Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rihanna -- Rated R

Rated R

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: "Rated R" should continue Rihanna's streak of smash hit singles.

Cons: Her reliance on song-writers leaves the album's intended message vague and unclear.

Bottom Line: Rihanna rebounds from personal struggles to remain one of the biggest stars in music.

Recommended Tracks:

Hard (ft. Jeezy)

Fire Bomb

There is no way to review Rihanna's new album Rated R without mentioning Chris Brown. After what happened earlier this year, their relationship is the proverbial elephant in the room.

The lead single "Russian Roulette" ("Know that I must pass this test / So I just pull the trigger") and its dark metaphor for love? The anthemic songs about how great she is on her own and the reflective ballads about love that every R&B album has? While she rarely explicits mentions their relationship, almost everything about Rated R could be plausibly be interpreted to be about Brown in some way.

It's unfortunate, because Rated R should be judged on its own merits. Rihanna has become one of the most consistent hit-makers in pop music, and this album continues that trend. Five or six songs could easily be top 10 singles -- from the Jeezy- and Slash-assisted club smashes ("Hard" and "Rockstar 101" respectively) to the slower ballads ("Fire Bomb" and "Te Amo") and songs that ably mix both styles ("Photographs" and "Wait Your Turn").

Almost every one of the album's 12 songs has a strong, memorable and catchy chorus. A superstar group of producers and songwriters -- headlined by StarGate, the team behind "So Sick" and "Unfaithful" -- give Rihanna a varied musical backdrop (from slow pianos to R&B-tinged guitars and electronic club music) that still fits together cohesively. This allows Rihanna to stretch herself as a singer like she never has before.

Rated R should only further establish Rihanna as one of music's pre-eminent superstars. And as for Chris Brown, maybe that's the only message she needs to send -- success is still the best revenge.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Timbaland -- Shock Value II

Shock Value 2

Rating: 5/5 stars

Pros: One of the best producers in the last 20 years creates a futuristic new sound combining R&B, rock, rap and pop.

Cons: He doesn't have much on his mind besides partying and girls.

Bottom Line: Timbaland's long-awaited musical masterpiece.

Recommended Tracks:

Marching On (ft. One Republic)

Tomorrow in a Bottle (ft. Chad Kroeger and Sebastian)

Before the Shock Value series, Timbaland never had a signature CD as a solo artist, unlike fellow superstar producers like Dr. Dre and Kanye West. Producers can showcase their talent in that setting, free to unleash their creative id without compromise and look for inspiration in unlikely places. Shock Value II is the CD Timbaland has been building his entire career toward, the work of a great musician at the top of his game.

After more than a decade of consistent success, he doesn't need to justify his musical decisions. Shock Value II reflects that -- featuring everyone from Daughtry and Chad Kroeger to Miley Cyrus, the Fray, Drake and Justin Timberlake. Timbaland tweaks the music for each artist but keeps a consistent sound -- a futuristic mash-up of R&B, rock, pop and rap destined to be copied endlessly.

And with such a diverse and talented guest-list, the album feels like a compilation CD of the year's biggest hits. Nearly every song could conceivably be released as a single; in theory he could have a big hit in four different genres -- rap ("Say Something"), rock ("Marching On or "Long Way Down"), pop ("Undertow" or "Lose Control" ) and R&B ("Carry Out").

For the most part, each song celebrates a different aspect of how great he (and his guests) are. Drake pokes fun at girls from his past ("I should wanna go back to the one I started with / But I'm addicted to this life it's gonna be hard to quit") while Daughtry reminisces on his meteoric ascent ("I hear it's such a long way down / And the climb back up is something I can do without").

Timbaland serves as a unifying force, as a DJ introducing each act while occasionally delivering a rap verse. He's nowhere near as talented on the mic as Dre and Kanye, but he doesn't detract from the music. He doesn't have much to say: "It you assume my life is wonderful, then y'all right" is about as introspective as he gets on Shock Value II. It's an album designed to play from start to finish at a house party, and it will many times over the next few months.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

50 Cent -- Before I Self-Destruct

Before I Self Destruct (CD + DVD)

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pro: 50 eschews recent pop-music flirtations and returns to roots as a gangster rapper.

Con: Minimalist album (no big guests outside of Shady/Aftermath and first single "Baby By Me") highlights 50's flaws as a rapper.

Bottom Line: 50 hasn't been relevant since "I Get Money"; B4ISD won't change that.

Recommended Tracks:


OK, You're Right

50 Cent tries to reconnect with his gangster rap roots on his new album Before I Self Destruct. Besides a few Dre tracks and the lead single "Baby By Me", the album has a consistent and monotonous sound -- harshly melodic beats with hard pianos and drums behind them. With no other guest rappers besides Eminem, the album rests entirely on 50's shoulders.

Such a bright spotlight does him no favors. He rarely switches up his flow, mostly sticking with the same gravelly sing-song rhyme scheme that sounds like he's talking out of one side of his mouth. And he's certainly not the cleverest lyricist, using lazy metaphors like "I've got more guns than a gun store" and "I'm like Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness; in my hood we hustle in pursuit of the same shit." Eminem out-raps him so badly on "Psycho" it's embarrassing.

B4ISD is a full-throated return to the hardcore lyrics of his underground years: "You want some, come get some / It's murder one when you see my gun / I just squeeze and squeeze till the whole clip done / You just bleed and bleed until the police come." That's the most surprising part of the album -- 50 has made hundreds of millions of dollars over the past seven years, yet he doesn't sound very happy.

The only reason girls sleep with him is to "have a baby by me and be a millionaire." Even his usually witty one-liners are tinged with bitterness -- banished G-Unit members Young Buck and Game are a "junkie" and a "queer" respectively. The scars from a messy custody battle with the mother of his son are still fresh: "She don't care about me, she just wants some cash / I'm thinking damn girl we used to be friends."

Anytime he shows any vulnerability, he quickly scrambles back to the psychological safety of the gangster pose. He mentions the pain he felt when his mother blamed him for the missing furniture of his crack-head uncle stole, then immediately boasts "he pistol-whipped that (expletive) till his face was purple" to retaliate.

As "Psycho" shows, a rapper as talented as Eminem and a producer as talented as Dre can make great music about nothing, but 50 doesn't have nearly the skill of his mentors. He spends most of B4ISD trying to scare us, when it really sounds like he just needs a hug.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jay Z -- The Blueprint 3

The Blueprint 3 [Explicit]

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pro: The best-produced album since his comeback, BP3 is Jay's triumphant return to the throne.

Con: Jay's self-absorption and navel-gazing can wear over an entire album.

Bottom Line: A worthy heir to the original Blueprint.

Recommended Tracks:


Empire State of Mind

On BP3, Jay-Z boasts he's gone "from Brooklyn to down in Tribeca next to DeNiro." He's gone from bragging about how many bricks he moved out the back of his trunk to bragging about how good his seats were at the Pacquaio fight. But no matter the change in lifestyle, the underlying message remains the same: Jay-Z is still pretty damn impressed with Jay-Z.

Dubbing himself "the new Sinatra," he raps over a series of glossy, high-budget beats full of live instrumentation -- strings, trumpets and hand-claps. It's the best production he's gotten since his comeback from retirement in 2006.

BP3 follows in the vein of his first 10 solo albums -- all of which, he reminds us, have "gone No. 1"; all morphing his life (teenage drug dealer "called a camel" to multi-millionaire CEO married to the world's biggest pop star) into a Charles Dickens story. On "Empire State of Mind" he takes a contemplative ride in his new Lexus through the McDonald's parking lot in Harlem where he bought drugs to an old apartment where he stashed them.

There's no hint of the actual person behind the narrative he has constructed, nothing separating Sean Carter from Jay-Z. He only gets emotional when discussing his career, addressing the fans and critics "who want [Jay] to fall from the top" on song ("Hate") after song ("What We Talking About") after song ("Already Home") after song ("Reminder").

He notes he's "in the hall already, people compare me to Biggie and Pac already, like I'm gone already." The guest list is another glimpse at his mortality: Where the first Blueprint had only one guest appearance, the third is filled with big-name artists (Alicia Keyes, Kanye, Jeezy and Rihanna) and newcomers like Drake and Kid Cudi. His first attempt at a comeback single -- the bombastic "DOA" which called for an end to the auto-tune phenomenon a year after it had already peaked -- was met with shrugs. Kanye and Rihanna overshadow him on the first single "Run This Town", a drastic role reversal from only five years ago, when he was the biggest name on their debut albums.

The album closes with a melodramatic sample of an 80's glam-rock synthesizer balled called "Young Forever." But no one actually does, not even Jay-Z.

Jadakiss -- The Last Kiss

Rating: 2/5 stars.

Pros: Jadakiss sticks with the same formula that made him a mixtape legend.

Cons: He hasn't grown as a rapper in almost a decade, making him sound anachronistic.

Bottom Line: If you liked his last two albums (which you probably didn't), this won't be too disappointing.

Recommended Tracks:

What If

Grind Hard

Jadakiss first made a name for himself when his rap group LOX released a moving tribute to their label mate Biggie Smalls. But in the decade since, rap has increasingly shifted away from the New York mix-tape scene and its emphasis on hardcore street rhymes. Or as Jadakiss tells it "rappers is more commercially successful now but the heart's a lot weaker."

So how can one of Biggie's contemporaries remain relevant in 2009? The first single "By My Side" features a hook from Ne-Yo and an appearance from Lil' Wayne. But their fans aren't going to remember a rapper who hasn't had an album out in five years.

Jada's last album (2004's Kiss of Death) was carried by the unexpected success of "Why", an eclectic collection of rhetorical questions. So he tries to catch lightning in a bottle twice with "What If", a duet with Nas where they ponder Mayan prophecies, Michael Vick and Hurricane Katrina.

Rather than actual songs, both singles are more like freestyles, stream-of-consciousness raps where an artist is given license to ramble as long as they produce the occasional witty line. There's a similarity to his years of work on the mix-tape scene, where his raspy baritone made him a legend. But ask him to carry an idea for four minutes and you're in trouble.

Most of The Last Kiss revolves around aimless tough talk and idle boasting without any coherent song structure. So when Jada does attempt something different ("every good woman needs a thug"), it's so out of place that it seems contrived. It's the same fundamental problem that ruined his previous two solo albums, which even he admitted were uninspired. And in this climate, The Last Kiss is probably his last chance.