Thursday, May 17, 2007


Devin the Dude
Waitin' to Inhale
Score: 6

Met with a title like Waitin' to Inhale, you might think Devin the Dude's interests include smoking weed, smoking more weed and ... uhhh, what was that other thing?

But what Devin really wants is sex. All the time. Even while you're reading this sentence. With you, even --- assuming you're a chick, and one who won't charge too high a price.

Devin's conquests fill much of the album's first half, and his delight in dishing the juicy details might make some people blush.

And it might make others abort the CD entirely.

"She Want That Money" will provide the first test. An uncompromising introduction to his pro-prostitution platform, it finds him having his way with a hooker on a big brass bed. "She Want That Money" has more bite than most tracks, though. In general, Devin's songs are light-hearted, meant to crack smiles, not grimaces.

He scores with his use of absurdity in "Broccoli & Cheese." When he tries to move his date's hand to his crotch --- because "it's the third time we've been together" --- she pulls away, worried about venereal disease. (Perhaps she heard some of his other songs.) Devin, clearly indignant, tells her, "Girl, this dick is so clean / that you can serve it with some lima beans."

Deep in his subconscious, however, doubt stirs. Amid a succession of skin dives, he says the situation's "gettin' ridiculous / I hope I don't get sick of this." And he's serious. Because if casual sex suddenly failed to thrill him, what could? The line hints at an emptiness behind his boasting. Here, a minor-key piano creep serves as a nagging reminder that such a development is not only possible, it's probable.

"Hope I Don't Get Sick-A-This" exemplifies the quality of the instrumentation on Waitin' to Inhale. Symbolizing the quest that Devin and his many producers take up, a recurring skit involves an engineer searching for a particular kind of "boom."

No doubt it's on "She Useta Be," a tale of "elegant to elephant." Over a sleepy sax riff and a rubbery beat that could've come from ToeJam & Earl's Funkotron, Devin recounts a surprise meeting at the grocery store: His boyhood crush --- the one who always turned down his advances in high school --- finally has the hots for him 10 years later.

Except now she's morbidly obese. "Seems like everything on her body just melted together," he says.

Surely, some will chalk it up to misogyny, and throughout the other tracks Devin and his guests don't offer much evidence to the contrary.

But when Devin reveals a moving vulnerability on the D'Angelo-esque "Don't Wanna Be Alone"; when he moans "Don't say goodbye / unless you wanna see a grown man cry, girl," it's hard to believe he misses her body alone.

Besides, if that was the case, he'd just buy a blow-up doll.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Goes down easy

Amy Winehouse
Back to Black
Score: 8

Back to Black might as well be a Greek tragedy. Embodying the ill-fated heroine, Amy Winehouse pinballs from bed to bed, from bar to hotel, aware of her mistakes but destined to repeat them. Her Achilles' heel swells with every bottle downed and every belt slithering to the ground.

"You Know I'm No Good," propelled by a shuffling snare and kick drum, finds her flitting between two men, thinking of her beau as she pleasures her ex. She ultimately realizes that, through her infidelity, she has cheated herself out of happiness.

But what's so intriguing about Winehouse is that her songs front like they're lost classics from the '60s. From her delivery to the musicians' Motown-indebted grooves, Back to Black plants at least one foot in the past. If "Tears Dry on Their Own" sounds familiar, it's because it rides an interpolation of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

On the beautifully orchestrated title track, Winehouse channels the drama of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," albeit through a saltier mouth. Sniffling over a man who left her for a former flame, she sings, "He left no time to regret / Kept his dick wet / With his same old safe bet." Winehouse favors bluntness.

And she doesn't do euphemisms, so vulgarities turn up in places throughout the album that even casual listeners could pick out. What makes this approach novel is that it runs counter to the conventions followed by Springfield and her peers, as well contemporary female artists influenced by their style. Certainly, the practice of keeping it clean in Springfield's day had a lot to do with social norms and radio broadcasting rules, yet the tendency of singers to sanitize lyrics still exists today. You don't hear Tracy Chapman or Natalie Merchant dropping F-bombs.

Winehouse, despite working with people obviously gunning for heavy airplay, chooses to go against the grain. She chooses words that suit her and suit the situation, and if they happen to be crude, then bring on the parental advisory sticker. (Although, curiously, some profanities in the liner notes use asterisks and some don't, despite being the same profanity.)

Even the decency police at the FCC would have a hard time not swaying to "Me & Mr. Jones," the song in which she most pushes the envelope. There and elsewhere, Back to Black's many saxophones impart a nightclub feel, nourishing Winehouse's torch songs, which thrive in darkness. "Some Unholy War" gets its moon tan on, with bass, drums and bells mingling on the dance floor. "Love Is a Losing Game" and "Tears Dry on Their Own," meanwhile, ooze with pessimism. The former's title alone could be the album's credo, while the latter prophesizes doom: Winehouse, kissing a lover goodbye, admits, "Even if I stop wanting you / And perspective pushes thru / I'll be some next man's other woman soon." Self-medication from a bottle no doubt ensues.

"Rehab," the album's percussive first single, squares with the modern-day parade of young starlets in and out of treatment centers, their troubles thrown up on tabloids everywhere. Yet it, too, has ties to the past, referencing "Ray" and "Mr. Hathaway," both of whom spent time in clinics. "Rehab" also has that Ray Charles roll; it's easy to picture Charles singing it, the Raylettes providing the handclaps and chanting "no, no, no."

Only Winehouse can prevent her downfall. But her tragic flaws prevent her from taking action, and she rattles off excuses: "I ain't got the time," "I just need a friend," "There's nothing you can teach me."

And so she goes back.