**1/2 NO DOUBT
After some serious soul-searching on last year's "Return of Saturn," Gwen and the gang come back with a dance record. Not "dance" as in electronica--although there's a bit of that in the buoyant William Orbit co-production "Making Out"--but as in danceable and generally upbeat. Although adventurous for the group, the songs on "Rock Steady" too often sound recycled from other vaguely familiar tunes.
Such selections as the burbling, propulsive romp "Hella Good" have a modern feel somewhere between Garbage and Madonna, which should appeal to listeners familiar with singer Gwen Stefani's recent guest spots on Moby and Eve hits. The album's big-pop sound suits the fluffy material, which mixes pledges of romantic devotion with undercurrents of insecurity in Stefani's tough-yet-traditional-girl style.
The music reflects the Orange County-bred quartet's roots as well. Mining dub and dancehall reggae influences on such tracks as "Underneath It All" (which many will read as a valentine to Stefani's rock-star beau, Gavin Rossdale), the players even employ Jamaican toasters Lady Saw and Bounty Killer, along with co-producers Sly & Robbie. They also work (or, really, over-work) the '80s synth-rock thing on such Ric Ocasek co-productions as "Don't Let Me Down."
With so many collaborators (including Prince) giving each track the right vibe, it's a wonder the band still sounds like itself. But not even the sonic polish can make the ideas more interesting.
*** MOBB DEEP
These masters of macabre create the highest-quality hard-core hip-hop on the East Coast. With their fifth album, Prodigy and Havoc spin another brutal batch of barbaric assaults with uncompromising edge.
After being dissed by Jay-Z on his recent "The Blueprint" album, Mobb Deep returns the slights--on the tense "Crawlin," for instance, Prodigy questions Jay-Z's sexual orientation and suggests he was afraid to attend the recent Source Awards.
These attacks mirror the type of barbs leveled at mostly anonymous adversaries throughout the rest of the collection. Much of gangster rap has a cartoonish quality, but the steely Prodigy and the stoic Havoc sound all the more intimidating thanks to the ominous sonic backings of Havoc, Scott Storch, the Alchemist and EZ-Elpee. Even though most of the Queens, N.Y., duo's focus still centers on the execution of street-level justice, the two show an increased interest in detailing their interaction with women on "Infamy." "Hey Luv (Anything)," featuring R&B; group 112, and "Handcuffs" demonstrate the pair's rarely seen sensitive side, although the beats are still as rough as a Brillo pad.
**** JORGE MORENO
Artists often treat fusion like a recipe--a dash of Andean flute here, a dose of rap there. But this Cuban American singer-songwriter shows that true fusion is an act of creation, like conceiving a child. In his thrilling debut on Madonna's new Latin label, Moreno has given birth to a scintillating style as fresh and adventurous as a newly adopted homeland.
Not since Santana has a U.S.-based Latin performer captured bicultural sensibilities in such a seamless, accessible and original way. Moreno might even manage to put Miami on the musical map after decades of mediocrity from the so-called capital of Latin music.
Credit also goes to producers Andres Levin, A.T. Molina and Lester Mendez, who add sparkling and surprising textures to Moreno's compositions in a smart studio mix. Moreno's plaintive voice--now nasal and raspy, now a sensitive falsetto--conveys a natural yearning in hypnotic pop ballads such as "Despertare," and brings buoyant energy to the Afro-Cuban salsa of "Candelita" and "Babalu."
The album's only weak spot is its sole English number. But stay tuned for the hidden track (at 7:23 on cut 11), a mind-bending, hip-hop version of Beny More's classic "Como Fue." It's a signal that Moreno has creativity to spare for an encore.
**1/2, Busta Rhymes, "Genesis," J. After four collections predicting increasingly imminent doom, the New York rapper's first album for Clive Davis' new label emphasizes rebirth. Rehashing hip-hop cliches in almost gothic, lean-yet-tricky soundscapes sculpted by Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, et al, Rhymes is still tough, profane and sometimes OutKast-goofy, as when spoofing TV psychic Miss Cleo. It's a bit monochromatic, but standouts include the rapid-fire funk-rapper "Break Ya Neck," designed to get people up while taunting less verbally proficient peers. N.N.
*** Mack 10, "Bang or Ball," Cash Money/Universal. Best known for being an Ice Cube sidekick, this talented Inglewood rapper deserves his own identity. With his fifth album, Mack 10 joins Cash Money Records and delivers another solid, street-centered effort. The pulsating, Dr. Dre-produced "Hate in Yo Eyes" is a potent anti-jealousy anthem, while Cash Money's Mannie Fresh handles nearly all of the other beats, creating an intense, bouncy backdrop for Mack's rugged, muscular rhymes. S.B.
**1/2 De La Soul, "AOI: Bionix," Tommy Boy. The second of the legendary Long Island rap group's three-part "AOI" album series features the hip-hop pioneers skillfully offering grown-up commentary. They pay homage to full-figured women on "Baby Phat" and dramatize the downfalls of drug use in a battle of wits with perennial pot champion B-Real on "Peer Pressure." Although not as noteworthy as their earlier work, "Bionix" still exhibits musical agility, crafty rhymes and smooth production.S.B.
**those Hey Mercedes, "Everynight Fire Works," Vagrant. Over six years and four albums, indie rockers Braid displayed potent firepower, if scattershot aim. The cannons are no longer loose. Three of Braid's principals, Bob Nanna, Todd Bell and Damon Atkinson, joined on their new project by Mark Dawursk, tighten the riffage without weakening their volleys. Stuttery rhythms and angular melodies coalesce in frenetic bursts, occasionally yielding gems such as the punk anthem "Our Weekend Starts on Wednesday." Hey Mercedes joins labelmates Saves the Day for three Southland dates this week beginning Tuesday at Anaheim's Chain Reaction.
** Warren G, "Return of the Regulator," Universal. This accomplished Long Beach rapper-producer helped put his city on the hip-hop map in the 1990s, but on his fourth album, Dr. Dre's half-brother sounds stagnant. His delivery is extremely awkward, and his breezy, gangster-influenced beats have lost much of their distinctiveness. Guests WC and Butch Cassidy inject some character, but this return lacks panache.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.