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Wyclef Jean / Ja Rule 

The Preacher's Son (J) / Blood in My Eye (Def Jam)

Whether you're a would-be messiah or a wannabe thug, you must get respect. Thus, the latest offerings from Wyclef Jean and Ja Rule are but two sides of the same wooden nickel: 'Clef has been engaged in a career-long quest to prove his "ecleftic" talent transcends his chosen genre(s), and gruff gangsta Ja Rule, after being verbally ass-whipped by everyone from 50 Cent to DMX to your grandma, must bring back a scalp or three.

Funny thing about Wyclef: while mainstream urban artists who display any trace of ambition usually get an "A" for effort (see Dre 3000's half of OutKast's latest), 'Clef's Renaissance-man pretensions have always been so naked that they irritate, rather than inspire. What makes The Preacher's Son a welcome change is that its core scales back the overreach in favor of such sweet, sexy, and simple reggae as "I Am Your Doctor" and "Take Me as I Am," which even avoids the auteur's usual Marleyesque pomposity. There's still clutter around the edges -- a pointless cameo by the Edge, yet another rewrite of Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On" -- but overall, this is the first Wyclef effort to feel more friendly than forced.

The backlash following Ja Rule's deserved hip-pop success, meanwhile, would have been far less severe if not for his own misguided ambition: the desire to wear Tupac's crown. Eclipsed by his true peers, such as 50, he makes another mistake on Blood in My Eye, coming blusteringly hard for revenge without most of the musical sugarcoating that fueled his rise. Ja simply doesn't offer enough lyrical meat to compensate, and things reach a nadir as he croons a nonexistent hook on the unfortunately titled "Things Gon' Change." Sounds like it.


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