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David Banner 

Baptized in Dirty Water (Universal)

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If you were going to carve a Mount Rushmore featuring hip-hop producers, you could pick your four faces without breaking a sweat. After you chiseled in the profiles of both Neptunes, Timbaland, and either Kayne West or Just Blaze, serious arguments would be minimal. If David Banner registered a protest, however, you'd have to listen -- and not just because the rap renaissance man from Mississippi growls like a starving grizzly on the mic. Banner's second album (three if you count a remix set) in six months continues his transformation of hip-hop's most frequently maligned region, proving crunk isn't just one long shout-out. Filled with organic bits of blues, soul, and even back-porch acoustic strumming, his urgent bounce beats not only get the clubs up, they help the South rise again.

And the conflicts here are all too real. Not since the psychotic Geto Boys crawled north from Screwston has the violence on a major-label album seemed as disturbing. Banner's near-nihilistic (and all too common) worldview -- ghetto folks can't help themselves, because they were born baptized in the "Dirty Water" of their environment -- is expressed as nightmarish realism. "Mamma's House," which threatens in the most graphic terms to make a beef a family affair, boils over with a rage that's worlds apart from faceless, big-city killings; this is small-town passion, personal and painful. You have to hear it, but you won't necessarily be glad you did.

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