We Wuz Robbed

On paper, Black Rob's Life Story would seem to have a lot going for it. Produced by Puff Daddy and a gaggle of his Bad Boy associates, Life Story features guest appearances by brand names such as the LOX and Ma$e rapping alongside newcomer Black Rob — a gruff, raspy-sounding man with real-life prison experience and a flow (not unlike the Notorious B.I.G.) that communicates hard times and hard living augmented by periodic testosterone flare-ups. It should've been at least a good album, but a delay in its release and some production missteps bring it down too many notches for the album to be the masterwork it's already been hailed as in some quarters.

Granted, Life Story sometimes hits its mark. "Whoa!" (RealAudio excerpt) is already a club hit and rightfully so, as it artfully jogs along, continuing the latest hip-hop trend of ending all sentences with the same word (a la Juvenile's "Ha"). And "Thug Story" (RealAudio excerpt) does a nice job of repositioning the beat and glide of Slick Rick's "Children's Story" away from a cautionary tale and more toward a non-judgmental look at a life of crime.

Overall, though, the disc isn't all that engaging. Yes, Black Rob has flow, but he lacks the original vocabulary it takes to bust out of the large pack of East Coast rappers rhyming about living hard and fast in the inner city. He also isn't served well by the beats and soundscapes, almost all of which are midtempo head bobbers circa 1998–99 that end up sounding too slow in light of recent production work by the likes of Manny Fresh and Swizz Beats.

While it's true that Rob is never outshined by his guests, that may be because Puff Daddy, the LOX, Lil' Kim, Cee-Lo and Ma$e sure aren't at their best here. (Armed with the knowledge that Ma$e has retired and the LOX have left Bad Boy, we know these tracks have been on the shelf for a while, and all one can say is that they haven't aged well.) And don't get me started on Jennifer Lopez's dopey, altogether embarrassing interpolation of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" on the chorus of "Spanish Fly" (RealAudio excerpt). It's the most naked grab at a share of the Latin market since ... well, since Puff Daddy's Gerrado-like rapping on his Spanish version of "PE 2000."

Ultimately, Life Story falls far short of all the prerelease expectations. To put it bluntly: don't believe the hype.