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Witch's brew 

Shaman of the Dungeon Family still casting spells

Erin "Witchdoctor" Johnson's first nationally distributed album since 1998, The Diary of an American Witchdoctor, returns to the crossroads. It ranges from "Mercy," where he welcomes you to eat food out of his hand, to "Spell on Them Hoes," where he brags, "I can have any bitch." He claims to need money like oxygen, but admits that the world wants to curse him because he's "still choosing earthly," a space between heaven and hell.

The Diary of an American Witchdoctor's 18 tracks come from several albums Witchdoctor sold over the Internet. Jason DeMarco, an executive at Adult Swim, discovered Witchdoctor via his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/ejthewitchdoctor). He was so impressed that he made Witchdoctor the first real artist on Williams Street Records, a label previously known for issuing Adult Swim-related projects such as the Aqua Teen Hunger Force soundtrack and the cartoon band Dethklok.

The resulting Diary of an American Witchdoctor nearly comes off as a museum piece, complete with a long (and somewhat portentous) essay that compares Witchdoctor to "the phoenix, the mythical bird that has long been the symbol of the city." Contributing producers include A Piece of Strange (the production team behind indie-rap group Cunninlynguists) and Organized Noize's Ray Murray. Together, they create a watery blues that sounds like vintage Dungeon Family.

But Diary has one major flaw: It's inundated with distracting appearances from unknown MCs (with the noteworthy exception of Khujo from Goodie Mob, who drops a guest verse on "Part of Your Brain"). While they're competent enough, they clutter an album that, if you believe its title, should be an unfiltered look at a modern-day rap shaman.

The quality of its songs varies widely, too, from the brilliant "Mercy" to the unremarkable battle record "Semi-Automatic." Witchdoctor fans are used to that. Even his much-hailed debut, A S.W.A.T. Healin' Ritual, was wildly uneven. But it's not the actual songs that make Witchdoctor so compelling, but his deeply personal investment in his music that gives it haunting power. When you hear him, you feel like he's singing directly to you.

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