Babyface's "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack album is the "Chronic" of R&B albums. Like Dr. Dre's rap opus, it's basically one writer-producer's vision as delivered by a variety of voices. And like "The Chronic," it's crammed with potential hits. Mary J. Blige's "Not Gon' Cry" and Brandy's "Sittin' Up in My Room" are the two new "Exhale" scorchers that have followed Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" onto the singles charts, and both score strongly here. (Current pop singles are rated on a scale of 0 to 100.)
Madonna, Pearl Jam and Tha Dogg Pound, meantime, prove that they have musical talent in addition to a knack for attention-grabbing headlines. And if you're sick of Boyz II Men--sorry, but the current singles by Mariah Carey and Shawn Stockman won't let you wave adios just yet.
Mary J. Blige, "Not Gon' Cry" (Arista). Blige is consistently likened to Aretha Franklin, but this is really the first time she's recorded a vocal worthy of the comparison. Over a subdued background, Blige relates her tale of wronged love with acidic force. The scorned woman motif dates back to Bessie Smith, but like the best examples of the genre, "Not Gon' Cry" makes you feel Blige's heartbreak as if it were your own. This song is the closest thing young black women have to a national anthem, and will be held in high esteem long after "Waiting to Exhale" leaves the multiplex. 90
Brandy, "Sitting Up in My Room (Arista). Young Brandy Norwood demonstrates considerable promise. Like Janet Jackson, this TK-year-old can move from the dance floor to the bedroom with ease and finesse, but Brandy has a stronger voice. Babyface's song casts her in a more mature light than her previous work, but still captures the nature of the puppy love that has her all wound up. Babyface's funky-but-restrained background track, however, is the real star of this jam. Using a pleasant mixture of plunking bass and synthesizer chords, "Room" proves that he has a grabbag of styles at his disposal. 80
The Tony Rich Project, "Nobody Knows" (LaFace). Rich writes texture-filled songs that live up to his last name. The singer-songwriter has a warm, organic sound reminiscent of an early Prince, and like Dionne Farris, he makes music that evokes creaky tin roofs, long, barefoot walks down dirt roads, and lonely nights when the rain won't stop falling. With a traditional sound forged by instruments that are much more heartfelt than any drum machine, this song might break through the "Bump 'n' Grind" glut, reintroducing spoon-fed R&B fans to real music. 85
Madonna, "You'll See" (Maverick). They should retitle this song "Not Gon' Cry--the Maverick remix." Like Whitney Houston, former dance-floor diva Madonna has managed to redefine her position in pop music through her ballads. "You'll See" finds her picking up the pieces after the fall, not as the XXXX that characterizes her pop persona, but as a sensitive creature finding her own identity independent of her man. Producer David Foster's use of flamenco guitar and breezy string arrangements give this record an almost regal sensibility. 80
Pearl Jam, "I Got Id" with "Long Road" (Epic). As on all their best material, Eddie Vedder and crew manage to sound mad at the world without indulging in rage for its own sake. This single's B-side is the real winner: In "Long Road," Vedder shifts keys and gears, lowering the timbre of his trademark wail and the tempo of the song to fit the lonely movement involved with endless, metaphoric travel. 75
Tha Dogg Pound, "Let's Play House" (Death Row). Tha Dogg Pound's first single is more notable for reintroducing R&B singer Michel'le (the 1990 hit "No More Lies") than for the duo's rapping skills, which are much better served on other tracks from their debut album. As producer, the Pound's Daz comes to the fore with a thumping funk track that rides the middle ground between hip-hop bounce and R&B smoothness. Michel'le, teaming with another guest, Nate Dogg, sounds great; their upcoming solo albums are definitely of interest. 70
Shawn Stockman, "Visions of a Sunset" (label). The Boyz II Men member offers nothing distinctive or truly memorable in his first solo outing. Like his group's material, this predictable song is all flowers, roses and sensitively placed strings; you almost expect Johnny Mathis to pop up somewhere in the mix. 50
Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, "One Sweet Day" (Columbia). Can millions of listeners be wrong about this long-term chart-topper? Yes. It's champagne and bubbles from two of pop music's biggest producers of cotton candy. The vocal pitch on both sides undulates so much that the lyric's meaning is utterly lost. With cameos on singles by LL Cool J, Brandy and now this, the Boyz are becoming dangerously overexposed. 45
Ace of Base, "Beautiful Life" (Arista). ABBA returns! Makes you wish that the Giorgio Moroder sound had died at the end of "Scarface" along with Al Pacino. 40
To hear excerpts from the albums reviewed, call TimesLine and press * and the artist's corresponding four-digit code.
Mary J. Blige / Brandy *5712
Tony Rich *5713
Pearl Jam *5715
Tha Dogg Pound *5716
Shawn Stockman *5717
Carey / Boyz II Men *5718
Ace of Base *5719I
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