In the changer this week, we have new albums from a silky-voiced thug crooner, a woefully underrated Baltimore song stylist, a band named after a French TV children's show and a conceited, rough-mouthed female rapper blazing the hip-hop scene.
Jaheim, "Ghetto Classics": Last week, this CD, the New Jersey native's third, debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts after selling 152,000 copies during its first week in stores. All three of Jaheim's albums have incorporated the word ghetto in the title. His promising debut was 2001's Ghetto Love; its stronger follow-up was 2002's Still Ghetto. Each record sold more than a million copies. And Ghetto Classics, Jaheim's best set to date, should keep the momentum going. I must confess: Although I immediately liked his vocal style, an appealing combination of Luther Vandross' mellifluousness and Teddy Pendergrass' commanding power, I didn't care for Jaheim's material. Or his look. A handsome brotha, the artist had the requisite 'hood look down: a hard scowl, tattoos galore, baggy jeans, oversized shirts, zigzagging cornrows, shades (optional).
But the cover of Ghetto Classics, which features the singer in a dapper white suit and matching fedora, is indicative of the musical direction inside: more grown-up and less thuggish. Jaheim always sounds sincere, delivering his keepin'-it-real lyrics of romantic love ghetto-style. But this time, the production, courtesy of KayGee of Naughty By Nature, is sharper, the lyrics more focused. One of several highlights on Ghetto Classics is the first cut, "The Chosen One." The celebratory mid-tempo joint brilliantly samples "I Choose You," an overlooked 1973 soul gem by the recently departed Willie Hutch. The blend of Jaheim's smooth crooning and Jadakiss' gritty rapping works nicely on "Everytime I Think About Her." Rich with thoughtful melodies, open-hearted lyrics and buttery vocals, Ghetto Classics is a glimmering reminder that there's still hope for modern R&B.
Maysa, "Sweet Classic Soul": For more than a decade, this B-more homegirl with the smoked honey tone has been steadily recording either as a solo artist or with the British acid jazz collective Incognito. And although lovers of underground soul and smooth jazz know who she is, Maysa deserves much more attention than she receives. Sweet Classic Soul, her first album for Shanachie Entertainment, is an amiable if sometimes routine covers album. On it, she redoes '70s slow jams associated with Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman and others. The production, overseen by Chris "Big Dog" Davis, is uncluttered but feels too antiseptic at times, particularly on Barry White's "Playing Your Game, Baby." But Maysa is magical on "Love Comes Easy," originally cut by the Stylistics in 1973. That wondrous remake alone is worth the price of the CD.
Belle and Sebastian, "The Life Pursuit": I'm fairly new to this band, whose name comes from a French children's show about a boy and his dog. Yeah, the name is a bit corny, precious even. But the music isn't. On this, the Scottish septet's seventh album, the melodies are stylish, the lyrics witty. Stuart Murdoch, the group's lead vocalist, sounds a bit like David Bowie. And his influence at times ripples through the musical brew of glam rock, Motown pop and lounge jazz. There isn't a dud on the record. Every song is tight and tuneful, invigorated with a rocking, bluesy base. Belle and Sebastian plays the 9:30 Club in Washington Sunday and Monday nights. I have yet to catch the band live. Maybe they can translate the fun energy and impressive musicianship of The Life Pursuit onto the stage.
Remy Ma, "There's Something About Remy: Based on a True Story": Remy Ma bristles at being called a female rapper. She'd be the first to tell you she's better than most guys. On her long-awaited debut, the Bronx native proves she can go toe-to-toe with any rhyme-slinger on the scene, gender be damned. (Tight as she is, though, I don't think she could lyrically smoke Nas or Black Thought.) We first got wind of her on the Terror Squad's massive hit "Lean Back." On There's Something About Remy, the husky-voiced rapper stretches out, firing off boasts (the catchy single "Conceited") and getting the party started (the banging "Whuteva").
Though the more sensual Southern style of rap is hot now, Remy keeps things rooted in the harder, more word-and-beat-driven New York style. Handled by Swizz Beatz, Buckwild, Scott Storch and others, the production throughout is consistent and rightfully centered on Remy, who's always upfront. When she's not bragging about her sexual skills or how fly she is, the rapper is refreshingly introspective. And those moments are the highlights of the album. On "What's Going On," featuring Keyshia Cole, Remy spins a hardcore tale about abortion that's neither preachy nor maudlin. It's straight-up and undiluted, the way I usually prefer my hip-hop.