[HEAVY HIP-HOP] Sandpeople's Iame has gone through some fascinating changes in the past two years. Physically, he's almost unrecognizable, having lost considerable weight after cutting alcohol and marijuana from his diet. His profile has changed, as well: He has gone from trying to sell the occasional album to making lots of records and giving them away for free. And as a lyricist, he has grown leaps and bounds, delving deeper in self-examination that's taken him from being a tough guy with a soft spot to a truly vulnerable and soul-baring artist. The MC's new album, Lame$tream—which finds him rapping over fantastically underrated local producer Smoke M2D6's best approximation of mainstream rap beats (think Ying Yang Twins meets Daft Punk)—is easily his best album to date. It is a deep record that is begging for a weightier title. Whether it's accessible, though, is another question.

Lame$tream doesn't sound like anything the Sandpeople crew has produced in the past—Smoke's beats are dark and brooding rather than big and woozy—and never has Iame been this honest in facing his demons. "We're so busy we only see each other for an hour a day/ And we're so tired we don't know what to say," he explains to his wife on "April (No Thaw)." "And I just gotta make more, though it keeps me depressed/ 'Cause to sell it I gotta tour, which means I'll see her even less."

For every bleak, heartbreaking moment that makes the listener ask why Iame doesn't give up music entirely, there's a high-concept song like "Ambien" or "Cleanup Crew" that shines a light on the MC's powerful grasp of storytelling. This is an MC at the very top of his game, but it sounds like the game is killing him. Truth hurts, and Lame$tream is a difficult listen. It's also a profoundly rewarding one that ranks with the best local hip-hop releases in memory.

SEE IT: Iame plays Backspace, 115 NW 5th Ave., 248-2900, on Saturday, May 5, with VTRN, Wildcard and Saint Warhead. 9 pm. $5 cover, $10 with CD. All ages.