The concept album has been something of a rare beast in hip-hop. There have been plenty of rap albums with a cinematic feel, but very few actually tie things together with a coherent narrative throughout. Leave it to Prince Paul, long one of hip-hop's most imaginative producers, to assemble the first successful rap opera in A Prince Among Thieves. Not only does it maintain a coherent story line via skits that actually aren't filler, it manages to stay musically compelling and focused throughout. And that's no mean feat, considering the array of guest stars and the huge range of styles Prince Paul employs for their characters' supporting tracks. Perhaps the most daring aspect of the record is that it frames the story as fiction, with no pretense of the realism (or illusion thereof) that hardcore prides itself on. The story concerns a young rapper named Tariq (played by the Juggaknots' Breeze), who needs $1000 to complete a demo tape for a pending record deal. For quick cash, he turns to his friend True (Sha), once his mentor in the rap game but now a drug dealer who secretly resents Tariq's good fortune. As True immerses Tariq in the underworld, a tragedy of cinematic proportions unfolds. The star-studded cast features Kool Keith as a weapons dealer, Big Daddy Kane as a pimp, Chubb Rock as a gang kingpin, Chris Rock and De La Soul as crack addicts, Everlast as a crooked cop, and Sadat X and Xzibit as prison inmates. Yet the much lesser-known Sha and Breeze shine even in this select company, which is part of the reason the album works. The main reason, however, is that Prince Paul sounds like he can do anything, and do it well. A Prince Among Thieves touches on every sound he's ever tried on record, and it's conceptually airtight; in both senses, it's his magnum opus, and the crown jewel of a brilliant career.