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Previewing new albums from Blue Cantrell, Bilal, Sam Phillips, the Crystal Method, and more.

'Blu' In The Face

For Arista newcomer Blu Cantrell, a serious car accident involving her sister opened the door to a musical career. The Providence, R.I., native went with her family to Atlanta, where they stayed in a hotel for a month to monitor her sister's health. In the hotel lobby, Cantrell met a local producer who introduced her to Chris "Tricky" Stewart (Sisqo, Chante Moore, Mya). In short order, she was signed to Arista.

Her debut, "So Blu," reflects that experience as well as her state of mind at the time. "If I didn't sing, I don't know what I'd do," Cantrell says. "It's wonderful therapy to be able to sing when you're going through things. And now to be able to share that with other people who can relate is a beautiful thing."

In addition to writing her own lyrics, Cantrell collaborated with Stewart, Dallas Austin, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. First single "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)" has been an immediate hit -- it's at No. 3 on The Billboard Hot 100 and is in the top-15 of seven other Billboard charts.

'Born' Again

BilalLike many R&B singers, Bilal started performing by singing gospel music in church. A graduate of Philadelphia's School of Performing Arts, he soon longed for more. He packed his bags and headed for New York, where he enrolled in the Mannes Conservatory of Music. It was there that he met the Spin Doctors' Aaron Comes and began demoing songs.

"I got signed pretty much the same way I met Ahmir [aka ?uestlove of the Roots] and Q-Tip -- word-of-mouth," the artist says. "We only made two copies of my demo originally. People just began to make copies. Next thing you know, we've got labels calling us." Bilal signed to Interscope and already has the industry abuzz for his debut album, "1st Born Second," due this week.

"When I speak of 'second child,' I was speaking of second-class citizens as a whole -- those people who are often forgotten," he says. "[With the title track], I was definitely focusing on the black experience specifically." First single "Soul Sista" reached No. 18 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart in February. "Love It" is No. 66 on that chart this week.

In A 'Rush'

Musiq SoulchildNew tracks from Ludacris, Macy Gray, Musiq Soulchild are featured on the Def Jam/Def Soul soundtrack to "Rush Hour 2." The album, due July 31, is loaded with Def Jam /Def Soul artists, including new signee Keith Murray and Sisqo protege act LovHer. First single "Area Codes" by Ludacris featuring Nate Dogg is No. 52 on The Billboard Hot 100 this week.

The album also features tracks from Method Man and Teddy Riley, Montell Jordan, and the Def Jam debut of veteran rapper Keith Murray, who signed with the label in June. Other Def Jam/Def Soul artists on the set include female rapper Foxy Brown, R&B artists Kandice Love and Musiq Soulchild, the latter of which will have a new album this winter, tentatively scheduled for a November release.

Gray has lent "The World is Yours" featuring Redman to the soundtrack. The cut is from her forthcoming Epic release "The Id," due in stores Sept. 18. "Rush Hour 2," starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, will be released Aug. 3 in U.S. theaters.

'Dance' With Me

Sam PhillipsAlthough singer/songwriter Sam Phillips' new Nonesuch album, "Fan Dance," clocks in at just over half an hour, the set packs a considerable punch with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics and subtle, uniquely musical backdrops. "Fan Dance" also marks a turning point in Phillips' career. The project's dozen tracks were recorded live with few overdubs, reflecting a focus on performance rather than production.

Such tracks as "How to Dream" showcase Phillips' individual knack at creating riveting melodies and lyrics. "There's obviously something that I feel compelled to communicate that I can't help, for better or for worse -- that's what 'How to Dream' is about," Phillips says. "It talks about the secret that I can't hide. It's talking about being a writer or writing songs. It's an odd thing that we do, this weird compulsion to reveal things."

Along with T-Bone Burnett's contributions as producer and bassist, Gillian Welch provides additional vocals and Van Dyke Parks creates string arrangements for "Wasting My Time" and plays harpsichord on "Taking Pictures." Guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Carla Azar round out the musical team.

Lost 'Tweekend'

Crystal MethodCompared with the Crystal Method's 1997 album "Vegas," the brand new "Tweekend" (Geffen/Interscope) offers harder beats, more muscular rhythms, and a rockier edge. Credit the disc's numerous contributors, among them Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello (who plays guitar on two tracks and co-produces three); Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland (who adds guitar and vocal parts to "Murder"); and Beck accompanist DJ Swamp (who scratches on the first single, "Name of the Game," which is No. 24 this week on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart).

"We really didn't go in with a plan," says group member Scott Kirkland "We just start working on ideas, and things happened." Jokes partner Ken Jordan, "You can tell why it took us so long [to make the album]. We have no direction."

In reality, the band has survived the ebb and flow of electronica's popularity by ignoring trends and consciously seeking alternative outlets for its music, including PlayStation games, film soundtracks, and TV commercials. "We've never been strictly a dance act," Jordan explains. "People who like [modern] rock generally like our sound, too." The Crystal Method's 7-Day Tweekend tour begins Aug. 4 in Seattle.

Additional titles hitting stores this week include the various artists compilation "NOW That's What I Call Music, Vol. 7!," featuring hits from Janet Jackson, Lifehouse, 'N Sync, and more (Virgin); rap outfit Snoop Dogg Presents Tha Eastsidaz' "Duces N' Trays ... The Old Fashioned Way" (TVT/Doggystyle); the solo debut from ex-Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek, "Been Here and Gone" (Matador); an album from the Dickey Betts Band, featuring the ex-Allman Brothers Band guitarist of the same name, "Let's Get Together" (Back Alley); singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith's "Clock Without Hands" (Elektra); veteran metal act Judas Priest's "Demolition" (Atlantic); hip-hop group Da Beatminerz' "Brace 4 Impak" (Rawkus/Priority); and a collaboration between John Medeski, the North Mississippi All Stars, and Robert Randolph, "The Word" (Ropeadope/Atlantic).

Also out this week is a greatest hits set from Prince, "The Very Best of Prince" (Rhino); a new album from hip-hop veterans Full Force, "Still Standing" (Forceful/TVT); pianist Brad Mehldau's "Art of the Trio Vol. 5: Progression" (Warner Bros.); rapper Mystic's "Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom" (Jcor/Interscope); Chicago-based indie rock outfit Owls' "Owls" (Jade Tree); hard rock group pete.'s "pete." (Warner Bros.); violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's "Life Enigma" (JLP Productions); the soundtrack to the upcoming film "American Pie 2" (Republic); U.K. house duo Utah Saints' "Two" (Nettwerk); archival recordings from tha Dogg Pound, "Death Row Records Presents" (Death Row); and singer/songwriter Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)" (Acony).

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