Pete Rock / Nicolay & Kay

Pete Rock / Nicolay & Kay

Super-producer Pete Rock is nobody's idea of a great lyricist, but hip-hop-heads have learned to love his sonorous voice because it almost invariably accompanies his exquisitely mellow beats. So it was jarring and disappointing when Rock's lackluster 2004 effort Soul Survivor II found him M.I.A. from microphone duties. Even more disconcertingly, Rock had abandoned his lush signature sound for distressingly stripped-down beats. Thankfully, the classic Pete Rock returns for NY's Finest. The chill-out-room throwback sound is back, and Rock confidently handles hook, verse, and beat duty with lyrical assists from the likes of Redman, Little Brother, Styles P, Raekwon, Masta Killa, and Papoose. Finest is strong and consistent enough to have even longtime Pete Rock fans asking "C.L. Who?"

Cult producer Nicolay is one of countless Pete Rock acolytes working both sides of the Atlantic. But rather than digging through crates in his quest for the perfect beat, the Netherlands-bred, melanin-light beatsmith relies extensively on live instrumentation for the Dilla-meets-Burt Bacharach sounds of "I've Seen Rivers" and "What We Live." On Time:Line, Nicolay once again teams up with a hungry American rapper for an album as ambitious and focused as it is serene. This time out, Nicolay has traded in Foreign Exchange partner Phonte Coleman (of Little Brother semi-fame) for Houston rapper Kay, whose rhymes here document a human life from birth ("Blizzard") to death ("When You Die") and beyond ("Dancing With The Stars"). It's highly conceptual, introspective hip-hop from a producer whose gently tranquilizing mood music feels like the antithesis of crunk. Like NY's Finest, Time:Line's beatscapes are as soothing as a stiff drink after a hard day's work.

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