Lil Wayne, "I Am Not a Human Being"
It's not clear how Wayne managed to record an album of new songs while serving an eight-month prison sentence that began last March. But as the title suggests, Wayne is not of this world. And as the material suggests, Wayne might be the only rapper living there, such are the depth and breadth displayed here. Designed as a stopgap before "Tha Carter IV," this new disc is a well-executed summary of everything Wayne has done before: schoolyard bragging ("Gonorrhea"), money/power metaphors ("Bill Gates"), twisted love songs ("With You"), attempts at solitude ("I'm Single"). Even his ill-advised fascination with rap-rock finds the right home on the title track. Jay-Z's confidence, Biggie's rhymes, 2Pac's pace -- Wayne isn't a human being. He's the house that hip-hop built.
MICHAEL POLLOCK, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Zac Brown Band, "You Get What You Give" (Atlantic)
This new album, already No. 1 in Billboard, follows the double-platinum "The Foundation," as well as a Grammy for best new artist and five nominations for November's Country Music Association awards. Working with one of Nashville's best producers, Keith Stegall, the road-tested sextet displays its crisp musicianship and clear harmonies in tight, well-structured songs. Only once on the 14-song album, with the 10-minute "Who Knows," do Brown and company indulge their jam-band urges. You'll hear echoes of the Eagles and the Allman Brothers, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett, who guests on "Knee Deep." The band, however, has a knack for making such comforting familiarity a virtue, and, like the generally sunny outlook, it's part of the group's appeal.
NICK CRISTIANO, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, "Lonely Avenue" (Nonesuch)
It's not unusual for two artists who admire each other's work to collaborate, but it isn't typical for a songwriter to team up with a novelist. Nevertheless, American songwriter Folds paired up here with English novelist Hornby ("About a Boy," "Fever Pitch," "High Fidelity").
The stories are more consistently interesting than the arrangements, but the two men do well by each other. On the prog-rock-inspired romp "Your Dogs," Folds relates Hornby's droll story of a traditionalist reaching out to a non-traditionalist neighbor with faux empathy in an effort to wrangle him into conformity. A few cuts take a humorous bent, including a theatrical "Levi Johnston's Blues" that features a confused and angry redneck as its protagonist. The best tracks tend to be somber and packaged more accessibly: The cruelty of false hope is explored on the morose "Picture Window," and a heartbroken child's birthday is ruined by divorced parents on "Claire's Ninth." Meanwhile, the most resonant track, "From Above," contrasts Folds' swinging, hook-happy arrangement with Hornby's dark assertion that most perfect matches are nothing more than missed connections.
CHUCK Campbell, Scripps Howard News Service