As the music industry battles file-sharing, stiffer competition from within and without for the entertainment dollar, and (theoretically, at least) a less-gullible listenership, it's become common for albums to have as many potential release dates as songs. In the urban world, especially, where the street's thumbs-down on a single can put an entire album on the shelf indefinitely, there's a long list of projects that have been held back more times than a 15-year-old third-grader.
The list of artists in limbo includes acts still signed (southern rhymer Petey Pablo, Bad Boy girl-group Dream, R&B trio Tha Rayne), those cut adrift after their perfectly serviceable debuts were never released (P. Diddy pal Rob Jackson, Sisqo protégés Lovher, Neptunes diva Latrelle), and those whose status nobody in the world seems to know (Murder Inc.'s Charli Baltimore, clever ghostwriter Skillz). And it includes the following albums, which we checked up on to find out whether there's any hope of seeing (and hearing) them in 2004. Urban music hasn't yet matched the decade-long debacle over the release of Guns N' Roses' legendary Chinese Democracy -- but some of these projects are getting uncomfortably close.
Artist: Method Man
Album: Tical 0: The Prequel
Original Release Date: 2000
The Skinny: The third album from Wu-Tang Clan star Method Man has been delayed so many times, it seems as if it was supposed to come out alongside Grandmaster Flash's debut. Since releasing Tical 2000: Judgement Day in 1998, Meth has been more visible in the movies than on the mic, co-starring with Redman in How High and landing other smaller roles. However, there's a simple reason you haven't heard Tical 0 yet: "It hasn't been finished," says Island/Def Jam publicist Jana Fleischman. But collaborations with Ludacris, Missy Elliott, and of course, Redman, plus some fellow Wu members, are already in the can.
Chances of a 2004 Release: Call them better than 50/50, even though one proposed release date (in March) has already been abandoned. "Hopefully, it'll be out second quarter of this year," Fleischman says.
Artist: Ras Kass
Albums: Van Gogh/Goldyn Chyld
Original Release Dates: 2001, 2003
The Skinny: Frustrated by his label's reluctance to release his heavily bootlegged third album, highly regarded West Coast lyricist Ras Kass failed to turn himself in on a third DUI charge and fled his native California early in 2003 with the masters of Goldyn Child, in what he described as an attempt to get out of his record deal, recording pieces of a new album while on the lam. Now imprisoned, he awaits release sometime later this year or in early 2005. That's sooner than you're likely to be buying official copies of Van Gogh or Goldyn Child, though. "I have no clue about Ras Kass," says publicist Richie Abbott of Priority Records -- including, he adds, whether Ras Kass is even still on the label. Abbott shrugs off Ras Kass's scathing comments about Priority being a "plantation" -- "Ras is Ras, he's gonna have his voice" -- but adds that "there's nothing from [Ras] on my release schedule."
Chances of a 2004 Release: Only in bootleg shops.
Album: Oh My God
Original Release Date: 2001
The Skinny: When the MC considered by many to be the greatest to date joined Dr. Dre's Aftermath label four years ago, the proposed clash of hip-hop titans staggered the imaginations of fans everywhere. Now imagination is all that remains, as Rakim unexpectedly announced late last year that he was parting ways with Dre and Aftermath because of the standard "creative differences." What will happen to the tracks already recorded for Oh My God is another matter; Rakim was said to be seeking a new deal with a major, while calls to Dre's publicist, inquiring what rights Rakim might have to the unreleased material, were not returned by press time.
Chances of a 2004 Release: Maybe, but whether it will include Dre-produced songs is far from certain.
Artist: Mos Def/Black Jack Johnson
Album: The Black Jack Johnson Project
Original Release Date: 2001
The Skinny: Brooklyn rhymer Mos Def is most definitely a busy guy, with a film and stage career that's the envy of many of his peers. Combine his schedule with the industry's reluctance to embrace black rock acts, and it's easy to imagine why the debut of his group Black Jack Johnson -- which features him backed by veterans of Living Colour, Bad Brains, and Parliament-Funkadelic -- hasn't seen release. And now that Mos Def's label, Rawkus, has announced it's folding, things are even more complicated; will he be picked up by Rawkus's parent Geffen or go elsewhere?
Chances of a 2004 Release: So many factors are involved, it's impossible to say. "Dante [Smith, Mos Def's real name] is a smart guy," bassist Doug Wimbish said last year in an interview about the project. "He's not going to bring this out before its time."
Artist: Foxy Brown
Album: Ill Na Na 2: The Fever
Original Release Date: 2002
The Skinny: "Foxy Brown is no longer in the Universal Music system, period," says a company spokesperson. It means that she's no longer at Def Jam (something confirmed by the label's Jana Fleischman, with unusual emphasis), and that a proposed deal to bring her to P. Diddy's Bad Boy label is also a no-go. But what will become of the album, which reportedly featured such guest stars as Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, and Lauryn Hill? Good question.
Chances of a 2004 Release: With all that firepower, it's hard to imagine The Fever gathering dust. But Foxy's many bridge-burning remarks probably won't help it get out any quicker.
Artist: Big Daddy Kane
Album: The Man, The Icon
Original Release Date: 2002
The Skinny: The hip-hop legend had the streets salivating for a taste of his old-school braggadocio after he released the Alchemist-produced 12-inch "The Man, the Icon," which was supposed to herald his first new album since 1998 (and his most eagerly anticipated since Looks Like a Job For, released at the tail end of his heyday a decade ago). Sadly, it sounds like Kane's comeback might have been premature. "A lot of people thought [the album] was a lot farther along than it was," says Matt Conaway, head of Movement Marketing, which handles publicity for Kane's label, Landspeed. A release on Landspeed "is definitely not gonna happen, the last I heard," he adds.
Chances of a 2004 Release: Unless another label steps in to liberate "The Man, the Icon," then the man, the icon will probably go another year without an official release.
Album: The follow-up to her hit debut, Southern Hummingbird
Original Release Date: 2003
The Skinny: Finally, some daylight! Still relatively fresh, the second album from this Missy Elliott protégée, best recalled for her striptease hit "Oops (Oh My)," should see release this May, according to Theola Borden at Elektra Records. Count on appearances by Misdemeanor; as for other guests, "We have a couple of surprises," Borden says. For good measure, Borden adds that two other long-postponed Elektra releases -- Nate Dogg's latest and the debut from Tamia, the wife of NBA star Grant Hill -- are also planned for May.
Chances of a 2004 Release: Good. (Any longer, and who's going to remember "Oops"?)
Album: Sitting Around Keeping Score
Original Release Date: 2003
The Skinny: Not technically an urban release, but Minneapolis-based Spymob does serve as the Neptunes' backing band. And they also happened to come up with one of the greatest albums of 2003 -- a flawless mélange of Steely Dan smarts, Jellyfish hooks, and Todd Rundgren's blue-eyed soul that is the best non-purple-related music to come out of the Twin Cities -- which Arista decided against releasing, for reasons unknown. No longer on the label, according to an Arista spokeswoman, the quartet is now selling Sitting Around Keeping Score on its website.
Chances of a 2004 Release: You can visit www.spymob.com right now and buy a copy. And you certainly should.
Album: The follow-up to The Black Album
Original Release Date: None
The Skinny: Jigga's Black Album not only came out on time in 2003, it was actually a week or so early. He's on this list because we're handicapping whether his so-called "retirement" will actually keep him out of action for all of 2004. Already there are signs that his resolve may be weakening: When asked whether we can expect any Jay-Z guest shots this year, Def Jam's Fleischman answers, "I think he'll take a year off from guest appearances . . . but you never know."
Chances of a 2004 Release: Pure conjecture, but bet on Jigga turning up on a high-profile Roc-A-Fella release around Christmastime, with a full-scale comeback in the works for 2005. His label -- hell, the whole record industry -- can't afford to have him gone for too long.