Jim Jones
Pray IV Reign

Forget Terrence Howard—Jim Jones’s life story should be titled Hustle & Flow. The Diplomats’ de facto front man grinded his way from street corners to corner offices and from background muscle to front-page glory. With an ever-improving string of albums—2004’s On My Way to Church, 2005’s Harlem: Diary of a Summer and the almost-gold Hustler’s P.O.M.E., in 2006—Jimmy’s rhymes are finally paying dividends, too. Following 2006’s larger-than-life single “We Fly High,” Capo silenced skeptics with yet another club concoction, “Pop Champagne.” Now the indie king rides the Auto-Tune-powered anthem to the big leagues with his major-label debut, Pray IV Reign.

Jones has made a career by perpetually keeping his fingers on Harlem’s pulse. Look no further than the album’s intro for evidence, where he bounces on No I.D.’s soulful, harmonica-tinged sound-bed, summing up the ghetto’s plight with a silver-tongued smoothness (“The aesthetic of being a Black man/You was either athletic or selling them crack grams”). Even when griping about the street’s allure, on “Pull Me Back,” he still revels in the fast life, spittin’, “They call me Young Bust-a-Move/I can make the coke spin on its back like Krush Groove.” Unfortunately, the hood rhetoric grows tiresome on the trigger-finger folly “Pop Off,” a hard, braggadocious ByrdGang dud.

The realer reality for Jones is that he’s finally become a mainstream fixture. Fittingly, he flosses a little more this time around. Check the luxury-obsessed “Let It Out,” where he rides Ron Browz’s acoustic guitar and frantic percussion, contrasting the good life with low-income living. Then he sponsors shopping sprees and world tours for a special lady on the summery, two-step-ready “Blow the Bank,” while crooner Oshy supplies the smooth hook.

Behind all the ballin’, though, lies paranoia. The husky-voiced rapper is at his most cynical on “This Is the Life,” rhyming over sparkly keys and teeth-shattering bass lines, “Gotta watch my brothers, ’cause Cain can turn on Abel/Gotta watch the money, ’cause the fame can turn fatal,” before concluding, “All I need in this world of sin/Is just me and the pearl twin.” The origins of Jim’s mistrust become more lucid with the rock-infused “Frenimies,” where he dwells on a thick-and-thin friendship turned foul (Cam’ron, anyone?), before verbally spanking ex-prodigy Max B. (“I bought you out of jail/Without me, you’d be facing an appeal/But who knew this/You would be Judas?”). Jimmy’s actually at his best when he ditches “bling-bling” and “blam-blam” rhymes for truly transparent thoughts. The mournful “My My My” gleams especially, as he looks to the sky to salute slain comrade Stack Bundles over piano sprinkles. Elsewhere, Jim dedicates the introspective title track to Capo Jr., discussing futile attempts to shield his son from the thug life.

Passionate flow can take an artist but so far. Jimmy winds up playing lyrical lackey to Ludacris’s brash flow on “How to Be a Boss,” while Juelz Santana easily outswags Jones on the go-go-influenced “Girlfriend.” Meanwhile, the sexual-healing ode “Medicine” proves to be the wrong prescription, as Jim, Noe and Chink Santana run a train on a knockoff “Jigga What, Jigga Who” backdrop, in double time, with lame results. Fortunately, Jones manages to rise to the occasion with the surprisingly smooth “Precious,” where he serenades over producer Ryan Leslie’s jazzy bass strings and nifty drumsticks. With even more adventurous choices and evident spurts of maturity, Jim displays the chops to maintain his status as a compelling hip-hop figure. If he keeps this up, his reign on the top won’t be short like leprechauns. —JOHN KENNEDY