Still more of Forever finds Brown wallowing in the sort of semisincerity that would make most lounge acts wince. Every other song seems to be dedicated to either his wife (who makes herself known in a room-clearing cameo on the introductory track) or his bevy of offspring. Thankfully, such vapidity is nowhere to be found on the three tracks written and produced by Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson, all of which display a sly slinkiness that recalls Brown's Don't Be Cruel days. But such sweat-drenched memories are the exception rather than the rule.

During the course of the dismal New Edition reunion tour, Brown performed a new song, purportedly from Forever. It was a spry, winning ditty hung on a sample of the Gap Band's "Outstanding," and its name escapes me. The tune also escaped the final cut of Forever, along with almost everything else that makes Brown tick.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

The 18th Letter/The Book of Life

It's not hyperbole to say that Rakim is one of the five finest vocal presences ever in hip-hop. In conjunction with Eric B., he made several great albums: If you don't already own Paid in Full and Don't Sweat the Technique, do yourself a favor and pick them up.

Rakim's return, coming several years after his split from Eric B., is not the bold salvo a lot of us have been hoping for. Part of the problem is that Rakim's words are so overly concerned with reintroducing himself ("It's Been a Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back" aren't titles chosen at random) that he doesn't get a chance to display the full range of his prowess. Given his verbal facility, this isn't a fatal flaw: He sounds so strong flipping a boast like "They said I changed the times/From the rhymes that I thought of" that you can't do anything more than agree. But more damaging is the inability of the assembled producers to key into Rakim musically with the ease that Eric B. exhibited. I liked "The Saga Begins," helmed by Pete Rock; "Stay Awhile," put together in conjunction with DJ Clark Kent; and the DJ Premier-directed "New York (Ya' Out There)," but these high points partner too much filler, including a couple of alternate mixes that are present only to make the album seem more generous than it is.

If The 18th Letter is spotty, The Book of Life, a companion disc, is a beauty -- fifteen Eric B. & Rakim gems, including "Eric B. Is President," "Casualties of War," and "Lyrics of Fury." Rakim may not be all the way back yet, but if his past victories are any indication, he'll get there before long. And when he does, watch out.

-- Michael Roberts

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