"Kelis Was Here"
* * * 1/2
VERSATILITY is not the skill most valued in today's pop game. Successful artists produce hits listeners can sip on like a Starbucks drink, knowing that each new song's kick will taste the same as the last. On her absorbing, occasionally frustrating new album (in stores Tuesday), Kelis, the New York-based rhyming chanteuse who's managed to turn eclecticism into a brand, can't quite decide whether to buck this game or finally play it.
"I'm a rock hip-hop pop star," she snarls; her multiple skill set makes her yummy, like a caramel mocha macchiato. Yet she's not above a little self-imitation, especially when it comes to following up "Milkshake," the song that transformed her from a critic's favorite to a true chart-topper in 2003.
This album's first single, "Bossy," is a catchy recapitulation of that hit's jump-rope rhythm and "oh, snap!" attitude, and perhaps it earned her the right to otherwise stretch out on this 76-minute disc. But almost every uptempo number included here represents her as a claw-baring vixen. It's a bit of a shame; Kelis is much more, as the less in-your-face tracks here prove.
On the album's less pugnacious moments, the singer earns a claim to a major inheritance. No one, including her old pals in OutKast and former mentors the Neptunes, has hit on such a perfect formula for updating 1980s New Wave soul. Blending the intimate purr of quiet-storm balladry, the New Age magic of Afrofuturism, the beep of the Roland 808 drum machine and the bash of vintage black rock, "Kelis Was Here" mines a memory of R&B; as the playground of category-dismantling individualists.
There's a lot of Anita Baker in Kelis' smoky voice, but her appetite is pure Prince -- polyglot and healthfully perverse. From hip-hop she gets a casual attitude toward artistic crossbreeding; unlike most of her peers, however, she presents a personality that's as multiform as her music. An ordinary girl and a feathered freak, Kelis takes her many transformations in stride.
Few artists could line up an ode to bondage right next to a love song so sweet that it could be played at a wedding or invoke Joan Jett right after sharing a cosmic trip with Cee-Lo. That's what Kelis does here. And that's why it will be too bad if she lets the hardness that sold her become her main public face.
Hip-hop refreshed after a dry spell
* * *
WHEN The Roots announced they had signed to Def Jam, many feared that hip-hop's uber-label would force the group to adopt a savvier commercial sound -- think drummer ?uestlove tapping out snap beats with Black Thought scribbling crack narratives. Yet, given the keys to Def Jam's castle, the Roots turn down Rick Ross beats and Rihanna duets in favor of a hauntingly intimate effort that's the rightful heir to the group's brilliantly ambitious "Phrenology" in 2002 (rather than 2004's wobbly "Tipping Point").
A subtle-yet-penetrating melancholia infuses the album (in stores Aug. 29), beginning with the first song and ending with the last: both are elegies to late producer-rapper Jay Dee. Minor-key melodies flutter throughout, sometimes in a haze of smoky bass lines and guitar swirls ("Take It There," "Living in a New World"), or sprinkled onto bright keyboards and mournful strings ("Clock With No Arms," "Atonement"). Even raucous, uptempo tracks ("Here I Come," "Game Theory") carry an unsettling, gritty dissonance.
True to his name, MC Black Thought anchors the dark mood with a brooding lyricism that includes haughty braggadocio and conspiracy theorizing as well as quiet, somber introspection. But "Game Theory" is no vanity vehicle. The group's co-founder is merely one of several elements that make up a 13-part suite that moves coherently as a whole and not just assemblage of spare songs. "Game Theory" helps rescue a remarkably anemic hip-hop summer and, along with OutKast's upcoming "Idlewild" album, hopefully suggests that the dog days may have some bite left after all.
A breaking wave of bossa nova
"Bande A Part"
* * 1/2
THIS 21st century lounge act's shtick is recasting new-wave, punk and postpunk classics in a Brazilian-pop mold: Its 2005 debut album bossa nova-ized the music of the Dead Kennedys as well as Depeche Mode. For "Bande A Part" (in stores Tuesday), French musician-producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux -- working with assorted female vocalists from France, Brazil and the U.S. -- toss a similarly wide net, smoothing out the gothic kinks and melting the ice in 14 songs by Lords of the New Church, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Blondie and others.
It's a savvy salvo in the rockist-popist wars, evoking such modern iconoclasts as Bjork, but when the fairy dust settles, this contest is a draw. The tap-dancing cabaret twist on Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" is laugh-out-loud subversive, and the smoky jazz club take on the Cramps' "Human Fly" is hepcat cool, but Nouvelle Vague's gauzy renditions of such fluff as Heaven 17's "Let Me Go" and Visage's "Fade to Grey" barely register, proving that, although not everything here is played for giggles, sometimes it is the song, not the singer.
Indeed, U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" isn't diminished at all by substituting Bono's aching wail for singer Birdpaula's melancholy testifying. If anything, beneath the deceptive pastoral sparkle, this tune celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King becomes even more forlorn and heartbreaking.
And if you want contemporary, NV's feral version of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" becomes as percussively thunderous as any Timbaland track. An often amusing exercise in turning darkness into light.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed are in stores except as indicated.