Dawn Robinson (Q)

Memo to Beyoncé Knowles: Before that "little break" you announced Destiny's Child would soon be taking to pursue solo projects becomes a permanent one, think about Dawn Robinson. As a member of the early-'90s quartet En Vogue, which would have blown Destiny's Child away in a girl-group showdown, Robinson was the funkiest diva of them all. But she left En Vogue in 1997 to pursue a solo career and, except for a brief stint with the hip-hop/soul trio Lucy Pearl, has hardly been heard from since. Her long-awaited solo debut has finally arrived, and while it won't make anyone forget En Vogue, Robinson pipes up with a gratifying if not groundbreaking set of contemporary R&B. Although her sassy, sturdy vocals lift even the more banal ballads, Robinson really shines on funkier fare such as the Destiny's Child-like "Fed Up" and the standout "Meaning of a Woman," a feminist anthem that would do Aretha proud.

Bottom Line: Solo far, solo good

Alejandro Sanz (WEA Latina)

Album of the week

When any Latin-pop troubadour from Spain begins to achieve international fame, he's inevitably dubbed the next Julio Iglesias. Well, Alejandro Sanz is no Julio Iglesias; he's his own man, who, unlike his predecessor, doesn't like his music so pretty and velveteen-smooth. With his sandpapery, soulful voice, Sanz has plenty of grit. Think a Spanish Joe Cocker minus the theatrics.

This live album, which was recorded during a taping for MTV Latin America in Miami last October, serves as a perfect introduction to Sanz, who led last year's Latin Grammys with four wins. These intimate, stripped-down versions of his most popular tunes—all performed in Spanish—put the focus on his raw vocals and gift for nuanced songwriting. Whether on passionate ballads or gospel-charged blues-rock, he avoids the lightweight Latin-pop of Ricky Martin and Iglesias's son Enrique. And accompanied only by himself on guitar, Sanz ends things with a flamenco flourish on the new composition "Buleria."

Bottom Line: Olé!

Nas (Columbia)

If you thought Nas would just turn the other cheek after Jay-Z dissed him on the recent Jay-Z album track "Takeover," think again. On this CD's venomous cut "Ether," Nas fires back, even ridiculing his rival's penchant for Hawaiian shirts. Still, when it comes to the relevance of these two East Coast MCs, Jay-Z is the clear winner. Nas's lyrics and music simply don't pack the punch they once had. Although his delivery remains strong, Nas's rhymes lack fresh, potent hooks, and he's too often defensive. Nas must have hoped for an artistic comeback by calling this disc Stillmatic, referring to his memorable 1994 debut, Illmatic. But despite some flashes of his old urban awareness, he hasn't evolved enough to keep up with the current leaders of the rap pack.

Bottom Line: At a creative standstill

The Chemical Brothers (Astralwerks)

Electronica is the new Muzak. Generation Whatever doesn't actually listen to it; it's wallpaper for the coolscape of hipster bars and clubs when it isn't ji-ji-jittering away on the soundtrack of a car-chase scene at the multiplex. There's no question what chemical the Brothers are offering: It's adrenaline.

Home-listening to the latest from England's Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons is more problematic. The blip grooves, demonic keyboard riffs and jagged beats may sound slammin' among the writhing strobe-lit bodies, but it all loses its otherworldliness if you put it on while you're cleaning the bathtub. Scattered vocals enhance the clubby chaos: "It began in Afrika" is chanted over tribal beats on the track of the same name, and folky Beth Orton is sweetly plaintive on "The State We're In." Fun party game: play sample detective. Was that bit an homage to the theme from The Jetsons?

Bottom Line: Save it for your next rave

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Kyle Smith.