Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New Releases from 2011's Fellas...Thus Far

Chris Brown: F.A.M.E. (Jive)
On Chris Brown's fourth album F.A.M.E. ("Forgiving All My Enemies" or "Fans Are My Everything"), the immediate feeling when the listener immerses themselves inside the album is the frenetic range of moods: anger, sensuality, swagger, flirtatiousness. Brown navigates each mentioned mode with dexterity. The songwriting, which has the hefty task of bringing across these themes isn't always up to par.Thankfully, the hooks are hooky, the verses sincere or salaciously witty.

The mean mugging dual hits of "Deuces" and "Look at Me Now," each featuring a bevy of supporting hip-hop cat daddies, strike in their sturdy productions. They will or won't appeal to each Chris Brown fan depending on how they like their urban Brown served. If you're looking for more tongue-in-cheek fun, visit the Wiz Khalifa assisted "Bomb" or the boudoir come-hither on "Beg For It," both work without roaming into extremes that parts of the album fall into.

Unsurprisingly, the safest material is Brown's ballads. Assured and handsome, Brown twists charisma out of "All Back" and "Should've Kissed You." "Beautiful People" conveys an affection toward Italo-pop, which Brown fits into nicely. Electronic music, in various mediums, has been the rage in popular music for the last six years. While Brown wasn't the first to wear it, his donning of it on the single "Forever" and Graffiti (2009) showed an ear for the sound outside of the "thump-thump-thump" incarnations favored by everyone from Usher to Lady Gaga.

The two standouts are "Say It With Me" and "Oh My Love" making Brown the leader of this interpolation of electro values into R&B today. The songs favor layered forms with synaptic shattering drops, swooshes, and rushes that bring to mind latter day Jamiroquai funktronica. "Oh My Love" combines grimy verses with mannered choruses, a delicious musical versus battle between his own psychoses. F.A.M.E. is a transitional work with enough strong material that professes that Brown is the one to watch in the coming years.

Duran Duran: All You Need is Now (Tape Modern/S-Curve)
Duran Duran's 13th studio spinner All You Need is Now will have a different meaning to the two largest factions of their fan base. For the crowd who've anxiously, and obnoxiously, crowed for the glitter days of Duran's career triumvirate from 1981 through 1983, Now is everything and more.

The flipside is that the audience who cheered for Duran Duran as they evolved, even when it wasn't to commercial or critical merit, may eye Now with an air of suspicion. It's their first return to a specific soundfield in their history.

Somehow Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylors John and Roger, along with producer Mark Ronson mined the ore of their glory period without it coming off as a surrender. In their best form, Duran Duran offers one of their slinkiest forms with "The Man Who Stole a Leopard" featuring Kelis. With an existing bank of ballad capitol "Before the Rain" is another addition to the treasure pile. An argument could be made that when their knack for experimentation was exploited for commercial gain on Red Carpet Massacre (2007), the door toward nostalgia didn't seem so taboo. Maybe it was an acquiesce to the idea that only returning to the era of "The Reflex" would bear fruit? That notion is silly to consider given Duran Duran's prolific output in three decades.

Ignoring Ronson's ego-maniacal statements about Now being the "true" follow-up to Rio (1982), the title track knowingly winks at their experienced fans with a distorted, recurring synth line owing more to Medazzaland (1997) than Rio. All You Need is Now is a pilgrimage to nostalgia in certain degrees, but one earned in the blood, sweat, and tears of evolution. Rather than an admission of defeat, it’s a full circle acknowledgement of where they've come from, and where they will still journey.

Lupe Fiasco: L.A.S.E.R.S. (Atlantic)
For an artist, the road to authentic expression ne'er did run smooth, especially in hip-hop. Lupe Fiasco's L.A.S.E.R.S. ("Love Always Shines Everytime Remember (2) Smile") went through several stages, at one point touted as three part effort to herald retirement. When L.A.S.E.R.S. became mired within label politics, Fiasco's fans took to the streets (literally) to free the record from Atlantic's oppression. At the time of the release, two different albums in one were presented. On one side, slick cuts for appeal to the ringtone oriented charts hid cryptic messages ("State Run Radio"). The other half picks up where The Cool (2007) left off.

"Letting Go," "Words I Never Said," and "Out of My Mind" are brittle, metallic wonders. The mood roils off each track as impassioned and restless. The features, in running order as mentioned, of Sarah Green, Skylar Grey, and Trey Songz are like vocal wallpaper, decent but easily peeled away. This issue was evident on The Cool with its top heavy features that were unnecessary. Two Lupe Fiasco classics will be associated with L.A.S.E.R.S.: "Till I Get There" and "All Black Everything". The former a bittersweet view into Fiasco's battle to remain relevant in a market that doesn't thrive on intelligence, the latter a Utopian lyrical masterpiece. Lupe Fiasco has been forthcoming in the press for this album that it was a labor, one that saw him compromise. L.A.S.E.R.S is the soundtrack of a man at the crossroads of creative censorship.

Ricky Martin: Música + Alma + Sexo (Sony)
Martin has worn several visages, none hinting at his musical ambitions during a four decade run. His most galvanizing success came by riding the crest of the American "Latin Pop Explosion" that boomed in 1999. The last 10 years had Martin return back to his Spanish roots when the Americans grew fickle. With Martin's public outing as a gay man recently, it put a level of pressure to what his music would sound like.

His ninth record Música + Alma + Sexo ("Music + Soul + Sex") rightfully gives Ricky Martin a sonic identity. Working with producer Desmond Child, Martin's tone, always best in his native tongue, burns on "Más," a rousing, summer stinger. The slow burners, Martin staples in Spanish or English, vocally beat with urgency as heard on "Tú Y Yo" and the "Cántame Tu Vida." The album translates Martin's recent life affirmations as a gay, Hispanic man making Música + Alma + Sexo human despite the supposed language barrier.

Mint Condition: 7 (Shanachie)
Twenty years have been kind to the men of Mint Condition. Stokely Williams, Ricky Kinchen, Homer O'Dell, Larry Waddell, and Jeffrey Allen have weathered a host of changes. Changes never kept Mint Condition from retooling their Minneapolis R&B to precision though. 7, as the title implies, is their seventh record and the songs featured are still mint.

Vocally leading the brigade, Williams is boldly in control of his gift. Those pipes are on display on the psychedelia of "Mind Slicker." The band itself gets to business on the drum and bass quake of "Can't Get Away." Their "band" focus, perennial for Mint Condition records, portray them as consummate studio professionals who transfer live energy to their records. No show of age or wear 20 years into the game, Mint Condition's claim as the last "R&B band" is not unfounded.

[Editor's Note: All records currently available at music retailers, physical & online.-QH]

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