T.I., "Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head" (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
In the slow-rolling cut "Can You Learn," T.I. beseeches a lover to look past his recent legal troubles to focus on "the good qualities within." This album asks something similar of listeners: His first since being released last year from federal prison following a probation violation, it surrounds a handful of his sharpest, most insightful songs with far less effective material -- tracks that vague out into club-rap utility or sag hopelessly under the weight of cornball sentiment. Like the early-'70s Marvin Gaye soundtrack that its title nods to, "Trouble Man" at its best examines the unseen cost of crime, as in "Can You Learn" (with R. Kelly) and "Wildside," which opens with one of several skits dramatizing the Atlanta rapper's various arrests. But he isn't strictly playing the reformer: "Sorry," a stirring collaboration with Andre 3000, insists, "You can't please everybody," while in "Who Want Some" T.I. boasts of indiscretions to come over a swaggering beat by DJ Toomp.
MIKAEL WOOD, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Bobby Bare, "Darker Than Light" (Plowboy)
He has scored more than 30 country Top 20 hits, but at 77 Bare has maintained a lower profile than such contemporaries as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This album, his first in seven years, is a reminder of how good he is. With backing that features members of Robert Plant's Band of Joy, including Buddy Miller on guitar, and covers of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and Dylan's "Farewell, Angelina," this album obviously aims to earn Bare cachet among hip tastemakers. Yet he remains his unpretentious, down-home self. Mostly, the album relies on folk and blues standards. It's a measure of the still-robust Bare's deeply engaging manner and expressive abilities that he can make such familiar fare as "House of the Rising Sun," "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Tom Dooley" sound fresh and compelling. Meanwhile, his own poignant "I Was a Young Man Once" shows his songwriting skills remain sharp, and "The Devil and Billy Markham," a poem by Shel Silverstein set to music, echoes the pair's landmark collaborations of the '70s.
NICK CRISTIANO, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Solange, "True" (Terrible)
This is the third go-round for Beyoncé's little sister. Released on a label co-founded by Chris Taylor of indie-rockers Grizzly Bear, "True" is a cool, slightly distant record that channels strains of nostalgia -- for the 1980s, for classic dance music -- that are more au courant in rock than in R&B. At times she recalls the dance-pop sugar rush of a Stacey Q. "Looks Good With Trouble" is washed out and drowsy, and "Don't Let Me Down" has a potent kick to go with its troubled lyric. "Losing You" is a highlight, with the astral new wave of, say, Alphaville, caressing Solange's pliant pleas. It's hard not to hear the echo in "Locked in Closets" of Janet Jackson's "Control," the song that began to establish her as a solo star outside her family's shadow. Solange knows from shadows.
JON CARAMANICA, NEW YORK TIMES