Continental divide 

Turf Talk
West Coast Vaccine (The Cure)
Sick Wid It

Prodigy
Return of the Mac
Koch

The two best hip-hop albums of the first half of 2007 were recorded about 3,000 miles apart. Twice as much distance separates them aesthetically, with Prodigy's West Coast Vaccine's robo-tripping synthetic club beats throwing a harsh neon-green glare on Prodigy's Return of the Mac's sepia-tinted flophouse full of creeping lo-fi funk. But that neither has spawned a radio hit, at least in these parts, is another sad sign that hip hop's 21st-century regionalism — with beefy "street novelist" Turf Talk and long-suffering soul survivor Prodigy totally committed to embodying the resonant shtick of their respective hoods — is now as much a curse as a blessing.

The way Turf Talk squeezes his sneering vowels like a clenched asshole racing to find a latrine is how you first know he hails from area code 707 — Vallejo, Calif. (Then there are the multiple guest appearances from Vallejo's slang-slinging favorite son, E-40, and the bass-heavy production from Bay folks like E-40's son Droop-E and criminally sidelined head-knocker Rick Rock.) It's the pissy-drunk mania of Turf's delivery that thrills more than his standard police-dodging, money-hoarding, ghetto-repping content — especially when he doubles and triples himself up into a geek chorus of tongue-lolling Turfs jumping around like Onyx. But it's the beats — with Imax-scale handclaps and xylophones, synth riffs that glower like Tom Araya from behind his bangs, bouncing mechanical quotations from hip-hop's electro glory days, soul samples torqued into baby talk, and bass that feels like Mechagodzilla's elbowing your ribs, all with an uptempo ebullience — that make this Northern Cali state-of-the-union the best hyphy album yet.

That the malt liquor-fueled energy barely flags over 21 tracks is amazing, but you may wonder if anyone outside the Bay Area is actually getting off on these demented bangers.

Hyphy may be on mainstream life support, but folks are already picking out graveside wreaths for New York rap. Return of the Mac won't likely provide the high-profile transfusion the five boroughs have been waiting for, but as 14 tracks of hard-core hip-hop formalism, it will give a boost to anyone who came of age in the bleary milieu of mid-'90s rap.

Produced by the Alchemist and clinging for sanity to the spartan repetitions of '70s funk and soul loops, the tremolo guitar hooks and grimy horns of Return of the Mac feel as distant from the radio as their source material, as vinyl crackle from deep crates mingles with hoarse lungs nervously exhaling blunt smoke. Prodigy, the frozen-marrowed high school nihilist so in love with curdled metaphor circa Mobb Deep's The Infamous, has dry-aged into a guarded, fedora-clad, firearm-stroking sage for whom "New York shit" now means doling out blunt koans while zoning out to Donny Hathaway albums and imagining the death of his enemies in a "four-cornered room" he's rented from Scarface. At its best, on such tracks as "Legends" and "Mac 10 Handle," both music and lyrics evoke the interior paranoia (think Capone and Noreaga's The War Report, Raekwon's dizzying cut-up pulp, Mobb Deep's own ice cold early work) that made hip-hop's turn toward bright and shiny pop inevitable, but even as a cul-de-sac, Return of the Mac is a dark haven for those of us who prefer head-nodding to partying like a rock star.

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