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Ludacris/Chingy 

The Red Light District (Def Jam South)/Powerballin' (Capitol)

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In a genre where tough-guy bluster is the norm, the power of good humor can't be underestimated. The joy that animated the first hip-hop hits is often ignored, but it improves these two albums, making a poor effort from Chingy, St. Louis's overnight success, listenable and transforming a fair outing from southern superstar Ludacris into an intermittently great one.

The formulaic follow-up to Chingy's 2003 debut has more guests (R. Kelly, Janet Jackson), yet somehow fewer pop hooks; too many songs mistakenly rely on his drawled, Nelly-style slang. But Chingy plays the whole disc -- down to the track of thank-yous -- like the grateful, lottery-winning kid he is, which will win Powerballin' more spins than it deserves. Meanwhile, Ludacris, Chingy's former benefactor, has simply become one of the best MCs around; his Georgia holler and party-hearty persona mask a razor wit that begins with a jab at nemesis Bill O'Reilly and illuminates all of Red Light District. Like its predecessor Chicken -N- Beer, the set is heavy with one-note crunk shouters, but even those (see the hilarious "Who Not Me") can become something more, with Luda on top. Not surprisingly, the best track recasts him as old-school legend Slick Rick, and his memorably playful verses on "Virgo" show that he's worthy of the mantle.

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