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PRINCE PAUL A Prince Among ThievesWhile the term "brilliant" gets thrown around too easily in these musically lean times, Prince Paul's new album A Prince Among Thieves more than earns the honorific. He's already had a storied history as the twisted musical genius behind groups like Stetsasonic, De La Soul, and the Gravediggaz. However, now Paul can also claim credit for one of the first "hip-hoperas" - a rap musical drenched in drama and humor. The album traces a day in the life of Tariq (played by Breeze), an aspiring rapper who needs a little cash to finish his demo.

Mocking the typical plot of '90s blaxploitation films, Paul surrounds Tariq with an array of (un)usual suspects, including his two-faced mentor True (Sha), an overzealous white cop (Everlast), and the heavyweight king pin Mr. Big (Chubb Rock) and includes tapping comedian Chris Rock to reappraise his role as a crack junkie, scripting in wild-man Kool Keith as the deranged gun dealer Crazy Lou, and getting Big Daddy Kane to stand in for - what else? - a pimp named Count Mackula.

Putting the imaginative plot and all-star roster aside though, what makes the album brilliant is that Paul always keeps you guessing as to his ulterior motive. On the surface, the album seems like a wicked parody of modern ghetto exploitation films (Juice, Menace II Society), yet its dramatic climax toils in ambiguous sentiment. Should you crack up or sober up? Take this fractured fable as serious or silly? Chuckle all you want, but by album's end, you have to pause to wonder if the joke's actually been on you this whole time.