Befitting these roller-coaster times, the hip-hop world more than ever feels like the stock market. Master P's once indomitable stock is down, while Dr. Dre's slumping portfolio is now soaring on a huge point gain, thanks to his protege Eminem -- and Dre's glaringly cynical re-embrace of the hardcore style he'd once so bluntly denounced.
Eminem isn't the only one Dre should thank for his commercial revitalization. The producer-auteur also received a boost from his renewed collaboration with onetime partner in rhyme Snoop Dogg, who's recently emerged from a rut of his own to become the hardest-working -- and most in-demand -- guest in show business. At 28, Snoop is a patriarch, revered for the icy-calm, pot-hazy nonchalance of his delivery. He and Dre reunited in 1999 on Snoop's No Limit Top Dogg and have joined forces again on Snoop's latest, Tha Last Meal, on which his lilting, instantly recognizable voice -- that vaguely sinister sing-song -- still floats above and around the beats.
Alas, Snoop uses that voice to impart alarmingly few words of wisdom. Its 19 tracks all amount to variations on his one theme: His name is Snoop, he loves weed and raw sex, and he doesn't trust anybody, male or female. The song titles -- ''Leave Me Alone,'' ''Go Away'' -- say as much as the lyrics, while ''Snoop Dogg (What's My Name Pt. 2)'' and ''Hennesey N Buddah'' are weak retreads of early hits. On ''Loosen' Control,'' he actually feels vulnerable after a breakup, then snaps out of it and denounces the woman as a bitch. The beats -- laid down by producers from Dre and Timbaland to Dre protege Battle Cat -- range from indestructible (''Issues'' and ''Ready 2 Ryde,'' Snoop's duet with Eve) to negligible (too many of the rest). Like everything he's done since 1993's Doggystyle, Tha Last Meal, starting with its tacky cartoon cover art, feels cut-rate -- yet another minor album from a major talent.
In terms of the Dre posse, the new kid on the Glock is Xzibit, the former member of Tha Alkaholiks whose cameo on Snoop's 1999 single ''B Please'' (followed by appearances on Dre and Limp Bizkit records) made Xzibit a contender after two middling solo albums. Restless, executive-produced by Dre, is Xzibit's certified shot at the big time, complete with party-joining appearances by Snoop and KRS-One.
The focus, though, remains on Xzibit's gruff, no-frills intonation, which he uses to huff and puff (''I was voted most likely to have a psychiatric evaluation'') and engage in booty calls (''Veronica/She treated my d- - - like a harmonica''). But in his own words, the former Alvin Joiner is ''too complex to break down in black and white,'' and Restless does tuck in moments of insight. Cautioning fellow inner-city kids at war in ''Front 2 Back,'' he advises, ''Leave it alone/Because the life you save might be your own,'' and he continues his earlier swipes at superficial rap stardom on ''Kenny Parker Show 2001.'' Addressed to the young son he doesn't see when he's on tour, ''Sorry I'm Away So Much'' is clumsy (''On overseas plane rides, I miss you too'') but heartfelt.
Xzibit isn't as singular a rapper as elder statesman Snoop. But Xzibit's subsidiary lineup of producers, like DJ Quik and Rockwilder, are more inclined toward leaner textures than most of the beat suppliers on Tha Last Meal, making Restless the better disc. Taking his own producing turn, Eminem joins Xzibit on ''Don't Approach Me'' and finally articulates how he's handling the media coverage of his marital problems (not surprisingly, he fantasizes about being a sniper). It's still unclear whether Xzibit will eventually rise to the level of Eminem and Snoop, but Restless demonstrates Dr. Dre was right to add the rapper to his investments. Tha Last Meal: C+ Restless: B+
Tha Last Meal SNOOP DOGG PRIORITY/NO LIMIT
Restless XZIBIT LOUD