Four Thumbs Up and Rising

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What's the difference between a masterpiece album and a classic one? Classic albums are timeless. They invade new musical frontiers, surpass genres and become barometers by which other albums are measured. Masterpieces are experiments, executed superbly. They are masterful variations of their art that often stay within their era. In plain English, classics travel the world. Masterpieces carve new routes across the homeland.

A Prince Among Thieves is a masterpiece. Prince Paul's self-produced, -written, -scripted, -cast and -directed sound track-audio movie was actually made before the straight-to-video film of the same name. It's an above-average experiment that utilizes some of the most revered talent in hip hop, all of whom pull double duty as actors and performers.

It's damned clever. The plot surrounds Tariq, a would-be recording star who hustles under the supervision of secretly jealous "friend," True, to get studio money. Chris Rock, Chubb Rock, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Xzibit, Sadat X, Everlast, Kool Keith and Big Daddy Kane play everything from crackheads to cops and pimps, surprisingly well. The finished product is a decent story braided into the fabric of a good soundtrack. But the idea itself makes this an enjoyable CD. Standout tracks involve De La's trademark metaphor while playing crackheads on "More Than You Know." And Big Daddy Kane's "Count Macula" breaks down the player's philosophy in redeeming — for him, that is — fashion.

Prince Paul worked with each artist separately while in the studio and used no script. Listeners will appreciate the effect this practice has on the flow of the "movie." With A Prince Among Thieves, Prince Paul adds a refreshing twist to the flood of rappers who have wasted their money producing horrible independent films. This is engaging.

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