"Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing" (Capitol Nashville)
* * *
How dark a shadow should real life cast on the artistic life?
In pop music, the line between those worlds has become more and more blurred, as fans' familiarity with performers' foibles and heroics increasingly informs the listening experience.
That might be bad news for Keith Urban, because country music's superstar-in-waiting had the misfortune of relapsing into rehab just as he was releasing an album that repeatedly proclaimed what a rock of stability he was.
"Just give me one chance and, baby, I can set you free," he offers in "Shine." Elsewhere he asserts, "I'm your best friend now, I won't let you down," "Call on me and I'll be there for you" and "All that I can say is I'm here now."
Of course, he isn't there for anybody at the moment, but does the Australian singer's all-too-real situation taint the claims of "Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing"? Or can the work be heard in a pure state, its artistic truth measured strictly by what happens on the record?
Urban's fans will soon answer that question. But on its own terms, "Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing" (due in stores today) makes a pretty good case for itself, balancing an urge toward grandiosity with a sense of restraint and economy, and a dynamic production that's packed with twists and surprises.
The opening "Once in a Lifetime" embodies that approach, rolling along into an extended, almost meditative series of guitar solos that evokes the Allman Brothers. The album ends with Urban alone on electric piano, with just a drum machine tapping the beat, in an intimate expression of contentment and devotion.
In between are ups and downs. The best sustained lyric is "Stupid Boy," in which the singer vainly tries to stifle a free-spirited woman, and Urban gets in a dig at the president in the Katrina-themed rouser "Raise the Barn." Overall, though, the album could use more distinctive viewpoints and memorable language.
But Urban's sincerity as a singer makes him a likable companion, and at its best the music's hybrid of country roots with pop and rock strains is lively and enjoyable. In this world, anyway, Urban seems to have everything under control.
Pitbull shows his softer side
"El Mariel" (TVT Records)
* * *
The last time we heard from this sex-crazed Cuban American rapper, he was howling his irredeemably vulgar ode to a woman's derriere on a hit song from his 2004 debut, "M.I.A.M.I." Judging from salacious singles from his latest album, "El Mariel," Pitbull hasn't tamed his testosterone any.
The title, however, suggests a less carnal side to the artist, whose real name is Armando Perez. Pitbull was born a year after the 1980 Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 immigrants from Cuba, many of them branded "human scum" by Fidel Castro.
It's hardly bold, however, for a Cuban exile in Miami to denounce the Castro regime, as Pitbull does explicitly. Invoking the boat lift a quarter century after the fact seems pointless, especially because the artist offers no new insight on the event and its long-term effect. He dates the issue with references to Tony Montana, the violent Mariel character from the 1983 movie "Scarface."
If politics is not Pitbull's strong suit, the rapper, raised by a single mother, does offer here a strong, multidimensional portrait of his own complex identity, far beyond his animal urges. On "El Mariel," we meet a Pitbull who is even likable and vulnerable.
The reformed drug dealer offers an antidrug message in "Come See Me." He laments the death of his once-estranged father and his best friend in the sad yet hopeful "Raindrops," with guest vocals by young Anjuli Stars. The rapper even bares his broken heart on the very un-macho torch song "Dime," featuring reggaeton's Ken-Y.
Glimpsing the person behind the persona allows us to party with the bad boy on libidinous but infectious songs such as the seductive "Jungle Fever" (with Wyclef Jean) and "Ay Chico (Lengua Afuera)," with its Afro-Cuban undercurrents.
Fat Joe sticks to what he knows
"Me, Myself and I" (Imperial/Virgin)
* * *
Aside from introducing late protege Big Pun to the rap world, this talented Bronx rapper is best known for his crossover singles with J.Lo and Ashanti. On his strong seventh album (due Nov. 14), Fat Joe delivers 12 uncompromising songs that reflect his hard-core roots and highlight his strengths as a rapper.
With Joe, it's all about his presence and authority; he's not going to dazzle you with punch lines a la Kanye West or stinging politically commentary like Ice Cube. So Joe wisely sticks to his guns, literally. The organ-propelled, drug-and-guns manifesto "No Drama (Clap & Revolve)" sounds and feels strikingly similar to Rick Ross' smash single "Hustlin'," but Joe's song may be better.
The slow, reggae-tinged "Breathe and Stop" features Joe unleashing a barrage of intimidating lyrics, while in "Jealousy," he berates those who envy his accomplishments and who, in his view, are too lazy to create their own success. Joe takes a break from the menace and confrontation at the end of the album on two meaningful songs. The soulful "Bendicion Mami" is a touching tribute to his supportive mother, while the dramatic "Story to Tell" looks at the pitfalls of street life, making Joe's latest a well-rounded affair.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed are already in stores except as indicated.