“King” BY T.I.

The only thing less subtle than the title of the latest album by Dirty South MC T.I. is its preposterous opening seconds: over an ominous bed of brooding violins, the Jesus-like story of T.I.’s rise is revealed, jeremiad-style, amidst screaming worshippers: “And the prophecy read that one day, like the Phoenix aroused from the ashes, a boy would be born unto a family in the slums. This boy would go on to use the knowledge he gained while fighting for survival in the streets to become a great leader …”

The tirade continues, but you get the gist. There’s nothing wrong per se with T.I. christening himself king of the rap empire — heck, after Snoop, Jay-Z, Kanye, Busta, Jadakiss, Twista, Eminem, Nelly, Paul Wall, Ludacris, Big Boi, the Interscope family, the Star Trak label and Disturbing Tha Peace, he really is the best living commercial male rapper. All hail T.I., king of four blocks somewhere in Atlanta.

As for the album itself, it’s a semi-competent exercise in alpha-male scent-marking; with song titles like “Goodlife” and the zippy “Bankhead,” there’s hardly any need for lyrics at all, which is a shame, because T.I. is a genuine MC talent, able to ride a beat with ease and panache. If only he had something, anything, to say beyond the standard hip-hop mix-n-match of cash, hos, drugs and thugs. “I want you to get acquainted with the youngest in charge/ Respected from east to west like he was runnin’ them all,” flows a typical line.

Musically, the album suffers from a wholesale dearth of innovation — some might call it old-school; I call it boring. T.I. and his surprisingly vast cadre of producers are chained to a reliable yet paunchy template of bass, piano, violin and horns. Though it can lend a certain gravitas and grandeur to tracks like “Ride Wit Me,” with its orchestral sweep and satisfying build-up, it grows maddeningly dull after the umpteenth variation on the exact same theme. Even “Goodlife,” the token Neptunes track, clunks along like the fifteenth remake of Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U.” Such beat-making laziness is a testament to the faith (or lack thereof) that the producers have in T.I.’s ability to deliver on his boastful claims to greatness. In the end, T.I.’s splashy style hardly makes up for the rest of this insufferable snoozer.

“Reality Check” by Juvenile

It’s amazing that New Orleans-based rapper Juvenile has been able to remain one of the most prolific MCs in the game — in the ugly face of lawsuits, label splits and a little storm named Katrina, he makes delivering hit records year after year look like a walk in the park. His latest LP, “Reality Check,” is no exception: it’s his first disc to reach number one on the Billboard charts, and the first album since Katrina to declare the return of the Louisiana rap scene. While it’s certainly not the triumphant tour de force some had hoped for, it combines a hot, forward-thinking sound with the usual pizzazz Juve and his crew have become famous for.

Though Juvenile’s style doesn’t lend itself too well to the most innovative of beats — the drum machine alone sounds like it’s trapped in 1994 — there’s definitely something going on beyond the usual slate of top-40 hip hop. On the wild and busy “Holla Back”, staccato sirens and whooping party howls compete against Juvenile’s trademark drawl. It definitely seems like anything more out-there than “Holla Back”, musically speaking, would detract from that voice — certifiably the most interesting instrument on the record.

It’s no surprise, then, that Juvenile deftly manages to carry himself over a whole glut of different styles on “Reality Check,” from the lush, guitar-driven, sample-heavy “Rodeo” to the rowdy jungle beat of “Animal.” He sings, he raps, he jives — and you can tell he doesn’t take himself too seriously, a refreshing change from the plague of self-importance in hip hop nowadays.

Nowhere else, though, does Juvenile’s street-savvy flow shine better than on “Get Ya Hustle On,” a darkly defiant tirade against the powers that bungled the Katrina situation. Arguing that crack-pushing hustlers can help the downtrodden better than the feds isn’t an easy pill to swallow. But the undeniable politicization of Juve’s rhymes is an essential addition to the national dialogue, straight from someone who lived through the whole horrid tragedy.

The album does have it’s faults — at nineteen tracks, its far too long, and brimming over with useless filler like the Brian McKnight crooner “Addicted” (featuring a humorous yet unforgivable line “You’re just addicted to what the dick did”). Perhaps Juvenile’s tireless productivity is also his greatest flaw — though I’d still take fifty years of Juve’s luscious raps than another five minutes of Fiddy’s.