Ghostface Killah, "Apollo Kids" (Def Jam)

With impeccably selected guest spots (the Game, Joell Ortiz, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and his Wu-Tang brethren), this veteran New York rapper hews closely to the bloody-nostril boom-bap the Wu-Tang Clan pioneered a decade ago. Lyrically, Ghostface eschews the surreal bent of his second-career zenith "Fishscale" for straightforward boasts about fast cars, fast women and faster blades.

Though "Apollo Kids" is light on the sweat-dripping narratives that Ghostface staked his reputation on, "Drama" finds Ghostface in "Masterpiece Theatre" mode, sketching crime scenes of guns and grams surrounded by "big jars of haze, Cheech & Chong bongs, Tropicana strawberries and diced bananas." "Troublemakers" finds Ironman pairing with Method Man, Raekwon and Redman to play "backgammon in the cabin." Like the album itself, its intentions are minimal -- adamantine beats, colorful raps and little filler.

Due to his abstract innovations and imagination, fans and critics expect Ghostface to win the Daytona 500 every year. But as he says on the highlight of his ninth album, "In Tha Park," "this rap [stuff] came at a time that was accurate / Twenty years later I mastered it." "Apollo Kids" shows that one of rap's company drivers is still on the speedway -- zooming slightly slower than before but with better pacing and control of the wheel.



Kandi, "Kandi Koated" (Asylum)

Flamboyantly organic singing stokes Kandi Burruss' second album. She made her solo debut in 2000 but her career dates back further, to an era when vocal groups -- hers was the four-woman Xscape, which had million-selling albums in the 1990s -- required actual vocal ability. Kandi can coo and implore, float and bite. She can glide through high melismas and hurl accusations; she flirts, growls and preaches. On "Kandi Koated" she applies her voice to songs about love and its consequences, singing fervently about romances, betrayals and single parenthood.

Kandi didn't disappear during the gap between solo albums. After Xscape disbanded she became a hit-making songwriter, collaborating on independent-woman manifestos like "No Scrubs" with TLC, "Bills, Bills, Bills" with Destiny's Child and "Jane Doe" with Alicia Keys. Last year she became a reality TV star on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." She has a clothing store, an Internet talk show and a blog.

But her voice deserved a showcase like "Kandi Koated." The music is accomplished neo-soul. Writing with various collaborators including Ne-Yo, lyricist Kandi tells stories succinctly. In the ultra-smooth "Lucky," the singer savors a one-night stand with an ex even though she knows it's wrong because he has a girlfriend. That song is followed by "How Could You ... Feel My Pain," a bitterly escalating ballad from a woman left behind.

Kandi is openly autobiographical in "Leroy Jones," an anthem that praises the way her stepfather "loved my mother's children like they were his own" and then reminds her own prospective partners that she and her daughter -- Riley, 8, who sings on one track -- are a "package deal." Kandi also collaborates with another member of Xscape, Tameka (Tiny) Cottle, on "Superwoman," a hymn to single mothers.