The way indie rockers and other terminal hipsters disparage commercial radio and major-label recordings, one would think that nothing popular could possibly be good. So while the indie-rock types trade in obscurities and maudlin guitar introspection, those who have learned to take their pontifications with a grain of salt are free to enjoy the renaissance of R&B and hip-hop, in which some of the most innovative pop music of the last decade is currently being made. Consider the soundtrack for Romeo Must Die: For those with ears to hear it, this unusually consistent hip-hop and R&B-laden soundtrack is a treasure.
Admittedly, it ain't Motown, but that's only because the game's changed since Motown was a real player. Spearheaded by executive producer Timbaland, the songs are characterized by off-center rhythms that would have scared the shit out of Berry Gordy. Even when Timbaland isn't behind the boards of a specific cut, the jerky, funky, hard-edged beats he pioneered are there, lending his spirit to the whole proceeding.
Thankfully, there's hardly a ballad to slow things. And there aren't many melodies that Gordy would touch, a sign of musical times when songs are usually hooked by beats and effects rather than melodies. And unlike the R&B of yesteryear, the singers on this collection only occasionally step out and take charge. Aaliyah's ever-improving vocal command holds its own against the music of "Try Again" -- one of Timba's best-ever cuts -- as well as on three other tracks. Her vocals provide continuity and some of the album's clear highlights. Destiny's Child's nicely harmonized "Perfect Man" and Playa's catchy, romantic "Woozy" are the other ringers, carefully placed among the lesser cuts (Mack 10's "Thugz," BG's "Rollin' Raw" and Dave Hollister's "Pump the Brakes"). But even these tracks are entertaining enough, all heavy beats and gangsta flow. At its best, the straightforward wisdom of the words and plainly enjoyable danceability of the music can stand tall alongside Holland-Dozier-Holland or Berry Gordy Jr.'s own tunes. And who knows? Timbaland may yet find a lyricist to compete with Smokey Robinson's genius.
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