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Identity crisis The latest from Gwen Stefani leaves listeners asking: Is she a pop queen or misguided rapper

There's something that smacks of disingenuousness in Gwen Stefani's sudden about-face from ska- and new wave-loving front woman with No Doubt to self-styled hip-hop diva as a solo artist.

Stefani's 2004 solo debut, "Love.Angel.Music.Baby," was released with a built-in onus to be placed on the listener: Buy Stefani as her generation's Madonna, crossed with an Orange County, Calif.-version of Missy Elliott. On occasion, the transition was smooth and believable. More often than not, though, it seemed wholly forced and cynically contrived.

"The Sweet Escape," her second solo venture, deepens this schism in Stefani's musical personality. It's a dance-pop record masquerading as a hip-hop record, made by a child of '80s new-wave. Often, Stefani tries to blend all three of these styles. Rarely does this "throw everything in the blender" approach serve her, or the listener, well.

Stefani's love of hip-hop and club culture may be genuine, but that doesn't mean she can make convincing music in this area. Throughout "The Sweet Escape," her rapping is embarrassing, an incredibly white, robotic, clipped set of rhythms embracing moronic, sophomoric lyrics. If this was all Stefani did, "Escape" could be immediately written off.

Happily, there is enough of the imp of the perverse in her to warrant attention; the album's most endearing moments are also its strangest -- those whacky flights of freakishness that suggest Stefani might've spent some time with Kate Bush albums like "Hounds of Love" and "The Dreaming," or at the very least, something by the Thompson Twins.

The album's title track, produced by Akon, takes a soggy pseudo-Prince funk track and elevates it with Stefani's goofy but lovable "Wooo-hooo, Yeee-hooo" hook, mercifully distracting the listener from the whiter-than-white metronomic nature of her rapping. The true reference point here is Madonna's "True Blue/La Isla Bonita"-era work -- candy pop that's addictive, if innocuous.

"Orange County Girl" finds the Neptunes returning for production duty, and is carried along by cheesy drum programming and Stefani's beloved '80s new wave synths. Again, it's catchy stuff, but close to insipid if you bother to listen to the lyrics, which are "Jenny From the Block"-type pabulum.

"Early Winter" brings Nelee Hooper into the mix, and his production suits this relatively strong pop ballad. The song is nothing special, just a fairly standard radio-friendly pop tune, but it does offer friendly contrast to the self-conscious attempts to be "street" that fill up much of the rest of the record. Stefani is a much stronger singer than she is a rapper, and if a song like "Early Winter" recalls '80s top 40 pop a la Roxette, at least Stefani doesn't sound like she's posing.

The Swizz Beatz-produced "Now That You Got It" is a churning track that is as much Paula Abdul as it is later-period Janet Jackson, but once again, Stefani's goofiness just about saves the song from the bin marked "pure cheese." The manipulated keyboard and Stefani's oddball vocal ticks offer a welcome respite from the third-hand "club jamz" approach that places a velvet rope between much of the rest of the album and artistic credibility.

"4 In the Morning" is the album's strongest track, and also, the one that sounds the most like No Doubt. This is not due solely to the presence of No Doubt's Tony Kanal as producer, but at least in part to the sugary whine Stefani perfected with that group, and the fact that the song has a melody and is lacking a rap section.

Sadly, Stefani is convinced she's a hip-hop diva, and seems to have invested most of her passion in pabulum like "Yummy," which sounds like Britney Spears with a brain -- that's still too much Britney for an artist as potentially interesting as Stefani to be channeling, though.

Clipped, stuttering, static, forced -- these words can't be avoided when listening to "The Sweet Escape." Stefani is stuck in a prison of her own design. It will take some self-definition -- not the mere playing dress-up that Stefani seems to believe constitutes an artistic make-over -- to melt these bars.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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>CD Review

Gwen Stefani

The Sweet Escape

(Interscope)

Review: 2 stars (Out of 4)

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