The Last Emperor

About the only thing royal about rapper the Last Emperor is the pain in his ass he's sustained. Since his appearance with KRS-One on 1998's Lyricist Lounge compilation, the intelligent thug with a college degree and West Philly pedigree has turned out projects for Aftermath, Interscope, and Rawkus Records, all of them abandoned by those labels. As his moniker implies, his problem is anachronistic in nature: His lyrical craftsmanship over Old World tempos has no place in a market of disposable dance-floor bravado.

But it is worth hearing, so big ups go to Raptivism for finally allowing the Last Emperor free reign over the tiny kingdom between street and smart. Over mildly innovative, midtempo grooves by the Beatminerz, Madsol, and Ayatollah, the Emp opens the disc with agile battle flows, then smoothes it out with sensitive philosophizing on ghetto lives and loves backed by gentle female vocals. A member of the first category, "Meditation," boasts brawn and brains: "My Han Solo fighting style I call Millennium Falconry/I change shapes and mind states through the use of mental alchemy/I climb the tower of Babel and throw rappers off the balcony." More poignantly on the standout "Repetition," he links habits to happiness by following a struggling rapper, a man-dependent woman, and, finally, an elderly couple who, on their every anniversary, play one "old, dusty record/Hard times couldn't break it."

Unfortunately unlike that album, this one won't last 50 years. Although the beats sustain a pleasant griminess while sampling everything from harpsichord to Gothic chanting, none quite jumps off the vinyl. Still at its best Music, Magic, Myth accurately showcases an artist with substance at the core of his style, so go ahead and sound the trumpets: These days, that's cause enough for coronation.