Usher Digs Deep on Looking 4 Myself

The r&b singer Usher is still the last artist to have a diamond album—which is to say that his 2004 record Confessions, which spawned the blaring Lil Jon–assisted club hit “Yeah!” and the searing breakup anthem “Burn,” has sold upward of 10 million copies since its release. (Adele’s 21, which has been selling steadily since its early 2011 release, passed the 9 million mark last month and will likely break the diamond barrier sometime this summer.) In the interim, he has sold reasonably well, had his personal travails serve as fodder for his life, and tried to keep up his megastar status in a time when pop stars exist much closer to earth. In 1999, 10 million album sales was seen as the record industry’s potential new normal, and the RIAA established the diamond certification to honor albums of that sales caliber.

How to conjure up the memories of the diamond-encrusted era, when pop stars seemed immortal? Looking 4 Myself (RCA), Usher’s seventh album, comes out of the gate with “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” credited to Will Adams (the non-domain name of the Black Eyed Peas’, Keith Harris (frequent collaborator), and William Joel. Yes, that’s Billy Joel—the first 20 seconds on Looking 4 Myself contain a reworking of the doo-wop-borrowed “oh-oh-ohhs” from Joel’s 1983 MTV staple “Uptown Girl.” That a composition would so nakedly borrow from the past isn’t at all surprising; he has blatantly interpolated the likes of Little Richard and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack in the past. But that it works so well is surprising—the cascading melody fits right into the rigid club form, and the whole thing comes off like a joyous flip of Usher’s somewhat dour collaboration “OMG,” which appeared on his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond and which ended that year as its fifth-bestselling song. (That single’s B side, the delighting-in-divorce “Papers,” was much better. Pity that digital singles don’t come bundled with second tracks automatically; another tragedy of the modern age.)

From there, Looking 4 Myself is a bit of a hodgepodge, a “something for everyone” album where the results are mostly enjoyable. The first single to be leaked from the record was “Climax,” a startlingly minimalist composition in which a woozy synth line and deliberately picked guitar serve as the backdrop for an anguished turn by Usher, who can evince pathos as well as anyone else. Although “Climax” the title might indicate that this slow jam is for getting down, the lyrics apply the word to its dramatic context; he’s singing about how the relationship at hand is headed only toward its denouement.

Releasing “Climax” first was a savvy move for Usher and his people—the song was produced by the pop-blender Diplo, while its string part was arranged by the locally based avant composer (and former collaborator of Björk and Antony Hegarty) Nico Muhly. Those musicians’ involvement helped it receive attention from those sorts of blogs who might normally turn up their noses at something as pedestrian as mainstream r&b while gushing over similarly minded acts with more “underground” pedigrees like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. That Usher gave a blistering vocal performance probably didn’t hurt much, either.

“Climax” is a bit of an outlier on Looking 4 Myself as far as experimentation, though the pleasures of that particular track are more than evident elsewhere on the album. (When you have 14 tracks to work with—and 18 on the deluxe edition!—you have a lot of wiggle room.) “Twisted,” a collaboration with the Neptunes’ Pharrell, is a slinky funk workout that could easily be mistaken for a present-day rework of an obscure soul side. Like “Climax,” its instrumentation is pretty minimalist (a closely recorded combo and a snaky synth), letting Usher’s powerhouse vocals take center stage. The combination of the instrumentation dropping out almost entirely on the pre-chorus and Usher going into falsetto mode makes you almost want to run over him with a cape and help him to somewhere he can be a little bit less tortured by the woman who is causing him to act out. “What Happened to U,” produced by Drake foil Noah “40” Shebib, has a similarly airy touch, with a gorgeous, lighter-than-air vocal performance (there’s that falsetto again!) that’s a bit dragged down by Usher’s attempts to emulate the dour superstar rapper’s swaggadoccio while sing-talking about drowning his sorrows in cars and other talismans of the Good Life.

Which isn’t to say that the only pleasures offered by Looking 4 Myself are of the minimalist variety. “Numb,” one of two collaborations on the album between Usher and the arena-filling dance act Swedish House Mafia, is lush, with rocket-launch synths backing him up on the pre-chorus; that leads into a big, wave-your-arms-friendly recitation of the song’s title, the kind that results in people cramming into open fields for festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival and other large-scale dance events where the need for communing with tens of thousands of other people over euphoria-inducing music is almost—if not more—important than actually seeing the performers responsible for it. (“Euphoria” is, not incidentally, the title of the album’s other Swedish House Mafia song.)

Usher’s knack for singing ballads is showcased well here, though he wears anguish better than a Don Juan hat. “Trading Places,” off 2008’s Here I Stand, was a decent-sounding slow jam slightly ruined by references to precoital Chinese food (hope there’s nothing too spicy in that order!) and the word “ass” as the song’s implied final utterance. This time out, there’s “Dive,” a stuttery, sweet-sounding song that will test its listeners’ tolerance for references to moisture of all kinds. (“I see the walls are looking like they might precipitate,” he sings at one point.)

Does Usher find himself on this album, as its title suggests? In some senses, yes; he certainly wears the simpler, lighter impulses of the new-school producers he has chosen to work with as well as he did the bluster of “Yeah!” and “Burn.” It probably won’t hearken back to the diamond era sales-wise—to do that these days, you have to seem “authentic,” sing of nothing but heartache and operate solely in a retro idiom, even when you’re working with pop’s most cloying chart presences—but it establishes him as someone who’s willing to push his musical efforts far past the four-on-the-floor-banger boundaries currently boxing in so many other mega-selling artists.


The 11 Most Infuriating Songs of 2011

In 2011, it was pretty easy to make a splash with a bad pop song—just Google “Rebecca Black” for a primer. These 11 songs, however, leapt past lousy to the realm of truly offensive, whether they set out to or not.

11. Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci.” The least charismatic “controversial” figure of 2011 made her splash with this nasal broadside against women whose fashion sense is uncreative because they have the gall to wear clothing with designer labels. She followed up this song’s fast travels around the Internet with an appearance at the Highline Ballroom where she wore a $100 T-shirt by the streetwear imprint A Bathing Ape and performed this track twice in a row.

10. feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever).” Lead Black Eyed Pea wins the Worst Brag About One’s Ability to Make Beats of the Year award with the putrid hashtag-rap turd “This beat is the shit/feces.” The track’s one redeeming factor? Mick Jagger’s “rap” makes his turn on that “Dancing in the Streets” remake from 25 years ago seem absolutely lucid.

9. Katy Perry feat. Missy Elliott, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) (Remix).” A crass-in remix designed to boost Perry’s ode to getting, like, totally wild to No. 1 on the Hot 100, thus allowing the grating singer to boast that her album Teenage Dream (EMI) had just as many chart-toppers as Michael Jackson’s infinitely superior Bad (Epic). The once-next-wave Elliott, making her first appearance on a major pop track since 2009, mumbles a bunch of nonsense about getting drunk, capped by a not-very-subtle dick joke. No, Missy, you were supposed to rub off on Katy, not the other way around!

8. Tyler, the Creator, “Bitch Suck Dick.” If the rape-fantasizing, bratty, punk-by-the-numbers leader of the overly self-impressed Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future weren’t into skateboarding and Tumblr and the Neptunes, he would have been pegged as this decade’s Fred Durst straightaway. Unfortunately, he puts the “right” cultural signifiers to use, so the rest of us are stuck listening to his sub-horrorcore fantasies and the attendant debates about how, despite his profligate use of “faggot,” he’s not a homophobe because he has gay friends, and how, even though he’s really into telling people to fuck off, everyone should be nicer to him because he loves his mom. This track is a particular nadir, probably even more so because right now someone on the Internet is trying to convince their friends that the line “Bitch suck dick like bitch suck dick” is a genius metacritique of sexism in hip-hop that they’re just too uptight to really understand.

7. Maroon 5/Christina Aguilera, “Moves Like Jagger.” “Jagger” rhymes with “swagger,” which is why even despite embarrassments like the aforementioned track and SuperHeavy—his ego-stroking supergroup with Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman, and a Marley—the Stone’s leader is cited as a paragon of cool by so many these days. (Quick, someone come up with eight self-congratulatory words that rhyme with “Bolan.”) This whistle-assisted earworm blanketed America this year despite Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine’s unsexy instruction to his paramour: “Take me by the tongue.” God help us if Levine is trying to sound like Jagger’s rap on “T.H.E.” in order to get himself into any sort of mood.

6. Bon Iver, “Holocene.” Mostly here because of the way it robbed rightful Record of the Year and Song of the Year nominations from Nicki Minaj’s sparkling, infinitely superior ode to a hot coke dealer “Super Bass.” But also because when a song doesn’t inspire pleasure as much as it inspires an internal plea to get to the point already, maybe someone needs to get out their red pen and do a little editing.

5. Rihanna, “S&M.” This year, the Barbadian pop icon won Esquire‘s Sexiest Woman Alive title, which was clearly the result of her reading a self-help book called The Anything but a Secret Because Did I Mention That I’m Really Into Sex? This song, which transformed the zipless fuck into sex that was also bloodless and joyless, was that particular campaign’s most irritating manifestation.

4. Brian McFadden, “Just the Way You Are (Drunk at the Bar).” You know what 2011 needed? A smug ode to date rape from a former boy-band member. Happy Year of the Woman, everyone!

3. [White Person], [White Person Whitening Popular Urban-Radio Hit]. Chief among the offenders here is the Berklee-educated duo Karmin, a viral-video smash whose smugly competent covers of “Super Bass” and “Look at Me Now” got them TV exposure and a record deal where they could, finally, make blandly honking pop tracks of their own. But this particular genre went far beyond Karmin, oozing into any webcam-enabled computer owned by a person who sort of liked Beyoncé’s “Countdown” but was too embarrassed to admit that they, you know, enjoyed a pop song. Of course, this sort of repression-by-the-numbers is huge among the nerd-blog cognoscenti, who seem to have never met a Hot 100 hit they couldn’t wrestle to the ground and make less fun.

2. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games.” All the debates about this online lightning rod’s persona and lips and backstory fade into the background when you listen to this drowsy, bruised track, which meanders around for five minutes, with Del Rey muttering about her boyfriend’s foibles. Those who consider Del Rey’s pouting and huffing to be an incisive critique of male-female relationships should watch the opening scene of Contempt; those who find the maddeningly overwrought music pleasant should listen to the bad-romance odes on Lykke Li’s underheralded and way hookier Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic).

1. Jessie J, “Price Tag.” The year’s most grueling pop personality was this British yelper, who’s still trying to replicate Perry’s Brute Force Path to Pop Stardom; born Jessica Cornish, she’d change her name to Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum if she thought it would get her more notice. Over a lite-reggae beat that is apparently supposed to underscore the lyrics’ “chilled-out” vibe, Jessie barks out platitudes about how she just wants to make the world dance, and damn the capitalist pigs for being all interested in things like returns on investments. If her record label hadn’t spent so much time and money ensuring that she was promoting her grating, hollow album Who You Are (Universal Republic) in any venue that would have her—the MTV Video Music Awards, VH1 Divas Live, your mom’s birthday party—the “Screw money, let’s party” sentiment might seem merely misguided, a tone-deaf attempt to capitalize on the bubbling anxiety about the lousy economy. But in the context of Jessie J’s assault, it’s downright offensive, least of all because of how she’s once again trying her damndest to ingratiate herself into a crowd of people who could not care less.


Jane Birkin

She loved him, but he couldn’t care less as long as the sex was good—at least so went the sentiment, en Français, of “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” the London-born actress’s controversial 1969 duet with French music icon Serge Gainsbourg. Tonight, Birkin will be revisiting the songs she recorded with her former lover (and the father of their daughter, Charlotte) to celebrate the legacy of one of music’s most respected innovators, a man who influenced everyone from Beck to, 20 years after his passing. To boot, she will be performing alongside the Japanese musicians with whom she played an earthquake relief concert earlier this year. With Joey Arias.

Sun., Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m., 2011


Summer Guide: Kelis Tries For A Rebound

On her upcoming Flesh Tone, Kelis ditches the punky r&b for which she has become known over the last decade—if you don’t remember “Caught Out There,” you definitely recall “Milkshake”—and embraces the sleek club-pop sound recently popularized by the Black Eyed Peas in hits like “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.” Due out July 6 on BEP frontman‘s Interscope imprint, Flesh Tone feels like a record with a dress code: something tight and black, perhaps, with Space Age jewelry and dangerously high heels.

Funny, then, that Kelis made most of it while sitting on her couch wearing flip-flops and a tank top. “I was pregnant and just not in the mood to deal with people,” admits the 30-year-old New York native over the phone from Paris, where she’s making the promotional rounds for the new album. “And because I wasn’t signed, I didn’t have a budget to be in a studio anyway. So I just put a studio in my house, where I could be comfortable and happy, and I could cook and have a really relaxed vibe.”

Given the recent tumult in both her personal and professional lives, you can understand Kelis’s desire for calm. Last year, shortly before the singer gave birth to her son, Knight, she and rapper Nas filed for divorce; some of the unsavory details of their settlement found their way into the tabloids. And after 2006’s Kelis Was Here failed to meet the commercial expectations set by “Milkshake,” Jive Records dropped Kelis—thus her budget-less living-room recording gig. “Producers started to hear that I was working again, and they started sending stuff,” she says. “Everything was really organic—no business or politics.”

When she was nearing completion of the album—which includes collaborations with Boys Noize, Benny Benassi, and “I Gotta Feeling” producer David Guetta—Kelis played the music for, who’d helmed several tracks on Kelis Was Here. A mutual friend had suggested that the principal Pea might be interested in signing her to his Music Group. The mutual friend was right.

“Kelis isn’t just another girl,” says “She’s a woman with perspective. Whatever she does is art—like a female Basquiat. She’s the cool people’s best-kept secret, and I wanna introduce her to the world.” So far, that introduction is proceeding apace: “Acapella,” Flesh Tone‘s pulsating lead single, recently hit the top spot on Billboard‘s dance chart, while a pre-release performance last month at Santos’ Party House suggested that her core fans approve of this latest stylistic adventure. (“New York makes you feel at home,” Kelis Tweeted following the show.) According to, “We’re already doing bigger than we anticipated coming out of the gate.”

For her part, Kelis sounds guardedly optimistic about the album’s commercial potential; her experiences surrounding Kelis Was Here, she says, left her feeling “kind of over the industry and all the nonsense that comes with it.” (As a palate-cleanser, so to speak, the lifelong foodie spent a portion of her hiatus from music training as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu.) Whatever happens on her way up this time, at least she’ll have some company along for the ride; as Mommy talks to the Voice, Knight can be heard adding his two cents in the background. “Now I’ve got this glorious little creature I get to travel with, which makes all the dratty cities fun,” Kelis says. “The routine is pretty much the same. We just need room for a car seat now.”

Summer Music Picks

A.R. Rahman
June 11

After spending more than a decade as Bolly-wood’s undisputed film-score king, A.R. Rahman began turning American heads in 2008 with his music for Slumdog Millionaire; now, he has worked with the Pussycat Dolls and soundtracked a treasured Vince Vaughn vehicle. For his upcoming world tour (which kicks off here), Rahman recruited creative director Amy Tinkham, whose résumé includes collaborations with Madonna, Britney Spears, and Mötley Crüe. The result, Rahman’s rep says, is a “theatrical experience” with dancing, acrobatics, and giant LED screens. Oh, and music, too, from throughout Rahman’s expansive catalog. Nassau Coliseum,

Adam Lambert
June 22

In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that American Idol‘s greatest-ever contestant kind of whiffed on his debut album: Adam Lambert was born for the stage, not the studio, which means that even the best writers and producers in the game could only do so much without the use of dude’s hair, eyes, or faceward-thrusting crotch. Expect all of that (and more!) on the Glam Nation Tour, the singer’s first headlining trek, as well as opening sets by fellow Idol alum Allison Iraheta and former Michael Jackson guitarist Orianthi. Nokia Theatre Times Square, Broadway and 44th Street,

June 25 and 26

The neo-soul smoothie played some thrilling shows last year behind BLACKsummers’night, his first studio disc in nearly a decade. But evidently, Maxwell isn’t done squeezing that berry for juice: This summer, he’s hitting the road with another r&b heavyweight, Jill Scott, for a joint tour that’ll hopefully include some onstage Marvin-and-Tammi duet action. That trek concludes June 25 at the Garden, and the next night Maxwell’s due back for a repeat performance, this time with future-soul stylist Erykah Badu as his partner. Choosing one bill over the other is a bad idea. Your only real option? Checking out both. Madison Square Garden,

Faith No More
July 2 and 5

Left-field covers were always a big part of the Faith No More playbook—remember their surprise-hit rendition of the Commodores’ “Easy”? Still, you had to hand it to the reactivated Bay Area art-metal outfit when they opened their Coachella set last month with “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb—especially since they pulled it off without resorting to lame indie-band condescension. Here they’re doing two nights at the Williamsburg Waterfront to benefit the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn. Go for the cause; stay for tasty FNM chestnuts like “Epic”and “Last Cup of Sorrow.” Williamsburg Waterfront, 63 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn,

Siren Festival
July 17

The Voice‘s annual summer-music blowout turns 10 this year, and to celebrate the occasion we’ve booked as headliners the most enthusiastic band we know: Brooklyn’s boy-girl synth-pop duo Matt & Kim. (No word yet if they’ll take the opportunity to give Erykah Badu another lesson in public nudity.) East Coast agit-punk lifers Ted Leo and the Pharmacists will also appear, as will local twee-popsters the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Florida guitar guys Surfer Blood, and Harlem, who actually come from Austin. Still not excited? More acts are due to be announced soon. Coney Island,

Hard NYC
July 24

M.I.A. headlines this all-day dance-music extravaganza with what the Los Angeles promotions company HARD calls one of her first live performances in support of her upcoming third album. (The “Born Free” singer-rapper will appear at HARD’s L.A. event earlier in July.) Also on the bill are two acts currently signed to M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. Recordings label—Baltimore-based rapper Rye Rye and Brooklyn noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells—as well as Die Ant-woord, the South African Internet-rap sensation. Pack those Flip cams, people. With Skream, Benga, Theophilus London, Borgore, Destructo, and more. Governors Island,

Paramore/Tegan and Sara
August 6

With last year’s Brand New Eyes, Tennessee-based Paramore vaulted to the head of the pop-punk class; no group of Warped Tour vets currently boasts sharper riffs or a more ferocious singer. Actually, few singers, period, live up to Hayley Williams right now—she fronts Paramore like Kelly Clarkson in a pair of beat-up Converses. Openers Tegan and Sara also released a strong 2009 disc in the form of Sainthood, on which the twin sisters beefed up their guitars without dumbing down their words. With New Found Glory, whose guitarist Chad Gilbert is also known as Williams’s main squeeze. Jones Beach,

August 12

In Europe this summer, metal fans have several opportunities to see the so-called Big Four of thrash on one stage—that’s Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax, in case you spent the ’80s listening exclusively to Kajagoogoo. Here in the States, we’ll have to settle for Slayer, Megadeth, and Bay Area journeymen Testament, a triple bill originally slated to hit the road in January before Slayer’s Tom Araya was forced to undergo back surgery. Obviously, the Europeans are getting the better deal. But these dudes’ll still rip your face off and make you say thanks. Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey,

Justin Bieber
August 31

Last summer, you didn’t know his name, and now he presides, Poseidon-like, over a frothing sea of prepubescent hormones: Justin Bieber could teach Olympic sprinters a thing or two about moving fast. The pint-size Canadian crooner told the Houston Chronicle recently that fans should attend shows on his first headlining tour expecting “some electronic things that haven’t been seen before.” But digital tricknology hardly seems like the point here (unless we’re talking Auto-Tune); tonight promises to be all about the power of the tweenaged squeal. With Sean Kingston, Bieber’s current duet partner in their song “Eenie Meenie.” Madison Square Garden,



Flobots are probably the most famous rap group that no one who actually listens to rap cares about: Tuneless, funkless, unrepentantly emo, pretty much dominating modern rock stations at the end of the decade—or at least until Sugar Ray released Music for Cougars. Someone plays a violin, too. Opening is K-Os, a tireless Canadian MC with lots of great ideas (sampling “Love Buzz” and getting Metric’s Emily Haines to sing the hook—hey, we’re down) but he usually equates to the indie-rap

Fri., May 21, 8 p.m., 2010



This multi-talented Canadian MC hasn’t caught on south of the border, where Google News searches for ‘K-os’ are more likely to suggest prominent liberal blogs over anything about the rapper’s latest album, Yes! But K-os is a crafty one, both on the mike and behind the board—imagine an indie-friendly version of With Jon Oliver.

Wed., March 24, 7:30 p.m., 2010


John Legend’s Classic-Soul Odes to Apocalypse

You can just imagine progressive types and scarfaced G’s alike hopping around on the dance floor to the jazzy, maniacal 808 mantra that, along with a “stylefreein’ ” verse from the incomparable Andre 3000, drives “Green Light,” the lead single on the latest effort from John Legend. Whereas 2006’s amazing Once Again was thoroughly soaked in a throwback aura of soulful ’60s bliss, Evolver opts for a harmonious mix of New Jack Swing, B-boy pop, and stripped-down piano-man sonatas. The Neptunes-helmed “It’s Over” takes us on a break-up expedition with the typically braggadocio-tongued Kanye West riding shotgun, playing the role of r&b heartthrob with his (and everyone else’s) favorite new toy, the vocoder. On “Quickly,” the still-sexy Brandy helps Legend capture the mentality of a hopeless, lovelorn man who fears he doesn’t have much longer to live because the news says that the sky is falling: “The globe is warming/My country’s warring/Leaders are lying/Time is running/Lower and lower, baby/Nowhere to go.” Less apocalyptically, London export (and Legend protégée) Estelle chimes in on the sultry dancehall jam “No Other Love.”

Legend himself introduces this 13-song collection with the libidinous “Good Morning,” and glides from the thumping electro-funk of “Satisfaction” to the easy-listening mellowness of the–produced “I Love, You Love,” before ending with the hope-promoting opus “If You’re Out There”: “We’re the generation/We can’t afford to wait/ The future started yesterday/And we’re already late.” Evolver‘s disadvantage is the sorely missed absence of Legend’s eccentricity—those unique gambles, appropriating the manifold colors of the love/lust palette, that made his first two records so relatable to the common listener. Still, as the dying industry is still breathing in the toxins of useless filler, patrons like John Legend are fully indulging their creativity in all its flawed glory, just like the soul giants of yesteryear. If he keeps himself steady on this implausible musical voyage, I imagine we may be treated to a Stevie Wonder–worthy “classic period” in the future.


Sergio Mendes’s Encanto

Brazilian-born keyboardist/composer/producer Sergio Mendes has spent four decades Americanizing his country’s samba and bossa nova while Brazilianizing American pop. In 2006, he released Timeless, an all-star project (co-produced by that introduced classics of Brazilian popular music to the iPod generation. Now, Encanto (Enchantment), recorded in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, features even more all-stars, with an international cast ranging from the Colombian star Juanes to Belgium’s Zap Mama to Italian rapper Jovanotti. A funky, Carioca-cadenced remix of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” features a half-rap vocal from Fergie with on the assist, while Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber” is transported from Corcovado to California with the help of Brazilian guitar whiz Toninho Horta. Other Jobim jewels include the Ledisi-laced, house-friendly “Waters of March”; Natalie Cole’s jazzy, Ella-licious rendition of “Somewhere in the Hills”; and “Dreamer,” with original Brazil 66 member Lani Hall’s achy-breaky vocals intertwining with husband Herb Alpert’s Milesian trumpet.

Throughout, Mendes’s finessed Fender Rhodes provides fills and thrills with bop-ish brevity while he gives us the best of both hemispheres.

Sergio Mendes plays Carnegie Hall June 21,


Chrisette Michele’s I Am

Chrisette Michele’s got a tangy, jazzy voice (reminiscent of ’90s stars Karyn White and Tamia) and delivers her lyrics with effortless womanly grace and precision phrasing. Yet much of that talent is squandered on a debut that could use some oomph. Where it should be potent, I Am is merely pleasant and at times downright sluggish—though that does make the energetic moments more delicious. “Like a Dream” is a giddy, girly shout-out to a crush, while “Your Joy” is a sincere (though creepy) ode to Daddy (as in a biological father, not Big Poppa)—co-written with Babyface, it’s so open and inviting that the ick factor (there’s a line about lying on Dad’s belly) is muted. But even when everything clicks, something’s missing. For all of I Am‘s prettiness and poetry (actually rambling free verse, since Chrisette seems to have misplaced her rhyming dictionary), there’s something vacant and overly earnest about it. Witness “Golden”: The melody is lush and immaculate, but a 23-year-old begging—pleading—for a wedding ring? A little desperate, wouldn’t you say?

Perhaps the problem is that this reserved, cautious, almost chaste approach isn’t what you’d expect from the sassy girl on Def Jam who held her own with Nas and Jay-Z. Then again, when she does try to “get down” on the, Run-D.M.C.-sampling “Let’s Rock,” it’s about as groan-inducing as watching your mom breakdance. Note to Chrisette: Any attempt at street cred goes out the window when you’re shouting out Natalie Cole.


Die Another Day

Twelve years ago, Common declared hip-hop a mangled, barely living whore he pledged to resuscitate. Nas now declares that whore deceased. “Everyone sound the same/Commercialized the game,” he complains on Hip Hop Is Dead‘s title track, buttressed by’s improbably vicious Iron Butterfly sample. Nas’s eighth record (and first for Def Jam) is a Dante-channeling journey through the many diverse facets of hip-hop, highlighted by the Dr. Dre–produced “QB Tru G’s,” wherein Nas—supported with a simple, eerie synth line and a verse from the Game—re-establishes both his street credibility and his status as hip-hop royalty. Elsewhere, “Black Republican” is a gripping Jay-Z collaboration with a dissonant string arrangement and a harsh reappraisal of the American Dream in the ghetto. These ideas are hardly novel, of course, but Nas pulls them off as if they were.

At record’s end, “Can’t Forget About You” offers us a nostalgia-fused how-I-fell-in-love-with-hip-hop retrospective that’s dangerously close to a masterpiece,’s sample of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” improbably anchoring a beat of both beauty and depth. The hook, sung by Chrisette Michele, is a gorgeous melody that could easily pass for a Billie Holiday sample, and Nas, like the imagist he is, contemplates something more peaceful than death: “There comes a day in your life when you want to kick back/Straw hat on the porch when you old perhaps.” We had a good run for a while. No tears now. It’s time to start over.

Nas plays Nokia Theatre Times Square December 22,