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POP MUSIC | Record Rack

Suffering in the Translation

** 1/2 RICKY MARTIN, "Ricky Martin" Columbia

May 09, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER

A noisy, sparkling pop extravaganza, Ricky Martin's English-language debut album (due in stores Tuesday) has success written all over it. It is actually the kind of record consumed by people who never buy records. A talented performer, Martin covers so many musical genres with such an unapologetic hunger for world domination that it's difficult not be blown away by the sheer scope of his project. Still, his considerable charisma can't hide the fact that the album sounds and feels prefabricated.

The fault is not entirely Martin's. For years now, the U.S. has been waiting hungrily for a Latino pop star to conquer the mainstream. With the growth of the Latino population in this country, the word "crossover" became a sort of musical Holy Grail for record company executives fixated on chart success. And of all the eligible candidates, Martin is clearly the only one who has what it takes to fill the coveted position. Who can blame him for trying?

The drawbacks of that decision are all over the new album. Whereas the title track from his previous, Spanish-language album "Vuelve" was crystalline music for torrid lovemaking, the new hit single "Livin' La Vida Loca" sounds as if it were written with the Spice Girls' audience in mind. The Latin-tinged tunes on the album abuse all the cliches typically associated with Hispanic culture--the frothy enthusiasm, the staccato bursts of horns, the spontaneous swings of the hip--forsaking the more dangerous, gutsy vibe of real tropical music.

Can you really trust a performer who sings a tune titled "Shake Your Bon-Bon"?

But Martin has succeeded at that most challenging of Anglo genres: the power ballad. A self-professed lover of classic rock, he sounds genuinely moving on the overproduced "I Am Made of You."

And his collaboration with Madonna on the hypnotic "Be Careful" (overseen by mood master William Orbit) is easily the album's best track.

Ultimately, Martin's desire to conquer the Anglo market might have been the wrong artistic choice. From a one-of-a-kind Latin singer with exquisite taste, he has turned into yet another mainstream pop idol.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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* Excerpts from these and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www. calendarlive.com/soundclips

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