KANYE WEST "Graduation" (Roc-a-Fella) 3 stars
Tantrums and rampant ego aside, Kanye West has found one area of distinction of which he can be proud: He makes hip-hop music even non-fans can enjoy.
"Graduation," last in a trilogy begun three years ago with "The College Dropout" and "Late Registration," contains similar crossover elements: the agile wordplay, a strong melodic sense and a judicious use of tuneful samples hop-scotching across genres. Gone are the James Bond and Ray Charles samples of "Late Registration" and in come recognizable sound bites from Steely Dan, Daft Punk, Michael Jackson and Elton John, plus a guest vocal from Coldplay's Chris Martin.
As an MC, West has never excelled. As a producer he's shrewd enough to make up for his vocal shortcomings with sonic ear candy. The Daft Punk electro rhythm layered into the current single, "Stronger," may be West's best example yet of stitching samples together with live keyboards, strings and percussion. Even better than his much-loved "Gold Digger" hit, "Stronger" rides its knotty synth clatter into fresh territory. This is the sound of an artist advancing his genre.
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"Graduation," free of tiresome skits, is also West's leanest release yet at just over 50 minutes. But West's historic lapses in judgment once again undermine his good work. The droning "Drunk" and "Hot Girls" wallows in misogynistic cliches, though it might have been listenable given a beat twice the speed of this stoned crawl to nowhere. Elsewhere, his ubiquitous self-absorption arises: "Top 5 MCs you gotta rewind me/I'm high up on the line you can get behind me," he boasts on "Barry Bonds." That can be taken as a jab at 50 Cent, with whom West has waged a public battle over chart supremacy (Fiddy's album "Curtis" also debuted last Tuesday). "Graduation" finds West at the top of the class; he just misses making valedictorian.
Pod Picks: "Stronger," "Good Morning," "Flashing Lights."
GLORIA ESTEFAN "90 Millas" (Burgundy Records) 2 stars
With "90 Millas," Gloria Estefan returns to her Latin and Cuban roots, but she doesn't seem to know where they are anymore. This CD is not bad - it's far too expertly done - but it's mechanical and uninspired, and all its illustrious guest stars, from Santana to Arturo Sandoval, can't bring it to life.
The songs are co-written by Gloria, with husband/producer Emilio Estefan, and Miami producing/songwriting team Ricardo and Alberto Gaitan and several other contributors. They feel carefully constructed - a rocking guitar solo for Santana here, a percussion break for conga star Giovanni Hidalgo there - but there's no flow, no sense that something inspired them. Most of the guest artists, who also include flautist/Fania All-Stars founder Johnny Pacheco, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez, salsa pianist Papo Lucca, percussionist Candido Camero and trumpet player Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, play briefly on just one track. The music often seems to quote other songs by Gloria or other traditional Cuban music. But instead of providing a link to tradition, it just seems like they couldn't come up with anything fresh.
That's also true lyrically. Despite the title, most of the songs have little to do with Cuba. Instead they're standard love-lost boleros, with some flowery cliche country-"son" sentiments thrown in. "A Bailar" (Let's Dance), with Gloria declaring she's experienced and confident enough to go her own way, is a rare exception. "Esperando (Cuando Cuba Sea Libre)" (Waiting When Cuba Is Free), which you'd imagine would be the most passionate, is a melody-free track proclaiming a big party when the Revolution tanks. Profound.
The weakest link is Gloria's singing, which is weirdly tight for someone who's sung dance music her whole career, with no swing, no rhythmic energy and surprisingly little emotion. Every time a song starts to cook, her voice holds it back, and the music never takes off. Compared to salsa singer La India, who duets with Gloria on the title track, background singer Cheito Quinonez on "Morenita," or even her own performance on "Mi Tierra," which covered similar thematic and musical ground, Gloria's voice sounds limp. "Esta Fiesta No Va'Acabar" (This Party Isn't Going to End), promises one song. Here, it never even starts.
Pod Picks: "A Bailar," "No Llores."
RILO KILEY "Under the Blacklight" (Warner Bros.) 3 stars
Rilo Kiley's striking "Under the Blacklight" takes listeners on a night crawl through the back streets of Los Angeles, the ones visitors won't see from The Mondrian. The band, led by ex-child actress Jenny Lewis - whose resume includes stealing Betty White's teddy bear on an episode of "The Golden Girls" - updates the life in the fast lane demimonde and finds the warm smell of colitas has curdled.
"Funny thing about money for sex/You might get rich but you die by it," Lewis, 31, warns on "Close Call." The Blondie-like "Smoke Detector" spotlights a woman who smokes her men in bed - and she isn't packin' Camels.
The former indie band, featuring ex-lovers Lewis and guitarist Blake Sennett, also turns out confessionals on this major label debut. On "Breakin' Up" she coos, "Oooh, it feels good to be free." On "Dreamworld" he retorts, "The wedding bells won't ring, but she could care less/How you exist, when you're living in a dreamworld."
Rilo Kiley contrasts all the darkness with infectious pop melodies and provides some tuneful detours into disco ("Breakin' Up") and Miami Sound Machine-stokin' Latin rhythms ("Dejalo").
Pod Picks: "Dreamworld," "Dejalo," "Smoke Detector."