Well, a question mark lingers over the group's fifth studio release, all right, but it isn't the one James was hoping for. Instead, the query is how the heck the group could have expected to pass off such a sprawling, chaotic and ultimately unsatisfying mess as inspired experimentation or stylistic diversity.
Working with producer Joe Chiccarelli (the White Stripes, the Shins), it's as if the band was being steered by a GPS set to lead it into the most troublesome terrain imaginable, veering away from the reliable routes of alt-country, folk-rock and dramatic guitar jams, man, in favor of funk grooves, electronic ambient bleeps and blatant, embarrassing Prince tributes. While there are a few echoes of earlier triumphs, notably in the rousing "I'm Amazed," serious missteps such as the title track, the "Midnight at the Oasis" '70s AM radio tribute "Thank You Too!" and the unbelievably, unbearably annoying "Highly Suspicious" are so dire, the overall disc never recovers.
The themes of acting impulsively and bravely leaping into the void permeate the proceedings. "If you touch me, well I just think I'll scream/'Cause it's been so long, since someone challenged me/And made me think about the way things are/Made me think about the way they could be," James trills in "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2." But sometimes when you leap, you fall, and there is no inherent nobility in experimentation if all the results just fail.
RAP-Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III" (Cash Money) Midway through his sixth official album -- already well on its way to meeting industry expectations as the bestselling release of 2008 and widely hailed by critics as a classic, thanks to early leaks and mix-tape previews -- the former Dwayne Michael Carter employs his trademark vocodered/electronically altered vocals in a song called "Phone Home," croaking, "We are not the same/I am a Martian.... They don't make 'em like me no more/Matter fact, they never made it like me before."
The wildly inventive black artist as cosmically inspired extra-terrestrial routine is one with a noble history, encompassing talents as diverse as Sun Ra and George Clinton. But Weezy, as the laconic, singsong New Orleans rapper is also justifiably known, works way too hard to hone his eccentric image on "Tha Carter III" -- as opposed to his prolific flood of Internet product, which is much loved for its off-the-cuff freestyle charms -- and it's hard to accept that any bona fide alien would have caved so quickly to his record company's demands that this big bid for crossover superstardom had something for every demographic imaginable, violence-loving gangstas to hook-crazed teenyboppers and Robin Thicke-adoring soccer moms to ADD-suffering indie hipsters.
As scattered and unfocused as this collection is, there's no denying that several tracks midway through are almost strong enough to justify the hype, chief among them the two musically inventive, lyrically inspired jams crafted by Kanye West, "Comfortable" and "Let the Beat Build." But other tracks that are fun lyrically are dragged down by lazy musical backings ("Dr. Carter," where Weezy's operating-room spoof suffers from producer Swizz Beat's lazy lift of a
straight David Axelrod riff) or vice-versa. ("Playing with Fife," Streetrunner's re-invention of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" in collaboration with old-school soul singer Betty Wright, is wasted on a Lil Wayne lyric that seems to have been devoted to being as inanely sexist as possible.)
Ah, yes: inane sexism. That, of course, brings us to "Lollipop," the record-breaking, chart-topping single destined to be the summer soundtrack of 2008. Musically irresistible, it's not that the track is thematically reprehensible; some of the greatest hits in pop history have paid subtly veiled homage to oral sex, "Please Please Me," "Sugar, Sugar" and the B-52s' "Roam" among them. It's just that Lil Wayne is irredeemably lazy, mired in what New York Times critic Jon Pareles called the single entendre (why trouble with two when one will do?) and, like much of the album, falling frustratingly short of what could and should have been a career climax. Even a sucker deserves better.