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Listening Room: Mary J. Blige, Rivers Cuomo and more...
Mary J. Blige, "Growing Pains" (Geffen) ***
At the beginning of her eighth studio album, Mary J. Blige declares that she "wasn't afraid to change, 'cause it was good for me." And it still is. As on 2005's triple-platinum "The Breakthrough," Blige is continuing her transition from the (Drama) Queen of Hip Hop Soul into a more mature and settled artist, happily married and ensconced in a career whose trajectory is firmly upward. It may get a little soft for those who preferred Blige when she was working through any number of angst-causing circumstances in her life, but "Growing Pains' " only real stumbles come primarily when she tries to create some issues, like on the apologetic make-up song "Come to Me (Peace)" and the dis track "Roses." The fact is that these days Blige is feeling "Just Fine," as she sings on "Growing Pains' " first single, and to be anything but honest about where her life finds her at present would be the antithesis of what's made her one of the most exciting R&B singers of the past decade and a half. The empowerment anthems "Work That" and "Grown Woman" (with Ludacris) get "Growing Pains" off to a forceful start, while slower tracks such as "Stay Down," "Work in Progress (Growing Pains)," "If You Love Me" and "What Love Is" allow Blige to stretch and experiment with a voice that has grown to diva dimensions. "Shake Down," her duet with Usher, suffers from contrived lyrics, but she has much better luck with Ne-Yo, who co-wrote and co-produced four of the album's 16 tracks, the Neptunes, who helm the buoyant "Till the Morning" as well as StarGate and Tricky Stewart and Dream, the team behind Rihanna's "Umbrella" (which they crafted with Blige in mind). She's still finding a comfort level with her current state of being, but it's a trip Blige is making as interesting as her more troubled days gone by.
Rivers Cuomo, "Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo" (Geffen): **1/2
Even though Weezer is prone to long stretches of hiatus, frontman Rivers Cuomo remains a prolific songwriter and demo-maker, and as a preface to a new band album expected in 2008 he's gathered some of what's said to be hundreds of unreleased recordings into this elaborately annotated compendium that stretches from before Weezer's 1994 debut to 2004's "I Was Made For You," the most fully realized of these 18 tracks. The project is, by nature, an indulgence, but fans of Cuomo and Weezer will gleefully dig into the slower demo version of "Buddy Holly," covers of Dion's "Little Diane" (recorded with Sloan) and Ice Cube's "The Bomb," and five tunes slated for the abandoned mid-90s album "Songs From the Black Hole." Like Cuomo himself it's quirky and idiosyncratic, but certainly a fascinating glimpse into one intriguing artist's creative process.
New & Noteworthy:
Chingy, "Hate It Or Love It" (Disturbing The Peace/Def Jam): The St. Louis MC rolls again with a fourth album that features help from Amerie, Rick Ross, Ice Cube, Anthony Hamilton and others.
Disturbing Tha Peace, "Strength in Numbers" (Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam): The delayed compilation from Ludacris' label features teamings of DTP artists including Chingy, Bobby Valentino, Small World, Steph Jones and more.
Lupe Fiasco, "Lupe Fiasco's The Cool" (Atlantic): The Chicago rapper pronounces himself a "Superstar" on his second album, which feature collaborations with Snoop Dogg, the Neptunes' Chad Hugo and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump.
Kirk Franklin, "Fight of My Life (Fo Yo Soul/Zomba Gospel): The contemporary gospel superstar's latest release chronicles a variety of internal struggles, joined by Toby Mac, Rance Allen and Da' T.R.U.T.H.
Jaheim, "Makings of a Man" (Atlantic): The New Jersey R&B crooner's fourth album finds him working with R. Kelly, Babyface and Keyshia Cole, among others.
Rick Ross, "Trilla" (Slip N' Slide/Def Jam): The Miami rapper continues the "Speedin' " trjectory of his career on his sophomore release.
Soundtrack, "The Great Debaters" (Atlantic): Sharon Jones and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart headline this set of old timey juke joint songs for the new Denzel Washington film.
Soundtrack, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Nonesuch): Every wanna hear Johnny Depp sing? This adaptation of the Broadway musical gives you a chance to hear how he, er, cuts it.
Soundtrack, "The World's Strongest Man" (Wind-up): A heavy-hitting collection for the ESPN series features tracks from Seether, Korn, Mastodon, Hatebreed and other headbangers.
Soundtrack, "There Will Be Blood" (Nonesuch): Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed the score to director Paul Thomas Anderson's new film.
Various Artists, "Def Jam Sessions Vol. 1" (Island Def Jam): Outtakes from recent releases by Nas, Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Fabolous and more populate this label compilation.
Various Artists, "RAW -- Greatest Hits -- The Music" (Columbia/WWE): Wrestlers Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, Undertaker, Kane and others rock the ring on this latest WWE musical project.
Keller Williams, "12" (Sci Fidelity): The madman guitarist and one man band apparently ran out of titles on his previous 11 releases. -- Gary Graff
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