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Gwen Stefani "The Sweet Escape" (Interscope)

Goes well with tight pants, parade stomps and yodeling.

A little less Harajuku and a bit more hip-hop sums up the sophomore solo disc from Ms. Stefani. The tempo is turned down from the bubble-pop electric grooves that guide tracks like "What You Waiting For?" on her solo debut. This go-round, Stefani ventures into new sonic territory, with The Neptunes lending their signature bass and blip beats to a handful of tracks, some with a new-wave vibe.

"Yummy" sounds like a spin-off of Kelis' "Milkshake" and could easily be the soundtrack to a score of PlayStation games. "Wind It Up" is the album's token dance anthem with parading stomps, marching-band brass and a yodel here and there. A standout track, "Early Winter," shines as the booming subsides and Stefani throws back to the vulnerable vocals from her No Doubt days.

While this disc is a little less likely to spawn the hits the way "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." did, it still proves this Orange County girl has plenty of street cred and a long solo career ahead of her. *** — Hilary Langford

Clipse "Hell Hath No Fury" (Star Trak)

Goes well with scales, paranoia and "Miami Vice."

After years in record label purgatory, Hampton rappers Clipse make a triumphant return with their sophomore effort. A long layoff usually means a death sentence to rappers, but these two brothers picked up their cocaine rap right where they left off. The drug game is still the only one in town for Clipse.

While most rap groups are stuck in the same emotional gear, Clipse display some maturity along with their "Fury." Pusha T and Malice exhibit remorse for their actions on "Momma I'm So Sorry," while fear and paranoia run through the soulful "Nightmares," with a hook sung by Bilal. But don't think they've gone soft. The pursuit of "Dirty Money," drugs, women and clothes is always driving them.

The album, produced entirely by The Neptunes, their 757 brethren, offers a striking contrast to the average Clipse, which features a grab bag of "hot" producers showing little concern for creating a signature sound. With Outkast slowly fading, Clipse might be rap's best duo by default. ****— Craig Belcher S


James Brown "Live at the Apollo, Vol. II: Deluxe Edition" (Polydor/Universal)

The passing of the godfather of soul, James Joseph Brown Jr., on Christmas morning was a heavy blow to music lovers everywhere. Augusta, Ga.'s favorite son was a sheer force of nature onstage, a man capable of emitting electric bolts. Somehow, he maintained his passion, rhythm-riding skills and sweat-flying performance standards throughout a 53-year professional career (the last time I saw him was at James Madison University in the early '90s, a great show during which he swept his second wife off her feet while waltzing and performing "It's a Man's Man's Man's World").

Known as many things: a perfectionist, a tyrant to his band members, a PCP-addled, wife-beating criminal to law enforcement — there is no questioning his musical sensibilities: the legendary scream and the crackling, intuitive sense of percussion-based rhythm that became funk and had a singular effect on the history of popular music worldwide. He literally embodied "the hardest-working man in show business" tag line until the day he died. He had shows scheduled for the upcoming weeks, including New Year's Eve in Times Square.

If you're looking for a classic example of Brown in his early prime, check out this terrific-sounding, two-CD collection documenting his legendary shows at New York's Apollo Theater in June 1967. Backed by The Famous Flames (including "Pee Wee" Ellis, Maceo Parker and Clyde Stubblefield), Brown tears though hair-raising versions of his early hits to a screaming young crowd, with memorable intros by MC Frankie Crocker included. It's difficult to go wrong with any of Brown's live recordings (especially those with monster bassist Bootsy Collins), and one of the best later studio albums to own is the expanded 2003 reissue of "In the Jungle Groove."

Brown was without doubt one of the all-time greatest performers — and his brand of hypnotic, soul-stirring, feet-moving music (now carried on in part by another Augusta native, Sharon Jones) will be remembered as long as people are dancing.

It was just that funky and alive. *****

— Brent Baldwin

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