Mary J. Blige the salva tion of R&B. In a genre
that frequently lapses into tackiness, frivolity and laughable
lewdness, Blige’s Growing Pains stands out as mature,
complex and one in a great line of soul/R&B albums that
stretches through Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Off
the Wall-era Michael Jackson.
the rigors of self-improvement are all over the album, and
Blige makes it clear that she’s come a long way from slugging
gin and hosing coke on her Seagram’s-sponsored tours of the
late ‘90s. This is also a feminist manifesto of sorts, touting
the feminine mystique in a manner that steers clear of boilerplate.
(Not the suburban-white-girl-taking-graduate-classes-in-a-Toni-Morrison-novel
brand of feminism. Another kind.)
Consider the genius lyrical sleights in the two best tracks
here: “Work That” and “Just Fine.” On expectation alone, one
would think that, thematically, they have to do with “the
booty” in the former and sexual attraction in the latter.
(I’m not being silly here; this is a genre that has a whole
subgenre of booty poetry, led by the Hamlet of the
form, R. Kelly’s “Feelin on Yo Booty.” To wit: “Feelin on
yo booty/yo booty, yo booty/Yo boocka boo-ooty, booty/booga,
booga, booga, booga, booga-ooty.”)
But “Work That” is actually about working your own personal
stuff out to the point where you’re comfortable in your own
skin, and “Just Fine” is not about being hot or sexy, but
literally about being . . . just fine: “No time for
moping around, are you kidding?/And no time for negative vibes,
cause I’m winning.”
All of which is not to say that it’s all gender politics here;
there’s also a whole lot of fun, and some incredible musical
beds for Blige’s sentiments. “Work That” piano-plinks, slams
and staggers along gloriously to the percussive rap-singing
that Blige has made her hallmark; “Just Fine” is a wheeling,
rhythmically complex paean to house music; and the powerful
“Stay Down” hunkers into some deep quiet-storming.
Blige cowrote most of the stuff here, but is smart enough
to assemble a dream team of producers and collaborators, with
guest spots by Ludacris and Usher, and production by the Neptunes,
Dre and Vidal, and Tricky, among others. Here’s a prediction:
Blige will win more Grammys . . . and she will thank God for
them. This is a tough and smart album.
By contrast, Rufus Wainwright chooses to dwell in less
tough, less sexy and less smart regions by re- creating a
1961 concert by Judy Garland. (Yes: punchlines aplenty, but
they are impolitic, aren’t they?) Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie
Hall has been hailed as daring, challenging and even (yowza!)
“performance art.” This is curious, as I don’t think that
Wainwright takes the dynamic of “young man doing big band
standards of a bygone era” shtick any farther on this album
than Harry Connick Jr. did in the late ‘80s or Michael fucking
Buble does as we speak.
The only difference here is context: Judy was a woman and
a gay icon. Rufus is a flamboyantly gay man. But void of context
the songs are no more illuminating than the latest Buble dreck.
The album is a stunt, plain and simple, and Rufus should return
to what he is: An outstanding and challenging singer-songwriter
in his own right.
Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo has built a career on a
whole different maxim: that the more inscrutable you are and
the less you say, the more people tend to lean forward with
interest. That’s why tipping his hand to his own personal
process in Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo 1992-2007
is a surprising move. This could be retitled Cuomo Does
Guided by Voices-Style Lo-fi, as it’s still the same
charging, cheeky sugar-pop brilliance that Cuomo does so well.
It’s just sloppier and a bit off-kilter.
despite such melodically goose-bumpy songs as “Superfriend”
and such fun silliness as the a cappella-driven “Dude We’re
Finally Landing” and a cover of Ice Cube’s “The Bomb,” even
the most diligent Weezer fans needn’t rush out and buy this
culmination of 15 years spent tinkering.
been well established over the years that Celine Dion
is the most wolf-shit crazy French Canadian songstress in
history, so I won’t beat that dead horse. Rather, let’s take
a serious critical approach to her new album, Taking Chances.
. . . Oh, god, I can’t do it: It’s called Taking Chances,
for crying out loud! Is covering Heart’s power ballad “Alone”
in inflated, histrionic fashion “taking chances”? Is a five-year
residency in Vegas doing the exact same show every night for
a gazillion dollars “taking chances”? I wanted to take a fresh
angle on Celine Dion, but there just isn’t anything to say
based on this sentimental, über-dramatic hogwash. Easy target,
you say? Try having to listen to this album—nothing easy about
that, dear readers.
Clan are slightly less crazy than Celine, and have released
The 8 Diagrams, blowing the collective Wu-Tang conch
shell to assemble all of the clansters from the diverse reaches
of Staten Island. In the six years that have elapsed since
2001’s Iron Flag, thankfully not much has changed.
The clan still master the raunch-hop like no others. “The
Heart Gently Weeps” is more Diddy than Wu-Tang, architecting
street-violence commentary out of George Harrison without
much reinvention. But Ghostface Killah is the star here, with
his creatively kooky romps through “Walk Around” and “White
Linen Affair.” A good palate-cleanser following Celine.