Fat Joe

The Bronx's favorite boricua Fat Joe finally saw platinum this year after more than a decade of toiling behind his brand of raw hip-hop. But it took some sex appeal, a pop glossover and some marketing ingenuity to put him over the top in the form of "What's Luv," a sultry but lewd duet with rising star Ashanti. Was it a sign that the 300-pound-plus beaming ball of charisma (he has a sandwich named after him in New York) had gone soft in return for the bigger paycheck? Hardly -- through the hitmaking, Joe never fully abandoned his bread and butter, keeping his mouth dirty and his beats tight.

Fortunately for hip-hop heads, Joe mostly avoids the pitfalls of Irv Gotti-produced chart magic and sticks to his hard-ass guns with Loyalty, the follow-up to last year's breakthrough Jealous Ones Still Envy. The album's beats leave the slime trail of the Bronx, with dirty, booming, dramatic drums and keys. Joe and Terror Squad Records mate Armageddon take the cinematic cue and pour on the gangsta shit. They thuggin' and they lovin' it; tracks like "We Run This Shit" and "Prove Something" speak for themselves. The rapper leans on singer Tony Sunshine for his R&B touches, and only once does he return to the superstar hook treatment, using Ginuwine on "Crush Tonight" to boost the spare party song up to radio standards. He even invites Dirty South thugs Baby Williams and Scarface to share the mike of the scumbag solidarity-building "Bust at You."

Joe is still preaching to his choir ably with Loyalty. His legions can rest easy. The ghetto-fabulousness they expect from Fat Joe -- tales of Remy-soaked partying on "TS Piece" and the graphic lard-ass loverman specifics on "Turn Me On" ("My heart racing/Cuz I know I'm gonna hit it soon") and others -- is alive and growing in its richness.


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