Nicki Minaj

Pink Friday |

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HIP-HOP

After making countless cameos on other people's albums, Nicki Minaj finally releases her solo debut. And while it cements her place as the hottest female rapper in ages, it's somewhat disappointing. There's nothing here as dope as her song-stealing verse on Kanye West's "Monster," but "Roman's Revenge," a blistering beatdown with Eminem, comes closest. Pink Friday is more pop than you might expect, like the BEP-esque "Check It Out" (featuring will.i.am). Surprisingly, Minaj does her fair share of singing too. Hey, if Drake and B.o.B can do both, so can she.

Duffy

Endlessly |

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SOUL-POP

Although her music-and her personal life-didn't come with all the drama of Amy Winehouse, Duffy's 2008 debut Rockferry was one of the best albums of the U.K.'s recent retro-soul movement. Endlessly, while lacking something as memorable as "Mercy," shows that the Welsh chanteuse hasn't lost her Dusty Springfield-esque charm. Cowritten and coproduced by '70s singer-songwriter Albert Hammond ("It Never Rains in Southern California"), it also features Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson adding his funky groove to standouts such as the girl-groupish opener "My Boy" and the strutting, string-laden "Keeping My Baby."

Natasha Bedingfield

Strip Me |

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POP

On her third studio album, Natasha Bedingfield returns to the chick-empowerment mode of her big hit "Unwritten" with songs like the Ryan Tedder-cowritten title track and the airy "Weightless." But she's less successful attempting to rock out on "All I Need" or go electro on "Touch." Ke$ha she's not.

T.I.

No Mercy |

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RAP

"My road to redemption has no GPS," raps T.I. on "Get Back Up," the Chris Brown-assisted first single from No Mercy. Indeed, after getting out of prison a year ago, the hip-hop star finds himself back behind bars for a parole violation as this album is released. What a shame, because No Mercy-picking up where 2008's double-platinum Paper Trail left off-shows T.I. near the top of his game surrounded by A-list producers (Kanye West, the Neptunes) and guest stars (Eminem, Drake). The results range from confessional songs like the title track to party bangers like "Poppin Bottles." But the most affecting moment comes at the end when the King of the South teams up with Christina Aguilera to let you behind his "Castle Walls."

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COLDPLAY

On "Christmas Lights," available at iTunes, Chris Martin (right) and crew sound more melancholy than merry. What else did you expect?

FLO RIDA

Only One Flo: Part 1

Unfortunately, the title of Flo Rida's latest also applies to his limitations as a rapper and his repetitious beats. Still, tracks like the hit "Club Can't Handle Me" will keep Snooki happy.

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CHRISETTE MICHELE

Let Freedom Reign

This R&B diva reigns most supreme here on "I Don't Why, But I Do," a heartbreaking ballad written by John Legend and Jazmine Sullivan.

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HELLO-GOODBYE

Would It Kill You?

You will indeed be slayed by the monster hooks on the second full-lengther from this indie-pop band. One of this fall's hidden gems.

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CASSANDRA WILSON

Silver Pony

Whether live or in the studio, revamping Muddy Waters ("Forty Days and Forty Nights") or the Beatles ("Blackbird"), Wilson sets an alluring mood with that smoky contralto.

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SOUNDTRACK OF THE WEEK

Volume 4 will have you Gleeking out with performances from the second season. Four numbers come from the much-buzzed-about Britney episode, while "Forget You" features guest star Gwyneth Paltrow. The highlight? Darren Criss' Beach Boyish rendition of "Teenage Dream." Dreamy indeed.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

The King of Pop's collaborators share their memories of working with him on his last album, out Dec. 14.

Akon, who appears on "Hold My Hand": "He was more of a comedian than anybody ever knew. We'd go out in public, and he'd be in disguise, so people would come to me for autographs, not knowing he was standing right next to them!"

Teddy Riley, longtime producer: "A lot of this album centered around Hollywood. He called the paparazzi 'monsters' because they would just pop up, like the bogeyman. That's what the song 'Monster' is about."

Eddie Cascio, producer who at age 3 met Jackson and later lived with him while recording: "When we weren't working, he would take his children to the book store or the toy store. He was really the most loving and caring person I knew."

1. MJ recording ca. 1998.

2. The singer's handwritten lyrics.

3. Singer Akon.

4."It was his dream to work with 50 Cent [right] on 'Monster,'" says Teddy Riley.