Mary J. Blige (Geffen)

"There's only one Mary, only one Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," says Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in the intro to Mary J. Blige's sixth studio disc. And he should know. Back when he was Puff Daddy, Combs produced Blige's first two albums, 1992's What's the 411? and 1994's My Life. The two reunite on Love & Life, and while the result falls short of the masterpiece My Life and even 200l's No More Drama, Blige and Combs are still a potent pair. Blige, who had been growing more toward the soul side of hip-hop soul, returns to her roots with deft street beats produced by Combs, who adds old-school flavor by sampling everything from Marvin Gaye to Rufus & Chaka Khan. They also bring in guest rappers Eve, 50 Cent and Method Man for three songs, but only the collaboration with Eve, the slinky sister-to-sister jam "Not Today," doesn't disappoint. (It's also the only cut not produced by Combs, but Dr. Dre.) Blige rules the show on tracks like "Ooh!," a classic R&B burner that showcases her from-the-gut vocals. Of course no Blige album would be complete without a killer he-done-me-wrong ballad for the ladies. Here it's "It's a Wrap," on which she once again proves she is the Aretha of her generation.

BOTTOM LINE: Not her best, but still another jewel in Mary's crown.

Kenna (Columbia)
Critic's Choice

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Kenna's debut CD is the best '80s album to come out this year. Taking his cues from acts like the Cars, the Cure, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, the singer keyboardist has brought synth-pop into the 21st century without missing a drum-machine beat. The Ethiopian-born, U.S.-reared Kenna teams up with his high school friend Chad Hugo, half of the hit-making Neptunes production duo. Hugo, who cowrote 11 of 14 songs with Kenna, updates '80s keyboard riffs with crisp, funky drum sounds. Meanwhile Kenna's anguished wail sounds like a cross between the Cars' Ric Ocasek and the Cure's Robert Smith on songs like the jumpy "Freetime." He also brings a keen melodic and lyrical sense to tracks like the sweetly melancholy "Sunday After You": "My life ain't what it seems/ Living out tired dreams." But there is nothing tired about Kenna's music.

BOTTOM LINE: Kenna winner.

Jessica Simpson (Columbia)

It's a good thing that Jessica Simpson has entered the world of reality television with Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, her new MTV show with husband Nick Lachey. She may need a backup career after this, her dismal third disc. With stale songs and warmed-over production, Simpson, 23, tries to make a meal out of what sounds like Britney Spears's leftovers from three years ago. On the soft-porn single "Sweetest Sin," the singer, who once pledged to remain a virgin until marriage, attempts to shed her goody-goody teen-pop image à la Spears's "I'm a Slave 4 U." But it's these lyrics that truly are a sin: "It would feel so good to be so bad." On the country-inflected title tune, one of nine songs that Simpson cowrote, she addresses the same self-image issues that Christina Aguilera already covered much better on "Beautiful."

BOTTOM LINE: Been there, heard that

Pat Green (Universal)

In the middle of this sober, meditative country disc, Pat Green lightens things up with "Elvis," a witty tune that adopts Presley's current point of view in the hereafter: "Once a year they all come to see me/ I watch them throwing flowers at my toes." Green cowrote "Elvis," as he did 12 of the 13 songs on this thoughtful if downbeat album, but more typical of the singer's less-than-rosy view of the universe is "If I Was the Devil": "If I was the devil, I'd gather up all of your dreams/ And drop them to the bottom of a black lagoon." Musically the CD is an accomplished amalgam of country and blues-rock, demonstrating that Green is more than your average Texas troubadour.

BOTTOM LINE: Tasty Wave.

Smash Mouth (Interscope)

Two years after Smash Mouth scored its biggest hit with a remake of "I'm a Believer," the band still sounds like a modern-day Monkees. On the California quartet's fourth CD, they continue to deliver relentlessly sunny, instantly catchy pop ditties that you can imagine Davy Jones and company playing in the '60s. In fact the ska-pop single "You Are My Number One" is a previously unearthed gem by Neil Diamond, who also wrote "I'm a Believer" for the Monkees. On other tracks Beach Boys-style harmonies and swirly, psychedelic-tinged keyboards add to the retro charm. Smash Mouth keeps its lyrics as lightweight as its music, even on the post-Sept. 11 party song "Hang On": "If things are getting rough/ Turn it back around/ You gotta turn it up when they tell you tone it down," sings frontman Steve Harwell in his bar-band voice. And there is a sameness to some of the tracks that shows the group's musical limitations. At least, though, Smash Mouth knows not to bite off more than it can chew.

BOTTOM LINE: Satisfying but not smashing

Jimmy Wayne (Dream Works)

This newcomer's true-life tale is the stuff that gritty country songs are made of. Growing up in North Carolina, he had an abusive stepfather, worked to earn money for his mother while she was in prison, and lived in an abandoned trailer after running away from a group home. Unfortunately, on his first disc, Wayne's musical craft and thin, wan voice aren't nearly as compelling as his personal story, which he tells ardently but pedantically. "The Rabbit," for instance, is a revenge song that imagines what might happen if a rabbit turned the tables on his hunter: "It ain't gonna be fun when the rabbit gets the gun." On the melodramatic "Blue and Brown," Wayne tells of meeting up with an incarcerated former foster brother while working as a prison guard. Not that all of Wayne's songs are dark and depressing. On the spiritually uplifting "Paper Angels," he sings, "No matter where you are right now/ Remember, God's right there." Here's hoping that next time Wayne's music will be as inspiring as his press bio.

BOTTOM LINE: Bypass Wayne's world

Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Reprise)

Young bills his latest as a "musical novel." He's half right. There are lots of plot and character about the fictional town of Greendale, and Young has a novelist's eye for crushing detail: After a cop gets killed, "The force got back to normal/ Carmichael was replaced/ For one year nobody parked a car/ In Carmichael's space." Two people and a cat die in total. It's the music that's lacking; it's all mumble and growl (bass, drums, one guitar), unstructured and monotonous. Dark stories need more salvation than Young's band can muster, but hardcore fans of Young, or Springsteen's similar Nebraska, will be entranced.

BOTTOM LINE: Glumdale

With eight nods for her "Work It" clip, Missy Elliott reeled in the most nominations for the 20th MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 28. So what videos take the prize with the rapper?

•"Thriller," Michael Jackson. "This was where you really saw that videos could be taken to that next level."

•"Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," Busta Rhymes. "Leave it to Busta to turn a hot club party record into Coming to America."

•"The Pleasure Principle," Janet Jackson. "Of course, Janet killed it with that dancing."

•"Lady Marmalade," Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil' Kim and Mya (with a Missy cameo). "Crazy! Over the top!"

•"More Than a Woman," Aaliyah. "The title sums up Aaliyah."

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Kyle Smith.