, trombone, even a glockenspiel) give off sparks. Even so, Mutations is a delightful step backward in Beck's career, harkening to his pre-Odelay days and his first lo-fi indie album, 1993's Golden Feelings. As always, Beck displays his talent for unexpected lyrics ("Treated you like a rusty blade," he sings, "A throwaway from an open grave") and genre-leaping composition: The final track, "Static," begins as a slow, tambourine-borne blues and ends in thrash-metal cacophony.

Bottom Line: Biding his time between epics, Beck delivers a fine, fun pop poem

The Cardigans (Mercury)

Not since ABBA has a band from Sweden made such a delightfully bubbly impact. (Unless, that is, you actually liked the treacly Ace of Base.) The Cardigans, from Jönkö ping, scored an unexpected radio hit with last year's "Lovefool," a fresh burst of jazz-pop fizz despite its saccharine "Love me, love me, say that you love me" chorus. On their followup disc, lead singer Nina Persson finally matches her group's unique retro-futuristic sound with appropriately tart lyrics. All the better to bolster her wry sentiments on "My Favourite Game," the album's hit-worthy first single, where she cleverly coos to a spurned lover, "I'm losing my baby/ You're losing a savior and a saint." Meanwhile, co-songwriter Peter Svensson's dark, whirring guitar work rescues even the band's kitschiest moments from seeming overly cute.

Admittedly, it's hard to get too worked up over such a frothy rock act dropping heavy bombshells like "Do you really think that love is going to save the world?/ Well, I don't think so." Yet, backed by such pleasurably pulsating music, Persson delivers other, more gossamer truths.

Bottom Line: Space-age Swedish lounge band takes it up a notch

I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad
P.M. Dawn (Gee Street/V2)

P.M. Dawn has been gradually moving away from hip hop ever since their 1991 debut, so it's no big shock that on the duo's fourth CD, they abandon beats and rhymes and concentrate on the dreamy, multilayered pop songs that have always been their strong suit. This time, deejay JC/The Eternal plays even less of a role, as the spotlight zeroes in on singer-songwriter Prince Be's lush, romantic and often delightfully spacey love songs. Be can churn out glam rock-flavored numbers like "Art Deco Halos," then dive into a sparse, hushed cut like "Misery in Utero." Tunes such as "I Hate Myself for You" and "Screaming at Me," and the album's title itself, reveal Be's ambivalence about bringing a son into this world. Luckily it makes for original pop fodder, and on songs like "Being So Not for You (I Have No Right)," Be marries his self-doubt and self-loathing to some of the most beautiful and aching melodies of recent memory. The delight of Be's songs linger well after the CD ends.

Bottom Line: P.M.'s pop, by any name, sounds pretty sweet

>LOS SUPER SEVEN Los Super Seven (RCA) A truly magnifico siete, including Latin roots rockers Freddy Fender and Los Lobos's Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo, celebrate the lovely Mexican folk songs (and one Woody Guthrie classic) they grew up on.

KRONOS QUARTET: 25 YEARS Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch) In a dramatic 10-CD retrospective, classical music's Fab Four—violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud—reinvent their genre.

ON A DAY LIKE TODAY Bryan Adams (A&M) The price of admission: Vancouver's would-be working class hero Spices up his meat-and-potatoes sound on "When You're Gone," a duet with—we're not kidding—Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm (aka Sporty; aka Mel C).

>Otis Williams

Almost 40 years, 19 members and 56 albums after he founded the Temptations, the classic R&B group that scored with hits like "My Girl," Otis Williams, 57, is still at the helm. Unlike many golden oldie groups that tour but don't record, the Tempts are out there with a new Motown album and a hit single, "Stay."

Why did you call the CD Phoenix Rising?

It was symbolic of what the Temptations have been through. Even after losing strong personalities like Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, we've been able to rise from the ashes to soar again.

What are the biggest changes that you've seen in touring and recording?

When we started out in the '60s, we had to deal with racial [tension]. It's still around, but it's not as prevalent as far as people coming together to see us live. Recording has become much more technical. When we go in to record it's like walking into a space module command center.

Did you ever expect to be the last surviving original member?

It's strange. People say to me, "God let you live for a reason." Work still must be done—continuing the Temptations—so there's a reason I'm still around.

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Linden,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Alec Foege,
  • Marisa Sandora.