Ace Hood
(We The Best/Def Jam)

You’d think Ace Hood is in a race against time. Less than a year ago, this magazine dubbed the Miami rapper one of 2009’s finest freshmen, as he prepped his rookie album, Gutta. Striving for a lasting shelf life, DJ Khaled’s protégé now piggybacks his previous effort, quickly returning with Ruthless.

Relying on a familiar formula, Ace enlists R&B’s premier acts for mass appeal. T-Pain and Akon share Auto-Tune duties over dull gongs on “Overtime,” a motivational anthem that’s equally appealing to clock punchers and drug pushers. It’s the ladies, however, who get the most accommodations. Hood and crooning newcomer Jeremih dump their celebrity lifestyles in search of the perfect soul mates on the sappy yet lilting standout “Love Somebody.” And Ace snatches your girl over The-Dream and Tricky’s lush hook and bouncy vibe on “She Wants to Be Mine,” seemingly a Radio Killa leftover from his Love vs. Money LP released earlier this year.

Hood’s street stripes remain intact, though. The trunk-rattling “This Nigga Here,” featuring Birdman, and the cautionary “Don’t Get Caught Slippin” ooze with trap tang. But, sadly, bright spots are often compromised by subpar lyricism. Ace becomes a cameo’s casualty on the aggressive, Ludacris-assisted “Born an OG,” while unsightly bars sabotage the triumphant horn-and-bell-hoisted “Get Money.” Worse, sacrilegious flubs make The Runners–produced pop endeavor “Wifey Material” implode, as he rhymes, “You ever been to Cancun? I can take you/Have you feeling like Biggie Smalls when he wrote ‘Juice.’”

Woeful wordplay aside, Ace’s introspective cuts patch things up. Check the inspiring Jazmine Sullivan and Rick Ross collaboration “Champion”—with its wistful imagery and pummeling drums—finding Hood finally pairing substance with vigor. More moments like this and he can truly ace the test of time. –John Kennedy