"The Way It Is" (A&M;)
* * 1/2
Let the summer sensations begin. This young singer-songwriter from Oakland snagged Kanye West and Alicia Keys as guests for her first album, which debuted in the national Top 10. The CD offers a fetching, muscular funk-soul-pop focused on messed-up romance, and its strengths lie in the contrast between Cole's supple, pretty voice and the steely stance of such numbers as "(I Just Want It) to Be Over" and "Thought You Had My Back."
Her vocals can be surprisingly characterless, but at times Cole manages to lightly convey the deeply contradictory emotions involved when love goes wrong. There's a sense of unredressed hurt behind the self-satisfaction on "I Changed My Mind" -- a breezy, West-co-written kiss-off to a slippery boyfriend -- and a balance of resentment and remorse in "I Should Have Cheated," lamenting a guy who accuses her of being unfaithful when he's the one sneaking around.
Despite some nostalgic horn accents and string embellishments, however, the music is a similarly generic gloss on modern R&B.;
-- Natalie Nichols