American Gangster

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

RAP

"I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris." So raps Jay-Z on the menacing "No Hook," likening himself to the real-life mobster played by Denzel Washington in the hit movie American Gangster, which inspired the emcee's dope new CD of the same name. (It is not the official soundtrack.) The concept—tracing the rise and fall of a drug dealer while drawing from Jay-Z's own past on the mean streets—makes for a more focused effort than last year's comeback album Kingdom Come. It reels you in with snippets of dialogue from the film, cinematic production that nods to the blaxploitation-flick era on cuts like the Scarface-inspired "Say Hello," and Jay-Z serving as a vivid narrator for all the action.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is) ...," a horn-infused hustlers' anthem

Frank |

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R&B

To fully appreciate Amy Winehouse's first album—which, following the success of Back to Black, has just been released in the U.S. after coming out overseas in 2003—you'd probably have to never have heard "Rehab" or "You Know I'm No Good." There's nothing as instantly memorable here. But when you consider that Winehouse, working in more of a jazz aesthetic, delivered this candid debut barely out of her teens, it's all the more impressive.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "You Sent Me Flying," hip-hop-laced heartache

Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen |

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R&B

The Queen of Soul holds court as an eclectic array of stars–from Frank Sinatra and Keith Richards to Elton John and Whitney Houston–sit in with her on these collaborations, most of them previously released. And while there is some padding, there are some real gems, like "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with Eurythmics. But it's two new duets that really make this set worth it: "Put You Up on Game," on which Franklin schools Fantasia, and, even better, "What Y'All Came to Do," a funky throwdown with John Legend.

The Black and White Album |

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ALT-ROCK

Despite working with Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams, best known for supplying hip-hop beats to artists like Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani, the Hives haven't turned into B-boys. Thank God. Instead, on their colorful fourth album, these quirky Swedes continue to make punk-spiked garage rock that is highly contagious.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "Tick Tick Boom," the explosive first single

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U2, THE JOSHUA TREE

• Yes, it has been 20 years (!) since U2 changed our lives with this disc. Marking the anniversary is a new deluxe edition including the remastered classic plus a CD of B-sides and rarities.

BABYSHAMBLES Shotter's Nation
Notorious bad boy Pete Doherty (Kate Moss's on-again, off-again beau) may have a messy reputation, but the Babyshambles leader sharpens up his act on the second album from his indie-rock band.

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RISSI PALMER Rissi Palmer
With "Country Girl," this singer became the first African-American woman to hit the Billboard country singles chart in 20 years. The music on Palmer's first disc is not quite as noteworthy, but it's still likable enough.

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NICOLE ATKINS Neptune City
Last year this singer-songwriter was tapped as one of Rolling Stone's 10 Artists to Watch. It's pretty easy to get why: Her full-length debut, which takes its title from her New Jersey hometown, delivers on torchy, twangy pop.

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KY-MANI MARLEY Radio
Radio, with its concessions to hip-hop and contemporary R&B (including guest turns by rapper Young Buck and Mya), is clearly designed to get some crossover airplay for this Bob Marley scion. But much of it feels a bit too slick.

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• In addition to his new CD, Curtis, the 32-year-old rapper costars in the war drama Home of the Brave, out on DVD

ON ACTING VS. RAPPING The film projects allow me to go places that hip-hop doesn't. Hip-hop won't allow you to put yourself in any vulnerable spaces. There is a constant battle for position. Only the opponents change.

ON HOME COSTAR SAMUEL L. JACKSON [Before the movie] he said that he didn't want to work with a rapper. I was sure he didn't mean Will Smith or Queen Latifah or LL Cool J or Ice Cube. Fortunately, we had an opportunity to talk about all of this on-set. Prior to that, well, I was calling him "fathead" or something like that. He is great. The guy is in touch with what is going on right now.

ON HIS UPCOMING RIGHTEOUS KILL COSTAR ROBERT DE NIRO We went to the firing range together a couple of times. He was a much better shot than I thought he would be. I was impressed.