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Dilated Peoples 

Neighborhood Watch (Capitol)

When one of the most uncompromising rap acts on a major label starts making moves that could be interpreted as compromising -- enlisting the ubiquitous, pop-savvy producer Kanye West, say, or getting some southern exposure via Houston's Devin the Dude -- it follows that some will say Dilated has become diluted. The truth, however, is that the L.A. trio inhabits the same blue-collar neighborhood as always, where "sellout" isn't in the vocabulary and where people still worship the same holy hip-hop trinity: beats, rhymes, and scratches.

Sure, West's work on the soulful "This Way" or the singsong, Slick Rick-style chorus Devin adds to "Poisonous" might get Dilated the crossover hit that's eluded them thus far. But neither song unpleasantly embellishes the meat-and-potatoes hip-hop that's been the group's trademark -- and which dominates the remainder of Neighborhood Watch. Listen to Babu cutting over the back-to-basics rhythm and snappy mic-swapping of MCs Rakaa and Evidence on "Who's Who," and it could be 2004, 1994, or much earlier; the elemental power of the music is all.

If anything, it's the few attempts at outsider cred that sound more out of place; aren't there enough buffoons trying to be "rap Michael Moore(s)" already? But this collection never loses sight of the smart advice found in its leadoff cut: "In a marathon/The artist will win it." Three albums in, Dilated Peoples remain near the front of the pack.

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