"Destiny Fulfilled" (Sony Urban Music/Columbia)
After flying in their respective solo spaces, the R&B-pop; powerhouse retriangulates for its first new collection since 2001: a "concept album" tracing one woman's relationship journey from ecstatic love to nasty breakup to blissful freedom to spiritual awakening to ecstatic love.
This is a concept? It's more like expanding the arc of countless single love songs into an entire record, rather the way such numbers as the throbbing "Lose My Breath" stretch a single hook into an entire song.
Well, that's the way the dance floor bounces these days. Certainly, romantic travails should resonate for DC fans struggling with relationships and self-discovery, and the sentiments generally ring true, from the sensual reminiscences of "T-Shirt" to the concerned-friends soul of "Girl" to the euphoric bliss of "Free." (Moral-values voters will doubtless be pleased to know that the album's ultimate lesson is that you can't truly love another until you love God and then yourself.)
The interlocking girlfriend choruses of Beyonce, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams remain comfortingly unified, although the who's-singing-what notations in the lyrics unsubtly remind us this isn't just Beyonce's show. The bankable blend of R&B;, soul, dance, and hip-hop features nifty production touches, particularly the rat-a-tat drum line percussion propelling "Lose My Breath," and the way the strings and gooey sweetness of "If" offset its we're-through message.
The singers balance resilience with vulnerability, worldly desires with divine aspirations, but the material is simply overblown, puffed up with soap-bubble ideas and endless repetition.
-- Natalie Nichols
Rapper lets the good times roll
"Powerballin' " (Capitol)
As the title of his first album would suggest, this good-natured St. Louis rapper in 2003 hit the "Jackpot." His smash singles "Right Thurr," "Holidae In" and "One Call Away" were three of the biggest hip-hop hits of the year and propelled "Jackpot" to triple-platinum status.
On his second collection (due Tuesday), Chingy improves on and refines his successful sonic and thematic formula in an album more consistent and satisfying than its predecessor. The touching "Don't Worry," featuring breathy guest vocals from Janet Jackson, shows Chingy's sensitive and romantic sides, while the smooth "Leave Wit Me," featuring R. Kelly, showcases his more libidinous persona.
Although those songs, as well as the solid braggadocio single "Balla Baby," are sure to lure the masses, the harder-edged "Powerballin' " songs will delight listeners craving aural edginess. "26's," a revved-up glorification of mammoth rims featuring Lil' Wayne, contains arresting lyrical imagery and a wickedly addictive beat from promising newcomers the Beatstaz; the energetic, guitar-driven "We Clubbin' " features a deft balance of grit and bounce that dares you not to bob your head.
Chingy's lyrics focus on having a good time and it is easy to do just that when listening to "Powerballin'."
-- Soren Baker
The John-Taupin team is still game
"Peachtree Road" (Rocket/Universal)
How many songs can one duo write? John and lyricist Bernie Taupin must be around the 300 mark by now in a career that stretches back even before their romantic 1970 masterpiece "Your Song." Forget about new melodies and themes: They must have trouble just thinking of new song titles. They've already written three titles that begin with "Goodbye."
Not all the pair's tunes have been keepers by any means, but John and Taupin rebounded in 2001 with their strongest collection in years in the "Songs From the West Coast" album, and they continue that creative run in this CD.
There's such a sweet, melancholy edge to the CD's best songs that they could serve as an engaging centerpiece if John wanted to boldly update his live shows. "Weight of the World" is a statement of survival in the "I'm Still Standing" tradition, only more subdued and, ultimately, more human. "Turn the Lights Out When You Leave" is such a wry and wacky country breakup song that George Jones ought to record it as soon as he can get into a studio, while "Answer in the Sky" is one of the duo's rare spiritual reflections.
The arrangements are sometimes overblown, but the sentiments, many of them gently philosophical looks at the passage of time, radiate with the captivating warmth and universality that is at the heart of John and Taupin's most memorable works.
-- Robert Hilburn
Ben and the Boys go soul searching
Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama
"There Will Be a Light" (Virgin)
Ben HARPER and his stone-serious slide guitar have always swung with the weight of gospel, but always on the edges, like Prince or even early Al Green, finding the spiritual in content but not necessarily in form. But when Harper lent that guitar to gospel hybridizers the Blind Boys of Alabama on two of their albums, "Higher Ground" and "Spirit of the Century," they led him straight to the water, and here he is on his own album gulping it in great cold droughts.
Hearing a master like Harper and his Innocent Criminals let loose deep inside the gospel is satisfying, especially on cuts like "Church House Steps," with his wah-wah trembling in the spirit. But even though the majority of this album's songs are Harper originals, few have the surprise or innovation of his more secular blues-rock work. Instead, they take a familiar pattern: from the lead track, Harper's "Take My Hand," he lays down his supplications in his troubled high tenor, and then the Blind Boys come and sweep it away in a chorus of iron-tight harmonies, anchored by the growling bass of Clarence Fountain.
This album's heart throbs in the startling, crystalline acoustic slide break of "11th Commandment," all sublimated flash, which subtly shifts into the Bob Dylan-Danny O'Keefe tune "Well, Well, Well." Fearless interpretation seems to be what the Blind Boys love best, and here Harper touches a tonic nerve and septuagenarian alto Jimmy Carter sustains it, soaring high over Fountain and George Scott in a straight-up revival romp.
In the flawless execution there is a joy, a surrender to something bigger, and a personal testament from an already deeply personal artist.
-- Dean Kuipers
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are released unless noted.