One of the most disturbing aspects of the furor over violent rap lyrics is the tendency of moral watchdogs and puritan busybodies to see gangsta rap as a homogenous entity, a vast collection of interchangeable profanity-slingers who differ only in degrees of moral bankruptcy. Like any genre, it has its share of lazy opportunists, but it also has its greats and near-greats, and few artists have done as much with the gangsta-rap template as Geto Boy, Southern-rap pioneer, and censor-magnet Scarface. Blessed with one of the most authoritative, distinctive voices in hip-hop, he's made a career out of mixing unapologetic gangsta rap with sharp political and psychological insight. That impressive trend continues with the veteran rapper's sixth solo album, Last Of A Dying Breed, which is less political than previous recordings but every bit as forceful and psychologically astute. Dying Breed opens, like Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die, with the squealing of a newborn child before segueing into the vivid title track, which recounts Scarface's troubled time in the womb and difficult birth. It's a promising opening, seemingly setting the stage for a conceptually ambitious autobiographical epic a la B.I.G.'s classic debut. Unfortunately, the conceptual ambition stops there, leaving a tightly written, solidly produced but familiar gangsta opus aimed equally at the pop charts and the violence-craving Murder Dog demographic. The album's first single, "It Ain't Part II," matches Scarface's deep, confident flow with top-shelf production from Erick Sermon, while the equally unexpected but effective "And Yo" teams a grim Scarface with the loopy, lyrical stylings of Sermon protégé Redman. The rest of the album alternates gangsta-rap bravado with tortured self-reflection, with inspired detours into old-school boom bap with UGK ("They Down With Us") and vintage macking alongside pimp-of-the-century Too $hort and a scene-stealing Devin The Dude on "In & Out." Scarface has hinted that Dying Breed may be his last album before an extended hiatus, but if that's true, he at least leaves at close to the top of his game.

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