Promo Package

Ryde or Die Vol. II is kind of like the NBA All-Star Game. The talent is top-notch. The fans gather to idolize the stars. Like the game, this album is a forum for the stars to show off their skills. The results don't matter: It's only an exhibition. There's not a lot at stake here, and ultimately, the final score is empty and unsatisfying.

This apparent pick-up match is the second star-studded compilation released by the Ruff Ryders label, Yonkers, N.Y.'s most popular contribution to hip-hop. The company's clout — it's released eight top-10 albums — afforded it the chance to land Snoop Dogg, Scarface, Busta Rhymes, Trick Daddy, Method Man and Redman. Add those names to its own platinum stable of DMX, the LOX, Eve and Drag-On, and you've got one astute roster.

The rappers find themselves in the role of pitchmen for Ruff Ryders, though, which weighs down on the album like Shaquille O'Neal posting up on Mugsy Bogues. In the same way pro basketball provides a showcase for often shameless endorsement deals, Ryde or Die Vol. II is a neon-flashing platform for Dee, Waah and Chivon Dean — the Ruff Ryders hierarchy — to advertise their wares.

The Ruff Ryders owners incorporate their "Ryde or Die" slogan into several of the songs, even slapping the name onto Yung Man and Larsiny's "Ryde or Die Boyz" (RealAudio excerpt). They promote upcoming albums on the sleeve, insert skits that hype the label. And they give the family's boy wonder, Swizz Beatz, and their other resident producers free rein on the boards. The superstar guests here might as well be rapping about Chinese food; they're just along for the promotional ride.

Swizz Beatz, at 21, has become one of hip-hop's most prolific producers. Despite an over-reliance on keyboards and monotonous, chanting hooks, he has an ear for hits (Eve's "Gotta Man," the LOX's "Wild Out"). Surprisingly, he and his cohorts, Mahogany, Taflon and P. Killer Trackz, miss the mark here, offering a succession of songs that alternate between dull and raw (see "Weed, Hoes, Dough"), neither of which styles is likely to entice radio. (The first volume, at least, had Jay-Z's hit single "Jigga My Nigga.")

Even the ultrahyped, supremely intense DMX offers a snoozer here. Known for his grunting enunciation and ability to draw his listeners into his songs, the star just mumbles tame boasts: "Shit's about to get real outta hand, dog/ Betta get ya man, dog/ Rap shit comes second/ I'm a show you what a robber do." He doesn't shout, which is why fans seem to love him in the first place. He also quotes his current hit "Party Up" ("Y'all gon' make me lose my mind"). You get the feeling this was just a paycheck job.

The joys on Vol. II come mostly in fast, short, breaklike bursts. Busta Rhymes' manic persona pumps energy into "Fright Night" (RealAudio excerpt), on which he and Swizz take turns making bold (and humorous) challenges. The macabre flugelhornlike keyboards on "WW III" (RealAudio excerpt) give Snoop Dogg and Scarface room to demonstrate the menace that made them famous. "Got It All" pairs Eve with the LOX's Jadakiss, two bright young stars whose voices complement each other well. In fact, this album may prove to be a coming out party for Jadakiss — a refreshing, insightful voice who deserves much, much better. His lyrics stand out on four separate tracks, and he does make his presence felt. As he notes on "My Name Is Kiss": "I'm gonna always be in the 'hood like roaches." And when he says he's not just after the "p" from Eve on "Got It All,' he sounds awfully sincere.

Unfortunately, the disappointments far outweigh the positives. Let's just say that Ryde or Die Vol. II is as innocuous as a 360-degree alley-oop dunk in a 30-point blowout that doesn't even count in the standings.