The mission: Ne-Yo knows he can sell records. But he's out to change the look and sound of R&B. The Las Vegas native is greatly influenced by the style and grace of the Rat Pack, and Year of the Gentleman's cutting-edge club beats reflect his travels in Europe. He's aiming to evoke the smooth sophistication of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., in a genre given more to street aesthetics — and has a good shot of pulling it off, thanks to a well-focused concept that accentuates the image he's already cultivated.
The ammunition: First single "Closer" is in the top 10 and rising on both the top 40 and rhythmic charts, while the new Miss Independent is climbing the urban charts. With production help from Stargate, Polow Da Don, J.R. Rotem and his own talented Compound Entertainment crew, Gentleman seems poised to churn out hits for the rest of the year.
Metallica /Death Magnetic (Friday)
The transition: The hard-rock prototype lost some of its metallic sheen after showing a soft side in 2004's touchy-feely documentary "Some Kind of Monster" and 2003's navel-gazing "St. Anger." The 2001 departure of bassist Jason Newsted troubled some fans, as did Metallica's crusade against Napster, which many file-swapping junkies perceived as motivated more by greed than artistic control.
The mission: With its first studio album in five years, the foursome is aiming to regain dominance as the undisputed kings of metal — no simple task, considering the 27-year-old band of well-heeled family men operates in a genre driven by disaffected youth.The ammunition: The heavily promoted "Death Magnetic," produced by Rick Rubin, is the first Metallica disc to feature bassist Robert Trujillo and the creative input of all four players. With fan favorite Master of Puppets as a touchstone, it returns to the aggressive thunder, precision and complexities that hooked headbangers and alarmed city fathers in the '80s. Available in four configurations (digital, vinyl, CD and an elaborate deluxe edition in a coffin case with a T-shirt, flag, poster, guitar picks and other extras), "Magnetic" is expected to enjoy a high chart launch, with sales sustained by a North American tour starting Oct. 21 and immediate playability in Guitar Hero III.
Jessica Simpson / Do You Know (Released Sept. 9)
The transition: The former Gracie Allen-styled Newlywed is slipping on her Daisy Dukes. Now that the sparkle has dimmed from her dance-pop days, the Texas native is eyeing country's greener pastures.
The mission: This Cowboy's sweetheart has to convince skeptical country fans — and, perhaps more important, radio programmers — that she sees country as more than an easy way back into the spotlight. "Come On Over," the first single, peaked at a respectable but hardly impressive No. 17 on USA TODAY's country airplay chart.
The ammunition: Simpson has enlisted high-powered help to make her case. Producer Brett James co-wrote Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel." John Shanks, the album's other producer, has a client list that includes Keith Urban, Bon Jovi and Kelly Clarkson. Dolly Parton wrote the title track for Simpson, then sang it with her.
AC/DC /Black Ice (Oct. 20)