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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Now that she's banished the drama and achieved her "Breakthrough," Mary J. Blige is in a good space. Fans used to hearing her pour her pain out on record will just have to get used to that.
The singer's latest effort, "Growing Pains," much like its phenomenal 2005 predecessor "The Breakthrough," focuses more on learning and progressing than dwelling and wallowing. The cheery lead single "Just Fine" finds Blige proclaiming, "No more time for moping around, are you kidding?/And no time for negative vibes, 'cause I'm winning." This happy-go-lucky state sometimes makes for less compelling stories and yields too much flowery empowerment language. But the disc picks up near the end, when Blige allows for venting over more downcast rhythms like the Stargate-produced "Fade Away," where she longs to be invisible, and "Smoke."
Possessing one of the most butter-smooth voices in contemporary R&B, Jaheim returns with his first album for Atlantic. The soulful crooner adopts a more mature, introspective stance, softening the edges of the "thug R&B" tag inspired by his 2001 debut. Among the best songs is "Never," an emotional ballad about commitment that is climbing Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. While slow jams remain Jaheim's forte, he infuses more midtempo flavor here. He trades off nicely with Keyshia Cole on "I've Changed" before serving up the moving autobiographical cut "Back Together Again." Two quibbles: Album opener "Voice of R&B" is a posturing track better left on the editing floor. And does a classic, Bobby Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now," really need to be updated ("Lonely") with new lyrics? As a formidable heir to such forebears as Luther Vandross and Barry White, Jaheim doesn't need to travel that route.
A lot of musicians claim to ignore their critics, but Lupe Fiasco evidently not only reads them, but organizes his response into album form: "Robots and skateboards, nigga? GQ Man of the Year, G?" intones a group of many fictional haters on "The Cool." A semi-concept record soaking with ambition and featuring characters named the Streets, the Cool and the Game, "The Cool" is also a sprawling term paper on most of the problems with mainstream hip-hop ("I'm brainless, which means I'm headless, like Ichabod Crane is ... with no neck left to hang a chain with," he scowls in character), and why he is the man to fix it. At times it's a bit snobby, but never less than listenable and frequently gripping. His flow has certainly limbered up ("Go Go Gadget Flow" and the funky, near-playful "Gold Watch"), and his pitfalls-of-fame riffs (first single "Superstar") are bemused and cautionary rather than gloaty.
Kirk Franklin's latest in his decade-plus string of gold and platinum should continue his reign as gospel's pre-eminent hitmaker and most visible, formidable figure. With trademark, multigenre eclecticism, he draws well on talents as diverse as traditional gospel's Rance Allen, and Isaac Carree (Men of Standard), who guest on the funk-filled jam "Little Boy." The eternally soulful Williams Brothers soar on "Still (In Control)," and Da' T.R.U.T.H. helps Franklin show his rap chops are intact on "I Like Me." "Help Me Believe" is a sweet, silky ballad, and contemporary Christian mainstay tobyMac and his band join on "I Am God," easily Franklin's most fearless and effective foray into rock to date, with a climactic choral coda elevating it to anthemic proportions.
At the start of his fourth album, Atlanta-based rapper Chingy lets us know that he's "straight as a perm" --a curious metaphor that fits the slinky, circuitous course he takes on this return to Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace imprint. This diverse set ranges from the beat-driven fun of "Kick Drum" and "All Aboard (Ride It)" to the lush, Kanye-esque soundscape of "Gimme Dat," with Ludacris and Bobby Valentino, to such club joints as "2 Kool 2 Dance," "Spend Some" (with Trey Songz) and "Roll On 'Em" (with Rick Ross). Chingy teams with Anthony Hamilton on the socially conscious "How We Feel," while Amerie brings soulful vocal hooks to "Fly Like Me." And while the title of "Lovely Ladies" may sound like a playa anthem, it's actually Chingy's tribute to his female elders, promising his mother that "one of these days I'm gonna bring home a Grammy."
In Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," Jonny Greenwood's score turns a portrait of a turn-of-the-century oil magnate into a near-thriller. Working with the Emperor String Quartet and the BBC Concert Orchestra, the compositions from the Radiohead guitarist are the stuff of horror films, and never let the viewer get too comfortable with what's on the screen. On record, the score is just as unsettling and no less gripping. Strings come in and out of "Henry Plainview," at first sounding like some distant weather siren, but then start to toy with the listener, buzzing as if a mad man has gotten hold of an orchestra. Piano keys splatter around "Eat Him by His Own Light," turning what was a relatively pretty violin piece into something a bit more sinister, and the machine-like rhythms of "Proven Lands" are a dizzying cacophony of sounds, providing a momentary rush of freedom.
ALBUM: KISSOLOGY--THE ULTIMATE KISS COLLECTION VOL. 3: 1992-2000
As the third and presumably final chapter of "Kissology" begins, the band is at a valley in its career. By 1992, Kiss were still capable of selling out arenas, but following their '70s heyday and the hair metal explosion of the '80s, they were less relevant than ever in the age of Nirvana. The reunion of the original members for "MTV Unplugged" in 1995 and the tour the following year showed the band cashing in on the nostalgia of a generation of fans that had never seen them in makeup, as well as countless fans that had. Unfortunately, this is the least interesting of the anthologies. While the first two had countless TV appearances, music videos and the so-bad-it's-good TV movie "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park," this four-disc set gets by on four concerts, the "Unplugged" show, performances at the MTV Video Music Awards and the "Detroit Rock City" premiere. Luckily, disc four consists of Kiss' first appearance in makeup, recorded shakily in black and white in 1973 at the club Coventry in Queens.