In hip-hop, establishing yourself as part of a powerful label and crew is as close as a new act can get to being a commercial sure thing. Beanie Sigel has the good fortune to have Jay-Z as a mentor, but unlike Jay-Z protégé Memphis Bleek, that isn't all he has going for him: He also possesses an intense, distinctive, no-nonsense flow. Sigel doesn't break new ground thematically or musically on The Truth, instead sticking to the fundamentals of the commercial gangsta-rap game: money, respect, guns. A black cloud hangs over him throughout the relentlessly grim album, as he kicks flows with dark, uncompromising conviction. Sigel is at his vivid, cinematic best on "What Your Life Like," a nearly operatic depiction of black male misery that ranks alongside Jay-Z's "Where I'm From" as hip-hop self-pity at its most inspired. With the exception of the obligatory but effective how-things-have-changed track "Remember Them Days," The Truth is unrelentingly bleak, but also effective. Unlike Jay-Z, Sigel never transcends the strictures of gangsta-rap, but he does what he does with conviction and skill. "Anything," Jay-Z's latest single, appears as a bonus track and is notable for its Machiavellian calculation: With its Oliver!-derived sample and sing-song chorus (Jay-Z gives his regard to Broadway, again!), it's a transparent attempt to recreate the success of "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)." Yet despite or perhaps because of its calculation, it's also oddly affecting and humane, and certainly more memorable than anything on his underwhelming new Vol. 3—Life And Times Of S. Carter. Black Rob has been touted as the savior of Puff Daddy's Bad Boy label for at least the last six months, and, while it remains to be seen whether he's up to the task, his debut album is a pleasant surprise. Bad Boy's money-making formula has been running on empty after lackluster releases from Ma$e and Puffy himself, but Life Story shows how effective it can be when applied to the work of a gifted rapper like Black Rob, who boasts a hoarse, memorable flow and an impressive knack for storytelling. Featuring sleek, of-the-moment production from Puffy's vaunted Hitmen production team, the album has a glossy, commercial sheen, but with the exception of the cheesy, "La Isla Bonita"-derived chorus marring "Spanish Fly" (sung by Jennifer Lopez), Bad Boy's penchant for shrill, blatant commercialism is held in check. The anthemic single "Whoa" is a highlight, as are lyrically adept collaborations with Lox and Ceelo, and "I Love You, Baby" even features a surprisingly not-irritating turn from the embattled Puffy. Life Story isn't profound, and it's marred by filler and stupid skits, but its hip-pop ear candy makes it Bad Boy's most palatable release in ages.