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Record Rack

Her bad is just a put-on

July 29, 2009|Margaret Wappler; Mikael Wood; August Brown

Ashley Tisdale

"Guilty Pleasure"

Warner Bros. * 1/2

At age 24, Ashley Tisdale is the elder of the "High School Musical" tribe that includes Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. On her second album, "Guilty Pleasure," the now-brunet wants to forge her adulthood, but what she's crafted is a glob of uninspired pop-rock that aspires to be Pink but is really something paler.

The problem might lie with Tisdale's chosen path of independence; the showbiz prodigy now fancies herself a bad girl. That takes more fortitude than can be mustered by this wan batch of songs co-produced and written (with Tisdale's contributions) with an all-star team that includes Kara DioGuardi and Toby Gad. They don't seem to have gifted Tisdale with their best work.

On "Hot Mess," which begins with some promising Andy Summers-style guitar, Tisdale claims to have no inhibitions, but the song's self-conscious attempts to whip up a frenzy of naughtiness prove otherwise. "I'm getting speed tickets; I'm acting just like a misfit; I'm letting my mail pile up to the ceiling."

At another point, she sings, "you wake up in your bra and makeup" as if it's a scandal that'll blow apart her locked diary. Hey, maybe the same thing has happened to Condoleezza Rice after a hard day's night of nailing a Rachmaninoff sonata.

"How Do You Love Someone" could have been an affecting portrait of broken marriage from a child's perspective -- surely a rich topic for Gen-Y kids hit by climbing divorce rates -- but it takes the easy way out with cringe-inducing stereotypes.

There are a few glimmers of hope; Tisdale has said her heroes are Pat Benatar and Kelly Clarkson. But to succeed in the crowded hallways of teen pop, she'll have to be as fearless a misfit as those two bad girls -- and not feel guilty about it in the morning.

-- Margaret Wappler

Sounds familiar, in a good way

Kristinia DeBarge

"Exposed"

SodaPop / Island ** 1/2

In a summer well stocked with tween-friendly chart pop (Demi Lovato, Jordin Sparks and Ashley Tisdale), it helps to have some highly placed connections. Kristinia DeBarge boasts several: Her father, James, was a member of DeBarge, the popular '80s family band. The executive producer of her debut album is Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the powerful artist-turned-executive. And the sample in her hit single "Goodbye" is from Steam's 1969 smash "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," the sports-stadium staple so ubiquitous that it's still turning whatever it touches into Top 40 gold.

Accordingly, the pleasures on "Exposed" are familiar ones -- there's even a track titled "Cried Me a River." Another is called "Died in Your Eyes," though it's unlikely that 19-year-old DeBarge's target audience includes anyone old enough to remember the Cutting Crew hit its title echoes.

Of course, among pop's central virtues is the fact that on the radio, familiarity rarely breeds contempt. Although DeBarge, who'll open Britney Spears' arena tour later this year, has nothing unique to say about falling in or out of love, what she does have -- strong tunes, a nice voice and an ample supply of fresh-faced charm -- is far more important.

She's best in two tracks co-written by another savvy recycler, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic: "Future Love," originally recorded last year by the ill-fated boy band Varsity Fanclub, and "Speak Up," which Tedder also produced in his signature emo-soul style (think of Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love"). Neither is shocking; both are awesome.

-- Mikael Wood

Indeed, trust him to know the way

Fabolous

"Loso's Way"

Def Jam Records ** 1/2

Fabolous' new album of noirish, relatively orthodox Brooklyn rap, "Loso's Way," has a telling line in the hook of the third track, "Imma Do It." Over a nervous little synth shiver, guest vocalist Kobe sings, "I'd don't know what I'mma do but I'mma do it." With that, he sums up the predicament of most popular rappers today.

Fabolous is one of the few MCs on the pop charts who's still primarily interested in rapping, a commitment to craft that has durably served him. But in today's Wild West of hip-hop sonics and ethics, what to make of such a positively vintage gesture as a Jay-Z- adjacent concept album (with feature-film accompaniment) about an imperiled hustler-turned-rapper?

The answer is to trust Fabolous to take the wheel.

There is little filler across the 16 tracks of "Loso's Way," and Fabolous is almost always up to something interesting.

"Everything, Everyday, Everywhere" rides a trashy 8-bit sample to an always- welcome Keri Hilson chorus turn, and "The Fabolous Life" mines Zapp-era funk squig- gles.

While the consumption-porn single "Throw It in the Bag" is boilerplate, the immersive Mellotron samples of "Pachanga" riffs on Nas lyrics with a rueful observation -- "Love changes, a thug changes, best friends become strangers."

Though "Loso" isn't quite his opus, Fabolous knew what he was doing here, and did it well.

-- August Brown

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