AL GREEN "Lay It Down" ★★★
Let's be clear: Al Green is never again scaling the supersexy, ultra-vulnerable Memphis-soul heights he reached under the aegis of Willie Mitchell on Hi Records in the early 1970s. But "Lay It Down," produced by Philadelphia soulmeisters James Poyser and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, is as close as Green has gotten to that high-altitude soul Valhalla in decades. Unlike his overrated reunions with Hi producer Willie Mitchell on "I Can't Stop" (2003) and "Everything's OK" (2005), "Lay It Down" combines plush, cushioned R&B grooves with deeply relaxed love songs that live and breathe. Green's upper range is still in finely expressive condition, and more important, the easily distracted soul man sounds focused on coaxing convincingly real emotional content out of songs like "Too Much" and "All I Need." The guest appearances, by Corinne Bailey Rae, Anthony Hamilton, and John Legend, plus the Dap-Kings Horns, are all sharp and to the point, and ably assist Green in his effort to reveal the old-school tricks he's still got up his sleeve.
BUN B "II Trill" ★★★
Perseverance, thy name is Bun B. But when friend and musical partner Pimp C was discovered dead last December from a codeine overdose, you wondered how much more the man could take.
That recent somberness shows up on "Angel in the Sky," one of the best tracks on "II Trill," Bun's second solo album. Another tribute, "Pop It 4 Pimp," isn't nearly as bittersweet but is nearly as good. And it illustrates the divide Bun so masterfully walks across: He's as good at making heartfelt tribute tracks as he is at making dirty club tracks. (He's also good at making friends - other standouts include the woozy posse cut "You're Everything," the Lil Wayne back-and-forth "Damn, I'm Cold" and the Young Buck-assisted "If I Die II Night.")
But "II Trill" reveals a new talent - Bun B as judge and jury. Having embraced his role as rap's elder statesman with humility and grace, Bun lets loose on "Get Cha Issue," mowing through crooked preachers, crooked police and crooked politicians. It's the clear highlight, and nothing else on the album comes close in terms of social commentary. But nothing else needs to. Bun's good at moving on.