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Just like a top pro athlete, Paul Wall has his eyes firmly locked on the title. In his case, it’s the crown he wears as the self-proclaimed People’s Champ, and he’s clearly in a frame of mind to defend his gold on his latest studio effort, Heart of a Champion.

Right from the opener, “Take Notes,” it’s apparent that Wall still has a hunger for his craft. That’s something that’s always nice to hear – no one likes a lazy rapper – but it’s even better coming from someone who’s been in the game for a bit and could easily be putting it on cruise control at this point.

Wall has always had some natural charisma on the mic, and while he is never going to be known as a punchline master, he does have the ability to string together some clever lines. The down side is that he usually restricts his creativity to coming up with new ways to describe how he keeps getting his money, and as a result, songs like “Stay Iced Up” and “Pocket Fulla Presidents” all kind of run together without distinguishing themselves.

Even when he goes in a different direction, like teaming with Devin the Dude and Z-Ro to talk about how they “Smoke Everyday,” Wall isn’t exactly saying anything new. But just when Heart of a Champion is about to fall into the pattern of monotony that plagued his last two albums, it’s saved by a few welcome guest spots and some above average production from a surprising source.

Putting their beef behind them, Wall and Chamillionaire represent Houston together on the head nodder “Round Here,” while Bun B and Kid Sister lay down verses on the assertive “Imma Get It.” In an example of an unlikely collaboration that actually comes off nicely, Raekwon, Jay Electronica and Yelawolf feature on “Live It,” talking about how even hustlers need to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.

The latter two tracks are produced by Wall’s buddy and Expensive Taste partner Travis Barker. Though the Blink-182 drummer has worked with Wall before, his beats use brass hits, saxophone loops and more up-tempo drums to stand out from the slow, bass-and-synth heavy sound that dominates the rest of the album.

It’s possible that since he’s established himself with four releases under his belt that Wall knows what his fans want and simply wants to give it to them. That’s commendable, but it’s the times he steps just a little outside his routine that give Champion its heart and makes it worth a listen.

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