"Loyal to the Game" (Interscope)
Here's an obvious equation: Beats by rap's fastest-selling living artist (Eminem) plus vocals by rap's bestselling deceased artist (Shakur) equals a bestseller (330,000 copies in its first week, to be exact, enough to make the CD enter the pop charts at No. 1).
"Loyal to the Game" -- Shakur's sixth album since his shooting death in 1996 and his third posthumous chart-topper -- features 13 previously unreleased tracks revamped by Eminem, who produced beats and added guest vocals by artists such as G-Unit, Jadakiss and even Eminem himself.
It adds up on paper -- but not always on record. Eminem has successfully remixed Shakur before (several tracks for the "Tupac: Resurrection" film soundtrack), but here, Em's playful production -- sing-song choruses, staccato beats that evoke cartoon soundtracks -- is ill-suited to the ominous, breathless intensity of Shakur's vocal style and hard-core subject matter.
There's some innovative sampling work: "Ghetto Gospel" features Elton John, while "Don't You Trust Me" taps Dido's haunting vocals, just as Eminem's hit single "Stan" did. But most of the Eminem-produced tracks are bested by their remixes, included as bonus tracks on the album and produced by such beat makers as Scott Storch and Raphael Saadiq -- whose styles have sufficient gravitas for the consummate gangsta rapper.
-- Baz Dreisinger
The third time's no charmer
Ashanti is two singers. Onstage she comes alive, not with the greatest vocal range but with enough energy, ease and personality to suggest she belongs there. But on record, Ashanti is trapped, sapped of strength and ideas, and buried beneath all the worst cold and calculated production tendencies of her label, the Inc (formerly Murder Inc.).
Her third album is no different, another opportunity lost, despite a strange preamble that sounds like a sales pitch both to her audience and herself, where Ashanti calls "Concrete Rose" her "best album ... the lyrics are deeper." If only it were true. What follows is modern R&B; formula at its most flat and uninspired. For all her lovesick panting, pleading and purring, Ashanti is never emotionally engaged with the songs, which aren't worth the trouble anyway. The song "U" has the distinction of being possibly the most boring sex talk ever.
And she always takes the passive role in her recorded romances, always the student and never the teacher, always the one waiting by the phone, begging some man not to leave her. Respect isn't what she needs. Just "don't humiliate me." Ja Rule adds some real fire to "Turn It Up," helping Ashanti finally tap her underused talents, but it's hardly enough to save another forgettable album for an otherwise promising pop princess.
-- Steve Appleford
Pop stars only dilute the message
Music From the Film" (Commotion)
It's hard enough to capture in a film the sense of humanity within unfathomable inhumanity that is the story of "Hotel Rwanda."
It's much harder to do so with a pop song, and unfortunately Wyclef Jean fails in a well-intentioned attempt. His "Million Voices" strives to be a Bob Marley-like plea for global outrage and justice but winds up trite in both music and lyrics.
Two songs by production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (with singers Deborah Cox and Tilly Key) don't fare any better, both being bland ballads that fail to illuminate or even effectively illustrate the tale of one man's heroism amid horror that is told in the film.
The score music, on the other hand, is perfect, with both the internationalism of the Afro Celt Sound System and the somber tones of Andrea Guerra's orchestral cues and Rupert Gregson-Williams' electronics hitting the right inspirational and ambient notes -- especially segments built around the singing of Rwanda-born Dorothee Munyaneza (who also arranged African vocal parts on Jean's song and for a children's chorus).
Several other African pieces provide solid complements that do the job fine. Tacking on the three "Western" songs was unnecessary at best and trivializing to the subject matter at worst.
-- Steve Hochman
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.