Soundtrack: 8 Mile

In a perfect world, Mos Def would be a bigger star than Eminem. Controversy sells better than consciousness, however, and while Def continues to make big moves—winning kudos on Broadway, appearing in films like Monster's Ball and Bamboozled, and hosting Def Poetry Slam—his audience remains a fraction of Eminem's. Eminem and Def both play hungry, aspiring rappers in current hit films, but once again, context is everything. Def has a flashy but unmistakably supporting role in Brown Sugar, a modestly budgeted romantic comedy aimed squarely at black audiences, while Eminem stars in 8 Mile, a blockbuster built around the rapper's ever-growing legend. The former dominates the Brown Sugar soundtrack, but like the film itself, the album takes its cues from "I Used To Love H.E.R.," Common's justly revered ode to hip-hop. Common already essentially rewrote that song alongside The Roots as the transcendent "Love Of My Life," which appears twice in new forms on Brown Sugar. The Roots' inspired, propulsive remix trades the original's hymn-like reverence for a darker, stripped-down sound and new lyrics paying homage to the life-affirming powers of "Planet Rock," Slick Rick, and "Rock The Bells." Less inspired is Erykah Badu and Common's "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop)," which, like many of the album's R&B tracks, is pleasant and airy without making much of an impression. Def showcases a slicker, more commercial side on his four tracks, particularly on "Brown Sugar (Extra Sweet)," a single that pairs him with the radio-friendly likes of producer Kanye West and Faith Evans. Appearances from Blackalicious, Hi-Tek, and Black Star help make Brown Sugar a who's-who of upwardly mobile underground heavyweights, but like the film that spawned it, the soundtrack is a little too slick for its own good. Def's best song here is "Breakdown," an irresistible bit of Brooklyn braggadocio performed from the perspective of his hungry Brown Sugar character. The best songs on 8 Mile's soundtrack similarly find Eminem capturing the bottomless hunger, desperation, and anger that fuel his cinematic doppelganger. "Lose Yourself" and "Rabbit Run" give the album an adrenaline-pumping opening and a riveting ending, respectively. Between those two songs, the album is a mixed bag that showcases the weaknesses of Shady Records recording artists Obie Trice and 50 Cent, two rappers who share all of Eminem's faults, but lack his redeeming wit and charisma. Eminem produced much of the record, providing tracks not only for himself, but also D12, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z. Alas, that's not his strong suit: He seems to forget that people bought his last album in spite of his grim, monotonous production, not because of it. With better production and more focus, 8 Mile could have been a hip-hop version of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Instead, it's a frustrating collection that bogs down two of the best songs of Eminem's career with a lot of interchangeable filler.

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