The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

Alanis Morissette
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie

When it comes to Morissette, there's definitely such a thing as too much information. The gazillions who bought her American breakthrough disc, 1995's Jagged Little Pill, were probably inspired to make their purchases as much by her "You Oughta Know" confession about giving a blow job in a theater as anything else, but she has chosen to interpret their patronage as proof that she's now the voice of her generation. To that end, she's spent the years since her fame blossomed turning herself into the alterna-Oprah--a newly enlightened woman of the Nineties who believes that by sharing her experiences with those who have yet to be touched by angels, she will be able to spawn a new age of openness and self-actualization. Eeesh.

The words that pour from Morissette seem less like lyrics than diary entries--run-on observations that she doesn't even bother to shape into artful constructs. As the repository of such uncensored ramblings, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (even the title is overwritten) feels slightly embarrassing, like a soul-baring note that should have been thrown away but somehow missed the trash can--a concept Morissette surveys in "Unsent," a tune during which the singer shares excerpts from letters she neglected to mail. The notion might have intrigued had she revealed a fascinating side of herself that had heretofore been hidden from view, but no such luck; the secrets she shares are as banal as an episode of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Had I died without knowing that she would be open to spending quality time with "Matthew," thinks of "Jonathan" whenever the early Nineties come to mind and had her world rocked by "Marcus," I don't think I'd be spending a lot of time griping to St. Peter about it.

Musically, most of the tracks are stupendously tedious--long, meandering collections of notes in search of songs. The wholesale distribution of trite Indian motifs doesn't help much, either (do ya suppose she did it to impress her label boss, the suddenly mystical Madonna?). So for me, the only fun I had while listening to Infatuation Junkie was when I decided to look for the CD's single most moronic line. There was no shortage of candidates: Finalists included "You needed a health scare to reprioritize" ("Front Row"); "How 'bout that ever-elusive kudo?" ("Thank U"); "I was afraid of your testosterone" ("Sympathetic Character"); "That I would be great if I was no longer queen" ("That I Would Be Good"); "All hail the goddess!" ("Heart of the House"); and practically all of "UR," in which our Alanis sounds like a Canadian Yoda ("Precocious, you are/Headstrong, you are/ Terrified, you are"). But the topper was the instant during "Can't Not" when Morissette wonders, "Would I be whining if I said I needed a hug?" I haven't laughed so hard in ages.

Lauryn Hill
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Black Star
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

In the flood of press that accompanied the spectacular chart rise accomplished by the Fugees after 1996's The Score, Lauryn Hill came across as the lesser of the group's three equals--an actress (she was in Sister Act 2) who was cast in the group by big thinker Wyclef Jean and Pras, his cousin and co-conspirator, by virtue of her big voice and attractive exterior. But Hill has always been a lot more than a sonorous prop, as she demonstrates with a vengeance on Miseducation, her solo debut. "Lost Ones," the first song on the disc, reads like a direct assault on Jean--"My emancipation don't fit your equation.../Everything you did has already been done/I know all the tricks from Bricks to Kingston/My thing done made your kingdom wan' run"--and the songs that follow make it abundantly clear that this sister can do it for herself.

"Doo Wop (That Thing)" has become the album's signature cut, and it's a fine one: Throughout it, Hill dissects superficial relationships, chiding men and women alike against a backdrop of infectious harmonies and a warm horn chart. But there are plenty of other colors in this particular rainbow. "Ex-Factor" is a nu-soul excursion in which Hill comes across as a one-woman Emotions; "To Zion," featuring some deft picking by Carlos Santana, places her at the center of an affecting narrative about her decision to have a child; "Every Ghetto, Every City" overflows with urban detail as rich as anything by Stevie Wonder; and "Everything Is Everything" dispenses knowledge ("I wrote these words for everyone/Who struggles in their youth/Who won't accept deception/Instead of what is truth") that walks hand in hand with alluring grooves. Rhymes like these are more likable than those in "Superstar," which also seems to target her fellow Fugees ("Just as Christ was a superstar, you stupid star/They'll hail you, then they'll nail you, no matter who you are"). But the modicum of bitterness on Miseducation is far outweighed by Hill's wisdom. Who says there aren't smart people in hip-hop?

Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the men behind Black Star, certainly qualify. Their new full-length is an invigorating tribute to cultural awareness and refusing to underestimate the audience. The rappers' ambitions are obvious from the start: During "Intro," a sampled voice says, "We feel that we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness," and the very next track, "Astronomy (8th Light)," establishes a link between hip-hop and musical art with the declaration, "I love rockin' tracks like John Coltrane loved 'Naima.'" The risks they take later are just as thrilling. In "Definition," they dare to take a shot at the post-death deification of Notorious B.I.G. ("Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie/In cash we trust, because his ghetto fabulous life looked pretty/What a pity"), and "Hater Players" brilliantly satirizes the all-good crowd ("Come on, everybody/Show the love"). Just as key, the duo has found a musical equivalent to its lyrical insights--a sound that recalls the work of the Native Tongues clique without duplicating it. By daring to challenge the status quo, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are turning their backs on the monetary booty they could reap by employing the lowest common denominator. But knowing what a terrific record they've made, I'll bet they can look at themselves in the mirror without flinching--and that's a reward in and of itself.

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