Mary J. Blige, "Stronger with Each Tear" (Geffen) [2 STARS out of 4]
The personal travails that once characterized the career of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul may now be in the distant past, but that hasn't made Mary J. Blige's familiar themes of self-empowerment and transcendence through struggle any less effective on recent releases. In fact, the relatively happy and healthy artist behind "The Breakthrough" (2005) and "Growing Pains" (2007) arguably held out the hope that if she could survive and thrive, her listeners could, too, no matter the circumstances.
The problem with the singer's ninth studio album isn't that there's no more drama in Blige's life or lyrics. It's that the unadventurous, overly fussy and pandering productions don't provide the setting that her heartfelt vocals deserve.
"Never let a girl cook in your kitchen," Blige sings with a wink, but Tricky Stewart and the Dream, the sonic craftsmen behind "Kitchen," never turn the heat up the way they should, instead delivering a groove that would have been more appropriate for lightweights such as Alicia Keys or Joss Stone. Stargate, Ne-Yo and Polow Da Don fare no better, and on the single "The One," Darkchild even makes the absurd mistake of turning up the Auto-Tune.
Blige only really finds a groove worthy of her talents during the old-school slow-burn of the closing track "I Can See in Color," produced by Raphael Saadiq and appearing on the soundtrack of "Precious." Longtime fans will find other moments of pleasure on the disc, but this is the tune that will renew their faith--and leave them wondering what an album-length collaboration between Blige and Saadiq could be
Spoon, "Transference" (Merge) [4 STARS]
Mulling over the goal behind recording the seventh studio album from his angular art-punk band Spoon during a recent interview with the New York Times, bandleader Britt Daniel said, "I just didn't want it to sound as fretted over--and in a way that's a total lie, because it was totally fretted over." This contradiction has been at the heart of Spoon's appeal for 17 years now: The group's best songs sound effortless, almost tossed off, and you only realize that they're also brilliant and irresistible when you find yourself still humming them six months or six years later.
Some of the albums Daniel has made with drummer Jim Eno, the one other constant amid a revolving roster of bandmates during the last 17 years, have emphasized artistic experimentation (such as "Kill the Moonlight" in 2002), while others have been more straightforward melodically (including the group's last and most successful disc, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" in 2007). All of them are built on the familiar ingredients of atmospheric drones, minimal but propulsive grooves and cryptic Beat-poetic lyrics delivered in an inscrutable monotone--hallmarks of the band's most obvious influences, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground--and among its peers, only Yo La Tengo has so consistently done so much with so little for so long.
"Transference," the band's first self-produced disc, doesn't radically differ from anything it's done in the past--it's a little more laidback and hypnotic than "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga," better suited for driving on a long road trip than filling the dance floor at a house party. But from the quietly dramatic opener "Before Destruction," through the unexpected ballad "Goodnight Laura," to the fractured closing collage of "Nobody Gets Me but You," this is another welcome example of the band's casual genius.
Lil Wayne, "Rebirth" (Cash Money) [1 STAR out of 4]
While many hip-hop fans will challenge the artistic validity of the oft-repeated claim by New Orleans' Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. that he's "the best rapper alive," his commercial accomplishments are undeniable: His last album, "Tha Carter III" (2008), sold more than three million copies, garnered eight Grammy nominations and gave us one of the silliest guilty-pleasure hits of recent years with "Lollipop." But through it all, just like all the NBA and NFL stars who dream of trading places with him, the artist known as Lil Wayne has harbored a secret desire: He just wants to rock, man.
With a release date that's been pushed back half a dozen times since January 2009, Weezy's "rock album" was starting to seem more like a myth than a set of new music. But now that it's actually set to arrive in record stores on Feb. 2, it's obvious that it's actually a wildly misguided experiment that would have been better off remaining a rumor, especially since it's likely to be the rapper's last statement before reporting for a year in jail on charges of gun possession.
Some of the biggest problems are the same ones plaguing much of Lil Wayne's catalog: the annoying Auto-Tuned sing-speak of his choruses, the empty sexual boasts and clichéd street bragging of his rhymes, and the generic quality of many of his beats. The new twists are that those rhythms are delivered by a live, stomping rhythm section--though that hardly makes them more appealing--and they're decorated by a lot of hackneyed hair-metal guitar wank, as well as the occasional flourish of Queen-like glam-rock and Coldplay-style arena melodrama.
"This is that rock s---/This is hip-hop, b---," Wayne chants at one point, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction. Or maybe he's just setting up the argument he'd like the album to inspire. But "is it rock or is it rap" isn't the real question here; that would be, "How could anyone have thought this forced, joyless, plodding Frankenstein's mess was worth the trouble of releasing?"