As the creative force behind Main Source, rapper and producer Large Professor made a huge impact with the group's 1991 debut, Breaking Atoms, which placed him at the forefront of the production-driven late-'80s/early-'90s jazz-rap renaissance. Large Professor left Main Source before it released its second album to deafening silence. But while he gathered acclaim for his work with Nas, Akinyele, and A Tribe Called Quest, his first solo disc was permanently shelved, making his plea for fans to "buy the album when I drop it" on A Tribe Called Quest's "Keep It Moving" cruelly ironic. Of course, a decade is a long time to wait for anyone, and during that wait, groups like People Under The Stairs, Lootpack, and Ugly Duckling all built upon Large Professor's signature sound. Like many of his peers, he's moved away from the lush, jazzy sound of his influential early work. On 1st Class, he opts for a more futuristic, stripped-down feel, placing the focus on his rapping, which has never been his strong suit. Large Professor's old-school delivery and gruff flow boast retro appeal, but he's never been an especially eloquent or deep lyricist. Since his days with Main Source, he's favored forceful simplicity over complex rhyme schemes and tricky metaphors, which is one of the reasons he's more in demand as a producer than a rapper. Like Dr. Dre's 2001, 1st Class is haunted by a sense that the world has changed since its creator's heyday, and not necessarily for the better. The past casts a long shadow over the disc, particularly on "In The Sun," where Large Professor reunites with Q-Tip to ponder the crumbling state of the American dream. But for all his talk of going platinum, Large Professor's debut is likely to fall through the cracks, disappointing listeners who seek a return to Breaking Atoms form, and staying off the radar of Nelly fans oblivious to the producer's fabled pedigree. Another returning veteran, Tre Hardson helped lay the foundation for West Coast underground rap with The Pharcyde. The group's 1992 debut, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, seamlessly blended jazzy production with prankish, self-deprecating humor and blunted high spirits. In 1995, the group stumbled toward maturity with Labcabincalifornia, while 2000's Fatlip-free Plain Rap captured the sound of a group rapidly running out of inspiration. Hardson left The Pharcyde following that album, and he sets out on his own with Liberation, which in many ways marks the culmination of the spiritual quest he began on Labcabincalifornia. The juvenile humor of Bizarre Ride is long gone, replaced by earnestness worthy of a reggae outfit whose press releases trumpet its longstanding commitment to good vibes and spreading Jah's love. Hardson alternates between rapping and crooning, backed by a live band that veers regularly into noodly jams. The Pharcyde's members are conspicuously absent, but Hardson did rope Dionna Nichelle, Kim Hill, and N'Dea Davenport into joining him for shapeless, meandering duets, while Saul Williams and Chali 2Na both take it down a notch to fit the album's almost oppressively laid-back mood. Hardson's desire to evolve musically, emotionally, and spiritually remains admirable, but Liberation is so mellow, it's almost comatose.

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