Rapper Freeway has fun with 'Diamond in the Ruff'

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    Freeway (Babygrande)

    Different generations of Philly's old-school rap scene made a handsome showing in 2012. In a year that saw Beanie Sigel releasing a minor hit before heading back to prison and Schoolly D touring with Public Enemy, having Freeway back in action is a bonus. Like his pal Beans, Freeway was a member of Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella family in the early 2000s and stayed hard throughout the decade and its four solo releases.

    "Diamond in the Ruff" proves that highly volatile Freeway is still the stoic iceman when it comes to rapping and rhyming. With steel, busy beats behind him, "No Doubt" is nail-hard and just a little Lil Wayne-y. "Ghetto Street" is good and ghostly, but a bit of a gangster retread.

    When you're the hard guy, staying bad forever can become a grind, especially when you're an acknowledged peaceful Muslim. That could be why Freeway has added a dose of coy and clever humor to his menacing, low-voiced rants. The romping (and Just Blaze-produced) "Early" finds Free toying naughtily with morning sexuality, while "Sweet Temptation" allows him to make light of MCs with tight slacks and pseudo-African allegiances. Fun.

    --A.D. AMOROSI, Philadelphia Inquirer

    Nine Times Blue (Renegade Recordings)

    When was the last time you had your spirits lifted by a power pop group you've never heard of and kept coming back to its disc because it sounds so fresh and invigorating?

    This debut album from an Atlanta-based rock quartet, Nine Times Blue, hooks listeners with its great rhythms, intriguing lyrics, vocals, and foot-stompin' melodies. There's nothing fancy about the quartet -- two electric guitars played by Kirk Waldrop and Greg King, a bass played by Jeff Nelson and drums by Jason Brewer -- but the sound is rich and rewarding, with lyrics that are intelligent, but not pretentious.

    Bandleader/vocalist Waldrop draws his inspiration from power pop groups such as The Smithereens, Squeeze, Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World, and White T's, and anyone from The Beatles to Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw.

    -- TOM HENRY

    Hans Theessink & Terry Evans, featuring Ry Cooder (Blue Groove)

    Dutch singer-songwriter Hans Theessink and Vicksburg, Miss., native Terry Evans get down and dirty with this follow-up to their critically acclaimed duet from 2008, "Visions." There's a stripped-down, Deep South texture in their pairing that traverses blues, gospel, and soul, mostly in a traditional form.

    Their acoustic guitars are augmented on three songs by picking and strumming from the great Ry Cooder. A fine, earthy set that sounds like nothing you'd expect from two guitarists who grew up on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

    -- T.H.