If anything, this has been a year of top name releases in mainstream hip hop, with one heavyweight after the other dropping marquee-style albums they all seem to hope will be game changers for them. Earlier in the year, we had Lil Wayne making his superstar status official (pity he hasn’t been up to much that makes sense since), Nas frustratingly delivering unconvincingly on an ambitious promise, and Young Jeezy upping the ante as a convincing rap star.

Now is the season to be jolly, of course, and come recession or high water, we have been flooded with big records from the rest of the biggest names: The Game, Ludacris, T.I. and Kanye West. The only ones missing from that list, I guess, are Jay-Z and Chamillionaire, and they’re excused by having dropped albums last year. I couldn’t be less interested in how many units these people move — they’re probably doing reasonably well, all things considered — but kind of wanted to check the pulse on the tottering behemoth that is mainstream rap, in terms of, well the quality of the music they’ve released.

Ludacris — Theatre of the Mind
On first glance, this is just insane. Offhand, I can’t think of a more star-studded hip hop album ever. Not only does it assemble more or less every big name in mainstream hip hop right now: T.I., T-Pain, The Game, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Nas & Jay-Z (on the same song) and Common, it also basks in the celebrity glow of Chris Rock, Jamie Foxxx, and Spike Lee. Production is handled by, amongst others, DJ Toomp, Swizz Beatz, Trackmasters, Scott Storch and DJ freakin’ Premier. No shit. This gotta be the very definition of a marquee album.

So really, what Luda is looking to do here is to convincingly upgrade to top dog, having hired boxer Floyd Mayweather and actor Ving Rhames to extoll his ventures as an entrepeneur and generally coming off larger-than-life. I guess it’s all good, Luda is a charming presence on the mic and his deep voice makes up in authority for what he lacks in sophistication. His flow, concepts and lyrics are all pretty pedestrian, but he maintains conviction throughout, even when the verses he spits are sub-par. He combines authority with a certain disarming naivité, suddenly dropping cute lines like “Keep my ears to the street like a cocker spaniel” and making them sound hot. I’m not sure what this album really adds to his career though.

T.I. — Paper Trail
I read somewhere that T.I. wanted to prove with this album that he could actually write songs, instead of just freestyle on some bullshit as he has successfully been doing for a number of years now. Bad move. Most of it is straight-up pop hip hop of the most generic kind, thoroughly laced with generic RnB hooks, synthed-up production, and dumbed-down concepts, in the midst of which Tip frankly sounds somewhat lost. And it doesn’t help that the album has almost as long a list of big name guests as does Luda’s, because they mostly just muddy the waters.

The token street cred tracks, a couple of which are pretty decent — especially “56 Bars” and “I’m Lily”, which open the album, are tight — simply drown in the miasma of candyass fare on offer. Hell, even the centrepiece extravaganza, “Swagga Like Us”, doesn’t manage a whole lot more than having a set of uncharacteristically tepid efforts from guests Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne upstaged by the catchy MIA sample on the hook. And it doesn’t help that Tip now thinks he is in a position to share his acquired wisdom, as he does on several tracks, including the thoroughly awful single “Live Your Life”. Being a grown man, musically, means growing, musically; being original, not jumping on the bandwagon. Anyway, I guess Tip is going where he wants to go — the record has done very well indeed — but damn, this is a long way from the smart vigour of “Rubber Band Man.”

The Game — LAX
Who let this guy in? Seriously? Apparently this is his grown man album, an attempted statement of ownership on the part of West Coast hip hop in general, and gangsta rap in particular. He manages the latter. If one had any doubt that the genre played out with the crack era, The Game is living proof. This album is drenched in clichés that were already starting to get old when N.W.A. recorded the occasionally brilliant, but weirdly transitional Niggaz4Life (1991).

Worse, however, is the fact that Game can’t rap. At all. To characterise his flow as ‘basic’ would be kind, Stumbling, jumbled, rambling would be more fitting descriptives. This would be OK, if he had something else — Eazy-E after all became a legend on the basis of comparable technical skill — but all you get are trite concepts, formulaic lyrics and predictable posturing. That, and a lot of gunshots on the tracks. Oh, and endlessly invocations of the memories of Biggie and Pac. The humanity…

Kanye West — 808s and Heartbreaks
With this album Kanye goes where T.I. cannot — to straight pop. It’s probably a wise move; Kanye is not a great rapper, his musical interests are clearly bigger than hip hop and he knows how to autotune his voice to massage the radio waves. Seriously — there’s something ballsy about how he autotunes the fuck out of every song he does these days. True, it’s the hot gimmick of the moment, but isn’t he just slightly worried about his legacy? I mean, who does not expect this to be the major embarrassment of late naughts pop music ten year hence?

This is a pretty well-constructed album. Kanye has the concotion of this kind of catchy emo pop down to a T. The problem, however, is the usual: Who stole the soul? Ostensibly an intensely personal exercise in self-therapy after the breakup of his engagement and the death of his mother earlier this year (though we don’t her much about the latter), this record is disturbingly self-aware. Kanye plays it so safely that it’s hard to empathise when he bitches track after track about the “spoiled little LA girl” who left him. I get it, the album’s all about alienation, but the problem — really — is that we’ve never really had the opportunity to probe the soul of its protagonist in the first place.

So that’s it, some good efforts by some talented people — and some not so, by some people not so — and a lot of fluff. What can be expected, I guess. My problem here, really, is the sameness of these albums — despite being helmed by rather different creative personalities, some of which have been very distinctive in the past, mainstream hip hop seems more homogenic than ever these days. Add to this that they all seem to incessantly trade producers and guest shots with each other, and you have what amounts to an echo chamber of lost potential. Big picture = sad shit.