Memphis Bleek/Raekwon

M.A.D.E. (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)/The Lex Diamond Story (Universal)

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Over the past decade, hip-hop has gone from admiring the mob families of fiction and fact to openly emulating their thicker-than-water ties. Now, more than ever, it's not what you know but whose label you're on and who has your back -- on wax, if not in the street. The point is perhaps best illustrated on the two latest albums from a pair of New York icons: one the scion of rap's reigning famiglia, the other the once-revered member of a deposed dynasty.

The biggest strike against Memphis Bleek has always been that, as an MC, he's a clear-cut second to his legendary Marcy Projects homie and labelmate, Jay-Z. Bleek's third album shows that the three years since his last, The Understanding, have brought improvement; fatherhood and caring for his brother after a near-fatal motorcycle accident add welcome gravitas to such expected club grime as "Round Here." But M.A.D.E. has it made primarily because it's the work of a label where, as one tune presciently states, "Everything's a Go." From the first horn blasts of "Roc-A-Fella Get Low Respect It," every note and rhyme simply drips with the confidence of the untouchable.

Raekwon knows that feeling well. When he released his solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, in 1995, his Staten Island mates in the Wu-Tang Clan were running the game, and 'Kwon's complex and vivid portraits of black mob life, combined with the RZA's menacing production ambiance, added up to a hip-hop classic. The Lex Diamond Story returns to the fictional alter ego introduced on that album, and certain songs -- the collaborations with valuable foil Ghostface Killah, the outright sequel "Ice Cream Pt. 2" -- recapture its success. But taken as a whole, this story lacks a coherent narrative or even any sense of what makes Lex "one of the most influential gangstas of all time," as one of several pointless skits attests. Instead, the alternately brilliant and boneheaded thuggin' recalls the diminished status of Raekwon's family ties.

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