Twenty-five-year-old Sparkle won notice in '98 with "Be Careful," a duet with R & B crooner (and fellow Chicagoan) R. Kelly. Although the single hit the charts, Sparkle (real name: Stephanie Edwards) was marketed as little more than a protégée (and possible romantic liaison) of the hugely popular Kelly.
Here, on her first album since signing with Motown, Sparkle steps out of Kelly's shadow with a set of songs fusing sassy hip-hop attitude to a languid pop sound. On tunes like the finger-popping midtempo "Lovin' a Man" (which recalls Natalie Cole's '77 hit "I've Got Love on My Mind") and "It's a Fact," which is laced with a mournful guitar hook, Sparkle displays a voice that is clear and girlish yet steeped in grown-up wisdom.
Sparkle delivers her tales of life in the hood and love's ups and downs with a minimum of formula and an abundance of emotion.
Bottom Line: Sparkling
(Come Get It)
Aaron Carter (Jive)
Adults—heck, even teenagers—may find it a little difficult to fully appreciate the charms of preadolescent heartthrob Aaron Carter, 12, whose major-label debut album arrives with all the youthful exuberance of a first dance. So much so that he makes his lookalike big brother, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter (who cameos in one of the CD's many spoken interludes), seem like a grumpy old man.
The effervescent funk-lite jam "Bounce" is guaranteed to get any preteen's party jumpin'. And the frothy pop-rocker "Real Good Time" is just that. Still, it's hard to imagine that a bubblegum rap like the title song will appeal to kids already listening to Eminem. But while a few cuts ("The Clapping Song," a remake of "Iko Iko") are more Sesame Street than Backstreet, Carter works hard to prove he has grown beyond the age where all girls are still gross. When he covers the hit "I Want Candy," he's clearly not talking about Gummi Bears. For now, though, only 9-year-old girls may be persuaded.
Bottom Line: Uptempo, upbeat groove
Album of the week
Three years have passed since Radiohead's now classic OK Computer moved some critics and fans to label them the Best Band in the World. Kid A upholds the standard. Heralded for the eerie insight of songs like 1993's "Creep," moody frontman Thorn Yorke is now even more penetrating than usual. Ambient synth drum and electric piano sweep one song into the next, creating a swirly, spacey dreamscape, with Yorke's voice occasionally seeping in from some hidden corner. The standout on this brilliant space-rock manifesto is the cheerless "Optimistic," which implodes with angst.
Bottom Line: As original as ever
Milk Cow Blues
Willie Nelson (Island)
The natural ache in Nelson's voice has always suited his singing of the blues, but he has never made quite the point of it that he does in this affectingly moody album. Some of its strength lies in the presence of such talents as Dr. John, B.B. King, Susan Tedeschi and young guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Francine Reed, best known as a featured vocalist in Lyle Lovett's Large Band, also makes a welcome appearance. But Milk Cow is also a showcase for the bluesier qualities of Nelson's own best songs, including "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," and the timeless honky-tonk anthem "Night Life." Clearly his forays into various genres of music (he has previously released CDs with gospel, duets and standards) should be encouraged, though one would hope he would draw the line at singing his favorite opera arias.
Bottom Line: Fortunately, even outlaw country music singers sometimes get the blues