T.I., “Paper Trail” (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
Few rappers seem to enjoy themselves as much as T.I. Whether he's talking about gassing up the jet or heading off to prison, he always sounds like he's smiling, which gives his sixth album a pop accessibility that belies the grain in his voice and the grit in his bio. “Whatever You Like” turns material excess into a recession-era daydream, and “No Matter What” and “Livin' Your Life” portray him as hip-hop's most convincing motivational speaker. What makes these songs soar, however, aren't necessarily his lyrics, but his elated delivery and the inventive production that finds new ways to finesse his flow. “No Matter What” grafts his rhymes to a teardrop guitar line that gives them an epic grandeur. And “Livin' Your Life” unspools its positivist message from an unlikely source: O-Zone's “Dragostea Din Tei,” which you may know it as the “Numa Numa” song. Few rappers could concoct, let alone execute, such a crazy idea, but T.I. does it on just about every song. — Stephen M. Deusner
T.I is the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” Dec. 6 with host John Malkovich.
Guns N' Roses, “Chinese Democracy” (Interscope)
There's no way this could ever live up to the hype of 14 years in production, $13 million dollars spent and however many scuttled release dates. Even if it's great, it won't be great enough. Only if it's truly atrocious would it even be memorable. “Chinese Democracy” is ho-hum bordering on bad, which means no one will remember it in a year.
Axl still has some good tunes in him, and when he lets loose that nasal banshee howl, he recaptures the lewd grandiosity of his heyday. Ironically, the quest to update his sound makes these songs feel dated: His rock-opera indulgences are filtered through mid-'90s industrial on “Better” and late-'90s rap-rock on “Scraped.”
Ultimately, “Chinese Democracy” is too ponderous to be as much rock 'n' roll fun as “Appetite for Destruction” and too anonymous to be as decadent as “Use Your Illusion.” Axl should have kept this one in the vault, where it might have become a headbanger holy grail instead of an earthly bore.
Various artists, “Arriba la Cumbia!” (Crammed Discs)
Born in Columbia at the turn of the 20th century, cumbia folk music mixed European and Afro-Cuban influences for a hard-driving dance style that grew popular in the late '60s. It's been overshadowed by salsa, but this is changing because of the global wave of cumbia crossbreeding with modern hip-hop, reggaeton and house music. Compiled by London DJ Russ Jones, who also gathered “Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers,” this sampler offers an infectious collection of vintage cumbia interspersed with new-school hybrids conjuring colorful, global street music.
You can't go wrong with the vintage Columbian cumbia here: Alberto Pacheco clocks in with the sultry, percussion-filled “Cumbia Cienaguera”; Los Galleros bring the light-hearted, island-styled flavor of “Tabaco Mascao”; and Lito Barrientos y su Orquesta deliver its famous jazzy instrumental “Cumbia en Do Menor,” a delirious big-band number filled with frenzied, competing horns. Some listeners may recognize it from the John Sayles film “Men with Guns.”
The newer material is more hit-and-miss. But with deep bass, electronica — European converts Up, Bustle & Out get spacey with dub and “Rawhide” samples — and foreign rappers, it all feels like a creative injection of vigor into a genre accustomed to fusing the rural and urban. Overall, it's a solid mix that will heat up those cold winter nights and get rooms moving. — Brent Baldwin
Tchaikovsky: “Manfred” Symphony, “The Voyevoda” Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko (Naxos)
One of the most popular composers, working at his creative peak, produces an epic symphony, boasting one of his most emotionally potent themes. It's hardly ever played. Some of the composer's fans are only vaguely aware of the work's existence. That's the inexplicable case of Tchaikovsky's “Manfred” Symphony.
This nearly hour-long symphonic fantasy on Byron's dramatic poem dates from the 1880s, during which Tchaikovsky also wrote “The Sleeping Beauty” and the Fifth Symphony. “Manfred” isn't as tightly constructed as those masterpieces, but it's lavishly endowed with expression and color and packs a powerful sonic punch. One hearing of the dramatic climax to the first movement (recapitulated at the end of the symphony), and you'll wonder where this bit of Tchaikovsky has been all your life.
Vasily Petrenko, perhaps the hottest commodity among younger Russian conductors, leads his main band, Britain's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, in a “Manfred” Symphony surging with dynamism and stoked with high drama — far and away the best recording of this piece in the digital era.
The disc also features another relative rarity of the Tchaikovsky canon, “The Voyevoda,” a symphonic ballad on Pushkin's tragic tale of romantic jealousy. — Clarke Bustard