Anthony Hamilton, "Ain't Nobody Worryin'"
You won't find Anthony Hamilton popping Cristal in a stretch Navigator -- nor, for that matter, trapped in any closets. The sleeve of the thinking person's R&B crooner's fourth album sees him contemplative in a turtle-neck sweater, possibly wondering when some of John Legend's neo-soul paydirt will rub off on him, and once more channeling Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway to wholesomely seductive effect.
The Los Angeles Times (three stars out of five) is suitably weak-kneed: "(Hamilton) possesses an agile, nigh-on-irresistible, honey-dipped voice recalling such galvanizing greats as Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye and a personal style that gives each syllable a thrilling intimacy." The New York Times, it seems, wants to bring the singer home to meet Mom and Dad: "Mr. Hamilton is a throwback to a more gallant era: the heyday of 1970s soul, when affection and community-minded concern were in fashion, not thug machismo." Allmusic.com, meanwhile, is looking toward cohabitation: "Regardless of the decade you're living in, this is an album to live with."
But, while the New York Times concludes that Hamilton's is "a thoroughly likable album, from its understated grooves to its nice-guy attitude," the Los Angeles Times finds that "Ain't Nobody Worryin'" perhaps could have done with just a little worryin' after all: "All the happiness is way too cloying and repetitive, and it's hard to shake the feeling that he should use his distinctive, compelling voice to convey messages with a deeper impact." Billboard, on the other hand, sees no reason for Hamilton to mess with a winning, "comfortable" formula, where "love, family and a Southern outlook on life are once again at the heart of the matter" and the "social commentary ('Ain't Nobody Worryin',' 'Preacher's Daughter') comes peppered with the right amount of down-home seasoning."
Allmusic.com disagrees that the concerns of "Ain't Nobody Worryin'" are primarily of the homely variety: "Despite what it looks like, the sentiment in the album's title and song of the same name is a world apart from Bobby McFerrin's carefree Don't Worry, Be Happy': as Hamilton lays it out, people are either too resigned to their problems or too caught up in them to worry."
Could it be time, therefore, for John Legend to stop hogging grown-up R&B's share of Grammy nominations? "Perhaps the recognition of Legend's work will bring the much-deserved spotlight to Hamilton's music as well," Newsday (grade B+) writes. "'Ain't Nobody Worryin'' is so good it's only a matter of time [before] things correct themselves."
The remix album: the place where groundbreaking artists meet with their peers to reimagine definitive works (Jay-Z and Dangermouse), or the last refuge for the chronically devoid of ideas? It's been a long while since Beck's breakthrough record "Odelay" was trouncing all comers in the end-of-year album polls (nine years, in fact). This year's "Guero," the singer's eighth release, met with a far more muted response, some hearing hints of a return to the genre-hopping inspiration of '96, and others a weak echo of former glories. Which raises a question or two about the motivation behind "Guerolito," a track-by-track remix of "Guero": There was a time when Beck was a one-man remix record -- adding his own hip-hop beats and electronic beeps, plus a whole manner of other tricks, to a bluesy, acoustic template -- why, now, has he recruited a host of left-field hip-hop and electronic music's most fashionable names to do his bidding?
The New York Times senses a singer stepping back from the cutting edge of musical innovation: "Beck's original versions now sound restrained and single-minded, probably truer to the songs. The remixes are busier and dizzier, leaving Beck to his melancholy while they have some fun." Pitchfork Media (rating 6.2) adds, "His fierce glint fading, it's becoming increasingly clear that Beck is no longer able to freely revel in the youthful dalliances that made him famous more than a decade ago. 'Guerlito's' standouts prove that proper taste and a good ear can be just as valuable as songwriting to a multi-tasker like Beck, but even for an artist this venerable, a remix record is still a remix record -- generally uneven, part enlightening, and part skippable."
Unsurprisingly, appreciation of "Guerolito" seems to correspond with the response to "Guero." For Pitchfork, "much like its inconsistent source material, 'Guerolito' emits a few flashes but lacks the cohesiveness that was once this innovator's hallmark." For Billboard, quite the opposite holds: "It would be hard to improve on Beck's gold-certified 'Guero.' Instead, the all-star producers simply garnish the shaggy one's originals with their own spices." Pop Matters (six out of 10), meanwhile, though leading the campaign for a critical reassessment of the original album -- "it's a mutable work that resounds in pasts and futures. And you can dance to it" -- is not entirely sold on the concept of the follow-up: "Roughly half of the remixes on 'Guerolito' fail to transcend expectations; that is, they operate as most remixes do."
Still, says Pop Matters, the album is not without some merit: "Think of 'Guerolito' as an addendum or an after-dinner mint -- the worthwhile offerings it affords will be of most use to the listener who enjoyed the main course."
Various Artists, "Ludacris Presents: Disturbing tha Peace"
Jay-Z with his Roc-a-fella cohorts, Nelly with his St. Lunatics, 50 with G-Unit: As any hip-hop megastar knows, the "posse" record is a crucial component of a well-stocked discography. It enables the business-savvy rapper to grant a ton of free exposure to his label-mates, keep his own name in the press without the hard work of writing an album's worth of new songs, and, of course, there's nothing tougher-looking than having a big gang to stand behind you in the publicity photos.
The fallback function of the "posse" record is, of course, should the protégés not quite live up their billing, it never hurts to keep around a bunch of less-talented friends who make the main guy look good (hello, D-12). But, according to Newsday (grade B), "that's what makes Ludacris' 'Disturbing Tha Peace' posse so unusual. Field Mob, Shawnna and newcomers Playaz Circle, Lil' Fate and even teen crooner Bobby Valentino can and do hold their own on 'Ludacris Presents: Disturbing Tha Peace.'" Allmusic.com, in contrast, finds the sheer size of Luda's crew -- most of the gang from the first DTP record, "Golden Grain," plus new signings and guests like actor Jamie Foxx -- a bit overwhelming: "Keeping tabs on who you're hearing during most moments can be dizzying, and DTP is only united by Ludacris' presence and grooming, so it's not an easy album to follow."
Despite the confusion, there's no doubting who is pulling the strings and bringing in the punters: "A posse is only as good its leader," notes Newsday. Billboard adds: "The perpetually animated Ludacris sticks to his usual crafty antics on four cuts, including Sweet Revenge' and the unexciting lead single 'Georgia.'" For its part, the New York Times disagrees about "Georgia," calling it "a lovely collaboration between Ludacris, Jamie Foxx (in Ray Charles mode) and the underrated duo Field Mob," while Allmusic.com also digs the track, but suggests that Foxx's "Ray" shtick is "getting-tired-fast."
Ultimately, though, however diverse your posse is, the "posse" record is never really going to be more than a filler album in between solo projects, and as such, "Ludacris Presents: Disturbing tha Peace" smacks of poor value for the money. The New York Times hits the nail on the head, it seems, when it observes, "if Ludacris wanted to promote his record label by including this grab bag CD free with every issue of XXL magazine, no one would complain. But it seems unfair to ask listeners to pay $14 for the privilege of hearing music from lesser-known acts (including a Linkin Park-ish band called Lazyeye) that may or may not fit into Disturbing Tha Peace records' 2006 release schedule."
-- Matt Glazebrook