9thwonder.jpgMaking a name for himself as the musical force behind North Carolina’s Little Brother, 9th Wonder began scoring hits for the likes of Jay-Z and Destiny’s Child. With requests for his production prowess growing, the in-demand beatsmith parted ways with LB in early ’07 to focus on his craft full-time. Ready to showcase his sample-driven style to the masses, 9th enlists an extensive class of MCs to bless his latest compilation, Dream Merchant, Vol. 2.

Proving there’s no love lost, remaining Little Brothers Phonte and Big Pooh lend their familiar voices to the spirited “No Time to Chill.” From there, Saigon and Justus League Caucasian sensation Joe Scudda slap verses against chilling wails and orchestral strings on “Saved,” while Big Dho teams with Sean Price on the Teddy Pendergrass–flipping “Shots.” On the latter, the BCC vet quips, “Niggas talk hip-hop all the time/Throw a clip in the Glock, make you hip-hop to this 9.”

Unfortunately, not every collaboration is a musical match made in hip-hop heaven. Big Treal delivers a borderline-annoying hook for his pro-drugs solo cut, “Baking Soda.” Then there’s the odd trio of Mos Def, Jean Grae and Memphis Bleek, who converge over 9th’s horn-driven medley for “Brooklyn in My Mind,” a subpar update of the popular “Crooklyn” series. Camp Lo fares better at the remake game as they skillfully flip LL Cool J’s “Milky Cereal” concept into the metaphorical marathon “The Milky Lowa.” Sonny Cheeba spits, “You know we keep it colorful but never on the Froot Loop/Bars be the Dig ’Em Smacks, that’s just where the Lowa at.”

9th’s selflessness behind the boards poses Vol. 2’s toughest dilemma, because no matter how knockin’ the beats (“Merchant of Dreams” and “Reminisce”), so many disparate voices can interrupt the album’s flow. But if his mission was to bring the beats to the fore and make the MCs an afterthought, then this is a dream come true. —ALVIN BLANCO