Three 6 Mafia still hustles, but loses its flow

The Baltimore Sun

Three 6 Mafia Last 2 Walk Grade: D+

For a decade, Three 6 Mafia was relatively unknown outside the gritty, grimy confines of underground Southern rap. But then the Memphis collective flew up the pop charts in 2005 with the catchy, sinister "Stay Fly." And the next year, Three 6 Mafia became the first rap act to pick up an Oscar for best original song for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from the movie Hustle & Flow.

Immediately after that baffling win, the group (now a duo made up of core members Juicy J and DJ Paul) took full advantage of its new and unlikely fame and jumped into the world of reality TV. The guys' move from Memphis to Los Angeles was chronicled last year in Adventures in Hollyhood, the sometimes funny but often nerve-grating MTV series.

So now that the members of Three 6 Mafia are Academy Award-winning "pop stars," has the music changed? Do they keep it exuberantly "gutta," the way they used to when they were thriving on the underground?

Well, yes and no. On Last 2 Walk, the group's ninth official album in stores today, Three 6 Mafia vacillates between appeasing the faithful and making concessions to pop-rap with forgettable, uneven results.

The gloriously ragged side, replete with bruising beats and gratuitously lewd choruses, packs the front half of the album. Tales of hustling in the 'hood boil on cuts such as "Trap Boom," featuring Mafia affiliate Project Pat and "Hood Star," a vivid standout with soul singer Lyfe Jennings. "On Some Chrome," featuring UGK and one of the last performances from the late Pimp C, recalls Three 6 Mafia's grungy early days.

But the album is laden with half-baked, pointlessly foul tracks that go nowhere. "I'd Rather," the lead single, is a prime example. And "Play station" is just downright annoying with its juvenile chorus: "Don't play with me boy/Play with your Playstation" repeated over and over.

The blatant bids for crossover appeal via high-profile guest appearances are predictable. Akon lends his sonorous vocals to "That's Right," a ho-hum cut with a droning beat. The most forced collaboration is "My Own Way" with the lame, gloomy teen-pop band Good Charlotte. Joel Madden's pinched, whiny vocals sound completely out-of-place floating over the minimalist, dungeon-dark beat.

After a while, the slightly paranoid, minor-key arrangements begin to blend. Three 6 Mafia has never been known for producing cohesive albums. But its brand of Southern thug rap usually sounded more exuberant and certainly less calculated than the majority of the cuts on Last 2 Walk. With 22 tracks and few memorable lyrical and musical ideas, the album is overlong and tedious. Three 6 Mafia is relatively new to the streamlined pop world. And as frequently seen on Adventures in Hollyhood, the guys stumble and fumble trying to find their place while maintaining their Southern scrappiness. More often than not, that sense of uncertainty bubbles through the music.

Also anticipated

Icelandic alt-rock outfit Sigur Ros releases a new album with the curious title Med Sud i Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. Veteran head-banging rock group Motley Crue returns with Saints of Los Angeles. And acclaimed Philadelphian singer-songwriter Amos Lee releases Last Days at the Lodge, his follow-up to 2006's well-received Supply and Demand.

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