Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray
Best known for his work as leader of Tony! Toni! Tone! and Lucy Pearl, Raphael Saadiq over the last few years has emerged as a major solo artist in his own right as well as a hit-making producer for many neo-soul artists. His second effort on his own finds him in a playful mood as he creates a bouncy song cycle that's a throwback to '70s funk. His main character is Ray Ray, and it's established in "Blaxploitation" that he's a player with the ladies and equally in love with fast cars. The 14 songs make for a seamless set of organic grooves featuring Saadiq's flexible vocals and some key cameos from Babyface, former Tony! member Dwayne Wiggins, Dawn Robinson, and Joi. What the disc lacks is a centerpiece track or an obvious hook-filled single that leaps out at you. "Chic Like You" is a breezy workout but guest Allie Baba's rap weighs down the track instead of elevating it. Still, there's an overriding sense of joy and mischief throughout jams such as "Chic" and "Detroit Girl," and Saadiq's musical exuberance is infectious. The songs are somewhat slight but they're anchored by rubbery bass lines and peppered with horns, and the sleek production is never busy. While so much modern soul sounds studied and overly reverent, Saadiq puts the fun back into the funk.
On the plaintive ballad "More Than Ordinary," Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers wonders to her lover "Was I ever really more than ordinary?" She shouldn't worry, as her third record continues to prove that there is nothing mundane or pedestrian about her talent and that she's one of the more compelling acts in the roots rock/alt-country scene. With her expressive vocals and open-hearted songwriting, Chambers comes across as genuine in her search for love and understanding in an often unforgiving world. The songs here speak with a quiet beauty, and all of the songwriter's characters seem to be on a quest to quell the voices inside their heads that leave them with doubts and questions about who they are. She moves from bluegrass to country to rock with assurance, and the production by Nash Chambers, her brother, is as spare as an Edward Hopper landscape.Although most of the disc is marked by a haunting vulnerability and existential unease, there are some upbeat tracks such as "Like a River" that move with a steady gallop. Chambers is a voice worth paying careful attention to.
Death Row/Koch Records
No other late rapper's shadow looms larger over hip-hop than Tupac Shakur's. Posthumous releases of Shakur's music sell in the millions, and countless films and books exploring his significance achieve success based far more on their chosen topic than their quality. In the meantime, the legend of the loud-mouthed, almond-eyed rapper who personified the growing pains of disenfranchised black youth grows larger. This collection of previously unavailable live material was all recorded in 1996, the year Shakur was killed by unknown assailants in Las Vegas at age 25. The album captures Shakur's delivery -- fevered, powerful, and at times straining to reach a pitch that's perhaps unattainable -- in a way that the controlled environments of sound-proofed studios never did. It remains, after all, the sincerity of Shakur's rage and angst that attracts so many to him. With the exception of a brief version of "So Many Tears" and "Tattoo Tears," Shakur's more philosophical songs are largely absent. Instead, gun-toting anthems like "Ambitionz Az A Ridah" and "Hit Em Up," his famous diss of Biggie Smalls, remind us that it was Shakur's self-destructiveness and unrestrainable bravado that helped precipitate his death. Though the CD offers no new insights, "Live" captures the essence of an MC with an energy that could not be contained who died on the brink of manhood.
ALEX P. KELLOGG
For hip-hop purists, "real" rap no longer exists in the mainstream. Instead, it has been relegated to the margins of a genre that has transformed from a transgressive, revolutionary force to a decadent illusion that denigrates black culture on the one hand and women on the other. That's why a group like Foreign Exchange is reason for celebration. It represents the direction many of us wish hip-hop had taken years ago. As the story goes, the MC and producer who made this album -- rapper Phonte, who is also one-third of the North Carolina-bred group Little Brother, and Nicolay, a Dutch beat-making sensation -- never met until after the album was nearly complete. Their relationship instead developed over the Internet, with Nicolay instant-messaging beats to Phonte to lace with verse. The result is even more remarkable -- a beautiful, coherent composition that is an intensely pleasurable listen. As offspring of the underground, the two are not afraid to deviate from the norm: "Sincere" has an electric guitar solo at its end; plus it is a love song that is really about love instead of just making it. "Raw Life" has a keyboard loop that can't help but make you nod your head, and "Let's Move" has what sounds like an electronically produced horn arrangement. For all the blather that gets released by major labels, this independent release is a wonderful reminder of what underground hip-hop has to offer.
ALEX P. KELLOGG
This debut album by former Always Sunday frontman Trent Dabbs, who was discovered by producer Dennis Herring, (known for his work with Buddy Guy, Modest Mouse, and Counting Crows) is a catchy mix of acoustic rock and intimate alt-country, with occasional touches of experimental electronic rock. Dabbs's raspy, sexy voice is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley's, and his wide range is showcased throughout the album as he hits highs and lows with minimal effort. Dabbs's sentimental lyrics draw on topics of lost love and bittersweet memories. In the beautiful yet downtrodden "Worst Fears," which features a lonely acoustic guitar, he sings, "It goes down all the same, retire those thoughts you have of forgiveness, some words can drain you. You watch it heal, just learn the pain and wait for rain." Amid the heartache, there's enough pop in these songs to brighten even the most somber lines. The buoyant "January Lights" borrows heavily from U2 and combines distinctive wah-wah guitar with a chiming synthesizer and electro-pop beat. Overall, a promising start for an engaging singer-songwriter.