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CDs: Now hear this

Mary Ann Redmond, Ja Rule, Kurt Stemhagen, Pearl Jam, Sean Paul

This young lady is an electric live performer, and her new release "Prisoner of the Heart" captures every bit of Redmond's soulful stage delivery. Throughout the 11 cuts, Redmond never lets up. Vocally, her supple voice can jump octaves, and she sings with a full range of emotion that is always honest and heartfelt. "Make it Last" — a Redmond original — opens the set with a sizzle that sends shivers up the spine of this listener, then rolls into a smooth and sultry cover of "Since I Fell For You." Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" becomes Redmond's own as she sings the well-known tune from a personal and fresh-sounding stance. Another Redmond original "That's All" bursts with sorrowful strength in the face of shattered love. Finally, her take of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" flat oozes sex. Redmond is based in Washington, D.C., where she has won numerous music awards, and she enlists the aid of other top-flight D.C. players such as John Jennings and Tommy Lepson to help out on this effort. But this is Redmond's show and it is a hands-down winner.

— Ames Arnold

Ja Rule "The Last Temptation" (Murder Inc./Def Jam) **

Jay-Z "The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse" (Roc-A-Fella) hhh

All artists need egos. Even more than most, rappers seem to require an acute sense of their place in the world — perhaps because that place is threatened, because rappers speak for "endangered species," as Ice Cube has said. Hip-hop artists are driven to keep their names in the game — to the immense relief of labels trying to boost flagging sales. They're counting on such chart-toppers as Ja Rule and Jay-Z to deliver the goods.

Unfortunately, egos have a tendency to run amok. Both Ja Rule and Jay-Z overestimate their own worth in relation to their audience's attention span. Like Shakespearean kings on a tragically grandiose trajectory, they both also compare themselves to Jesus and call on the ghost voices of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. for validation.

Rule, the gravel-voiced ladies' man of Murder Inc., is at best a singles artist; he doesn't have the wherewithal to sustain a 13-track CD. He's a poor rapper and no singer. Worst of all, Rule loses sight of the clowning lover persona that has made him a hit with women, instead trying to come across as a hard-core ghetto thug. "The Last Temptation" — I mentioned messianic tendencies, right? — suffers from Rule's lack of judgment, exemplified by Bobby Brown's guest spot on lead track "Thug Lovin'."

In contrast, Jay-Z has the serious artistic goods. In terms of ability to craft sinuous, imaginative wordplay and lay down fresh beats and infectious hooks, he and Eminem are the genre's leaders. "The Blueprint 2" starts off with four diverse, killer tracks: the surreal confessional duet with Biggie, "A Dream"; the jazzy self-celebration "Hovi Baby"; the hard-core "The Watcher 2," with Dr. Dre, Rakim and Truth Hurts; and "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," his charming duet with Beyonce (talk about a power couple).

"Blueprint 2" would be a great CD if Jay-Z had kept himself to one disc instead of spreading 25 tracks over two. But he lets his ego overrun his judgment; the second CD, "The Curse," lives up to its name, spoiling the promise of "The Gift." Jay-Z regurgitates past hit "U Don't Know" and relies on the name-drop value of too many collaborators who distract from rather than complement his talent, including Lenny Kravitz, the Neptunes and M.O.P.

Still, Jay-Z comes across as a talented leader merely having trouble managing his sprawling empire, while Ja Rule sounds like a puppet prince suffering delusions of grandeur. — Evelyn McDonnell

Kurt Stemhagen "The Rockfish Willie Sessions" (Head Rush) ****

Folksy, laid-back and friendly, this release is a cozy, warm fire on a cool winter night. Richmond-based Stemhagen knows something about songwriting, and these original tunes stay close to the bone lyrically as Kurt and the occasional co-writer prefer economy instead of extra verbage. Likewise, bandmates Patrick Hanes and Knox Hubard supply a solid and unadorned acoustic setting that fits Stemhagen's Nitty Gritty Dirt Bandesque vocals perfectly. Full, but simple, instrumental arrangements fit and flow like whiskey in a 2-ounce shot. That's not to say that all is perfect; there are the occasional lapses into strained emotion such as the "Too Sad to Cry" cut. But, most often, the feelings and passions ring true. "Airplane Song" is a wonderful missing-you tune we have all sung once or twice. "Roadhouse" echoes common sentiments, but Stemhagen paints a good picture of honky-tonk sensibilities. "The Shape I'm In" — not The Band song — rolls in an easy groove as Stemhagen voices the questions and doubts we all share. Produced by John Morand and Stemhagen at Sound of Music studios in Richmond, "Sessions" is a fine effort by a local songwriter who deserves notice. It is a promising sign when a young tune-guy gets off to a good start. There's much to build on here. — Ames Arnold

Pearl Jam "Riot Act" (Epic) **

Maybe Pearl Jam hasn't seen a calendar in a while, but it's not 1994 anymore. That won't deter fans who can't get enough morose grunge rock, but it's a downer for those who have realized that music doesn't have to be dreary.

"Riot Act," the group's latest, is morose and dreary. It's as if Eddie Vedder and company have spent the past eight years in a time warp, emerging occasionally to record ill-advised covers like "Last Kiss," or poorly received albums like 1998's "Yield." Let's not even get into the self-important slew of live albums designed to foil bootleggers.

The band shows a few signs of life on the new record. The guitar sound on "You Are" is squalid and gritty, while "Save You" has a raw garage-rock feel. But those songs can't redeem "Riot Act" from the overwrought lyrics of "Love Boat Captain." (Sample: "It's an art to live with pain.") Even the radio-ready "I Am Mine," with its grungy melody and invigorating guitar solo, fails to stand apart.

No one expects the group to reinvent itself, but truly great bands show evidence of musical growth, and Pearl Jam hasn't broken new ground since the monumentally impressive "Ten" in 1991.

— Eric R. Danton

Sean Paul "Dutty Rock" (Atlantic) *

The mainstreaming of dance-hall continues with this Jamaica-born international hit-maker, whose sophomore album strengthens the bonds between hip-hop and the fast-paced reggae style that helped spawn rap in the late '70s. With such star guests as Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Virginia Beach's The Neptunes, and tracks addressing the crowd-pleasing subjects of sex, parties, sex, ganja and sex, "Dutty" (as in "dirty") should seal the Super Cat devotee's appeal among U.S. listeners.

This very long collection also suffers from weaknesses that plague the albums of artists in both genres. Among the 22 dance-floor-oriented tracks are such engaging numbers as the pulsing hit "Gimme the Light," the shake-it-baby roll of "Get Busy" and the breezy, old-school-feeling "Still in Love." But after 75 minutes, Paul's braggadocio and so-so toasting become less fetching and the songs more monotonous.

The production, at times, is a saving grace, adding a particularly appealing bit of clacking percussion or some squiggly ray-gun buzzes and bleeps. But the handful of silly between-song skits are soooo clichéd.

Oh well. At least Paul was smart enough to include the much-better Busta Rhymes remix of "Gimme the Light."

— Natalie Nichols

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