She's no one-hit wonder

Nelly Furtado

"Folklore" (DreamWorks)

***

Aah, Nelly! That "aah" is the sigh of relief you'll hear from anyone worried that Nelly Furtado wouldn't be able to meet the extraordinarily high expectations for a follow-up she created with her first album three years ago.

A debut as auspicious commercially and artistically as "Whoa, Nelly!" invites concerns that she blew her wad on that album or she'd simply try to repeat it.

Happily, the Canadian singer-songwriter with the Portuguese roots has too much going for her with "Folklore," in stores Tuesday. As she accurately puts it in the album's first cut, "I am not a one-trick pony."

Most of the elements that distinguished "Whoa, Nelly!" are back: the limber hip-hop beats; splashes of Caribbean, South American and Indian musical flavors; insistent hooks and lyrics that seem to well straight out of her subconscious, for better (mostly) or worse (occasionally). As time goes by, the willful naivete of some of her writing will wear thin, as it begins to here in "Try": "I wish I hadn't seen all of the realness/ And all the real people are really not real at all." Unreal.

Even though there's less sense of discovery here, her unfettered enthusiasm wins out as she sings of passion for life and matches it musically with sometimes bright, sometimes haunting, usually hypnotic grooves that worm their way into your brain, and feet. Really.

-- Randy Lewis

Partners in rhyme

deliver trite raps

G Unit

"Beg For Mercy" (G-Unit/Interscope)

** 1/2

Long a king of the underground rap circuit, 50 Cent became a mainstream phenomenon this year with the release of his debut album, the sizzling "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." With G Unit, the Queens, N.Y., rapper does what everyone from Eminem to Nelly has done once they score stardom: He releases an album with his friends.

As with Eminem's D12 and Nelly's St. Lunatics, the star stands head and shoulders above his partners in rhyme, in this case Young Buck, Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo (who's serving a sentence for gun possession).

Throughout the 18-cut collection, 50 Cent's animated, at times sing-song delivery brings an excitement that fizzles once the monotone Banks and the supercharged but lyrically bankrupt Buck take over. Although 50 Cent brings poise and a sense of menace to his solo recordings, here he sometimes reverts to the mainstays of rap's lesser artists: a pointless running down of designer clothing lines and exquisite cars, as well as tales of violence that lack lyrical imagination or innovation.

Fortunately, producers such as Denaun Porter, Hi-Tek and Dr. Dre and others deliver a blistering round of beats that often take your attention away from the G Unit's trite raps.

-- Soren Baker

Pumping up

the mediocrity

Enrique Iglesias

"7" (Interscope)

* 1/2

The crooner usually takes more risks with his English-language releases than his smoothly romantic Spanish ones, and his seventh collection mines the '80s with a sense of adventure even broader than 2001's "Escape." Unfortunately, this derivative pastiche of that era's rock, new wave and folk-pop, spiced with modern electronic-dance flavors, is about as imaginative as the album title.

Although Iglesias and his song doctors seemingly threw every lick that crossed their minds into these hackneyed songs, they should've tried harder. Right now, everyone from fringy dance acts to mainstream pop stars is regurgitating the '80s -- and in much more interesting ways than merely aping Don Henley ("California Callin' "), the Cars ("Break Me Shake Me") and Tom Petty ("Free"). Ample doses of cowbell on such numbers as the AC/DC-esque "You Rock Me" kick up strong whiffs of arena-rock, but without the raw sexual vibe.

Indeed, despite Iglesias' lover-boy persona, the tunes aren't very sexy. Even the torchy ballad "Say It" feels more processed than heated. Nothing here has the slightly haunting charm of something like his "Bailamos." For all the endless layers and varied textures -- the single "Addicted" lards a watery, echoing ballad with Beatles flourishes and Coldplay-like prog-pop -- the slick, ultra-plush production only pumps up the mediocrity.

-- Natalie Nichols

Bewildering Latin music misfire

Julieta Venegas

"Si" (BMG U.S. Latin)

**

Three years ago, Venegas' album "Bueninvento" showcased the Tijuana-born singer-songwriter as one of the most compelling voices in the Latin rock movement, the Mexican equivalent of a Bjork or a PJ Harvey. But the album wasn't a commercial blockbuster, and Venegas must have wondered if her idiosyncratic vision was turning away potential customers.

That might explain this bewildering album, which might be her take on what a conventional pop record must sound like. At less than 35 minutes, the collection stands as the most spectacular misfire in Latin music this year.

Devoid of the singer's enigmatic lyrics, quirky instrumental flourishes and unsettling textures, "Si" sounds disturbingly pedestrian. Anything by Venegas is at least marginally interesting, and this album is no exception. Her unique vocals -- part sensuous diva, part teenage goofball -- sound liberated and defiant when contrasted with the minimalist arrangements.

On "Lento" and "A Tu Lado," she creates instantly hummable choruses, but it is her oblique hooks that truly are memorable. If this record does find commercial success, let's hope that it will give her the confidence to return to more challenging territory rather than encourage her to do more of the same.

Ernesto Lechner

*

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Quick Spins

A glance at other albums of interest.

Dixie Chicks "Top of the World Tour Live" (Columbia): The outspoken country trio traverses nearly two dozen songs off its three studio albums, from "Goodbye Earl" to "Sin Wagon" in this two-CD live set.

Michael Jackson "Number Ones" (Epic): Jackson's third hits collection in eight years includes one high-profile new track, his collaboration with R. Kelly, "One More Chance."

Tori Amos "Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection" (Atlantic): This autobiographical compilation chronicles the singer- songwriter's life and music through 20 songs. Includes two new numbers, two previously unreleased tracks and a bonus DVD with live performances of three songs.

No Doubt "The Singles 1992-2003" (Interscope): The O.C. quartet has matured from the frenetic ska of 1992's "Trapped in a Box" to the thoughtful pop balladry of 2000's "Simple Kind of Life." In stores Tuesday.

Dolly Parton "For God and Country" (Blue Eye): The Country Music Hall of Famer applies her voice to 18 songs of patriotism and spiritual inspiration, from "God Bless the U.S.A." to "There Will Be Peace in the Valley."

Cyndi Lauper "At Last" (Epic): The girl who once just wanted to have fun tackles her favorite songs from pop's past, from "Unchained Melody" to a duet with Tony Bennett on "Makin' Whoopee."

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