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ALBUM: SHE WOLF
NEW YORK (Billboard) - With plenty of moans, guitars, doumbek, disco, clarinet and synth, Shakira's newest album, "She Wolf," is a grab bag of influences, ranging from pop rock to world music to '80s R&B. The result is certainly more adventurous than anything from her peers, if a little forced. Highlights include an ingenious mix of mandolin, banjo, sitar and tabla on "Gypsy," the closest thing to an acoustic song on the album, and "Why Wait," with its relentless synth punctuated by a badass Middle Eastern string section straight from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." The bonus tracks, for which the album's U.S. version was delayed, don't add much. The Timbaland-produced "Give It Up to Me" has Shakira telling Lil Wayne, "Put me in a cage and lock me away and I'll play the games that you want me to play." As with a friend with an unworthy partner, you want to tell Shakira: You can do better.
ALBUM: THE SEVENTH SEAL (SMC Recordings)
Despite the nearly 10 years since his last album, Rakim proves he's still in top lyrical form on his third solo set, "The Seventh Seal." On the single "Holy Are You," he makes biblical references atop the Electric Prunes' 1968 sample of the same title, rapping, "Trace this style to the roots of Genesis/The world wonder/I'm still standing like pyramids." Later, over a basic tambourine and electric guitar production, Rakim schools other artists about the art of rap on "How to Emcee." Standouts on the album include "Man Above," with piano influence from Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E.," and "You and I," which features flute vibrations. But much like the synth-driven beat on "Holy Are You," some elements on "The Seventh Seal" seem dated. "Message in the Song" includes a lifeless singer on the chorus, while "Satisfaction Guaranteed" has an unappreciated chipmunk-sounding voice looped into the beat. Overall, Rakim can still carry the throne as one of the greatest rappers of all time, but he'll need stronger production next time around.
ARTIST: LEONA LEWIS
ALBUM: ECHO (Sony Music/J Records)
"I breathe, I hear, but I don't believe it," U.K. pop artist Leona Lewis sings on "Alive," a standout track from her second album, "Echo." "My heart, it beats, but inside I'm freezing." Lewis' detractors will find it hard to separate those lyrics from the main criticism often lobbied against her: that she's technically gifted, but there's a soulful quality missing from her performance. While it's true that Lewis has never emoted on the level of her heroine, Whitney Houston (an awfully high bar to match), "Echo" still marks a vast improvement over her post-"X Factor" debut release in 2007. A range of writer/producers -- including Ryan Tedder, Kevin Rudolf and Max Martin -- help the singer reveal a more expressive side. The result is most apparent on Martin's upbeat electro-pop "Outta My Head," where Lewis is finally allowed to let loose. As haunting as Lewis' ballads are, perhaps fewer of them would do her some good.
ARTIST: JUSTIN BIEBER
ALBUM: MY WORLD (Island Records)
Fifteen-year-old pop sensation Justin Bieber's first Billboard Hot 100 single, "One Time," was an insanely catchy ode to young love that immediately won over fans. And so were his second, third and fourth. It's no wonder, then, that Bieber's debut album, "My World," sticks to the formula. His vocals are as boyish as they are disarmingly mature. With genuine swagger on the nimble R&B track "Bigger," Bieber sings, "I was a player when I was little, but now I'm bigger ... and all the haters, I swear, they look so small from up here." The ballad "Down to Earth" (a song he co-wrote about his parents' separation) reveals a deeper side: "So we fight through the hurt, and we cry and cry and cry and cry/Then we live and we learn, and we try." Judging by the delivery of those poignant lines, it's hardly a stretch to imagine Bieber racking up more hits in the next decade to come.
ARTIST: THE ROLLING STONES
ALBUM: GET YER YA-YA'S OUT! (40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set) (ABKCO)
For a band with such a storied history of great performances -- and a large catalog of live recordings -- there's little a fan can buy (legally, at least) that captures the Rolling Stones at the full height of their powers. "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!," which captures the band at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1969, has always been the best of the bunch. This smart four-disc package commemorates the concert's 40th anniversary with a pristine remastered version of the original recording, five previously unreleased songs from the same show and an entire disc devoted to the fiery opening acts, B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner. But the real treat for Stones fans is the 29-minute DVD by director Albert Maysles, which features material left out of the documentary "Gimme Shelter." Here, Maysles manages to give the vast stage show at the Garden an intimate feel and reveal the band's immortality.
ARTIST: ROBBIE WILLIAMS
ALBUM: REALITY KILLED THE VIDEO STAR (EMI)
The United States may not even have noticed he's been away, but there's been a Robbie Williams-shaped hole in the rest of the world's pop landscape since his experimental last album, "Rudebox," flopped in 2006. On his newest effort, "Reality Killed the Video Star," such lyrics as "Get the message to the troubadour/The world don't love you anymore" may suggest that "Rudebox" is still preying on Williams' mind. But musically, it never happened. Instead, he offers string-drenched ballads, slick George Michael-style electronic dance-pop, Elvis Costello-esque clever wordplay and the slightly cheesy, supremely catchy MOR pop he made his name with. Only the garish '80s-style rocker "Do You Mind" fails. The album may not be enough to convince America it's missing out, but expect it to bring the already converted back onboard in droves.
ARTIST: GUCCI MANE
ALBUM: THE STATE VS. RADRIC DAVIS (Asylum Records)
If Gucci Mane's new album, "The State Vs. Radric Davis," were a holiday, it would be Halloween. Over a daunting, organ-like piano on the track "Heavy," the Atlanta rapper wittily rhymes, "I just got out of jail, yeah, they tried to Michael Vick me." Similar to something heard in a horror film, the song "Gingerbread Man" features OJ Da Juiceman's habitual "Eys!" over a grand piano scheme and clinging xylophones. And Soulja Boy and Waka Flocka Flame are featured on "Bingo," which boasts a double-speed beat ideal for any scary movie. Even the ladies' track "I Think I'm in Love," on which Gucci discovers he and his love interest are falling for each other, features an eerie Zaytoven production beneath it. However, like the singles "Spotlight" and "Wasted," the songs on the album that jump out most aren't the ones with creepy rhythms, but those with Gucci Mane's witty lyrical delivery. The comical "Lemonade" is about diamond-encrusted jewelry, while "My Own Worst Enemy" talks about the day he was almost murdered.
ALBUM: WAKING UP (Interscope Records)
OneRepublic has recharged its sound with its second album, "Waking Up." The new set finds the band turning out irresistible instrumentals and ultra-catchy vocal chants that enliven its radio-friendly rock sound. The first single, "All the Right Moves," melds scratchy drums with a sweeping mix of cello and piano in a nod to industry politics. During "Secrets," OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder defends his in-demand songwriting abilities when he sings, "This time, don't need another perfect line/Don't care if critics never jump in line." He's more optimistic on "Good Life," an uplifting pop gem complete with whistles and lighthearted marching drums. "Waking Up" boasts enough intertwining pop melodies backed with anthemic vocals to show fans of the 2007 Timbaland-remixed track "Apologize" that OneRepublic can deliver more addictive hooks while still maintaining its own graceful and introspective sound.
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