While many established rappers are being downsized from major-label deals to “independent” contracts, Harlem MC Jim Jones is climbing up the food chain. After sharing the limelight with Juelz Santana and friend-turned-foe Cam’ron in Harlem group Dipset, Jones has become the act’s most popular member thanks to his 2006 monster hit, “We Fly High,” and his laid-back, populist appeal. Though most critics have never cottoned to him, his Columbia Records debut, Pray IV Reign, is arguably 2009’s biggest hip-hop release so far and, for the most part, won’t disappoint his fans. He maintains a great ear for beats and melodies, and tracks such as “This Is the Life,” “Let It Out” and “Pop Champagne” show off his hypnotic, breathy delivery. Sure, Jones can be crude—“This Is for My Bitches,” for example, isn’t as polite as it sounds—but throughout the album, he successfully exploits his Everyman appeal, particularly on songs such as “Rain,” a truly moving story of urban decay. Rather than posturing as a bloodthirsty criminal like so many other MCs, Jones portrays himself as a crowd pleaser who happens to be in the right place at the right time. It’s hard to argue with that.