CD reviews

By Jon Pareles, Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, Dec 25, 2012 - Page 12

Big Boi , VICIOUS LIES AND DANGEROUS RUMORS, Def Jam

Big Boi starts his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Def Jam), reminding listeners that he’s “one-half of the mind of Outkast,” the hip-hop duo (with Andre 3000) from Atlanta that released its last album, Idlewild, in 2006. Memories probably aren’t that short. And once Big Boi’s solo career got moving — his 2010 album, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, was delayed by record-company conflicts — it was clear that he was keeping what made Outkast so memorable: fast-talking rhymes alongside full-fledged tunes that might draw on funk, new wave, club beats or hip-hop. Pop choruses didn’t mean the songs were trivial.

Big Boi (born Antwan Patton) also maintained the persona he brought to Outkast. While Andre 3000 often had cosmic considerations, Big Boi represented the street: cocky and raunchy. Singles leading up to the release of Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors — Gossip and She Said OK, both included on the album’s deluxe edition — continued to boast and leer.

The amiable Outkast swagger comes through on the album too, particularly in Mama Told Me, which Big Boi shares with Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child. A longtime Outkast production team, the Flush, came up with a track of sparkly keyboard-centered funk with a whistling hook and more than a hint of Prince; amid Big Boi’s self-praise, Rowland sings, “Be true to self and you’ll go far.”

But on this album, Big Boi, who’s 37, also reveals some angst. The hymn-like Tremendous Damage mourns the death of his father, while in “She Hates Me,” with Kid Cudi groaning the stately chorus, Big Boi’s romance crumbles because, among other things, “I’m always at the studio.”

When he’s not exulting in the fast life, Big Boi now has second thoughts about it. In Apple of My Eye, a minor-key new wave song recalling the Cure, he considers the aftermath of youthful excess:

They wildin’ try to find theyself

And by the time they do they barely have nobody left ... over

Feelin’ empty and alone, cuz the youth is gone

The thrill has been killed so let the truth be told.

Along with producers from the Outkast stable, the album features new collaborators like the punky rock band Wavves, who rev up Shoes for Running, a song about class warfare and the inevitability of death. Big Boi also works with two electronic pop acts, the whispery Little Dragon and the duo Phantogram, whose specialty is synthesized pomp. Where a typical hip-hop hook singer plays along with a rapper’s ego, Sarah Barthel of Phantogram questions it instead. In Objectum Sexuality, a slow march produced by Phantogram, Big Boi spouts lewd details, but Barthel’s chorus observes, “It’s all you want these days, ‘cause you feel nothing inside.” Even in Outkast, Big Boi was never merely a macho cartoon; now, he’s revealing he’s a grown-up.

— JON PARELES, NY Times News Service

Wiz Khalifa, O.N.I.F.C., Rostrum/Atlantic

Don’t kill Wiz Khalifa’s vibe — it’s all he’s got. O.N.I.F.C. is his second major-label album, and even if it doesn’t have a purpose, it has a mood: smooth, ethereal, unhurried. It’s as if he’s trying to tell you something, without having to rely too heavily on pesky, inconvenient words.

When he deploys them, it’s sparely, and with limited subject range and power. Mostly he raps about what kind of weed he’s smoking (the best, duh) and how many people have been copying his style (loads, duh) in a manner that suggests that enough of the first might lead one to not worry too much about all that other stuff. The Bluff opens with a chest-clearing cough, and at the beginning of Time, he asks, “Who else you know smoke a half-pound in seven days?”

Well, for one, the closest analog to Wiz Khalifa’s stoner affect is Snoop Dogg, the early years. (The two have collaborated before, though not here.) But Snoop had menace in his rhymes, and a slithery voice that seeped into the crevasses of a beat. By contrast, Wiz Khalifa is by far the most enunciative rapper of the day, his stolid verses served with flat affect and sitting atop the beats, rigid and square.

For someone so relaxed, he certainly sounds at odds with much of this album; even the warm, enveloping production, primarily by ID Labs, doesn’t loosen up his stiff flow at all.

But in the second half of the album, Wiz Khalifa allows himself to be disrupted. The production becomes more varied — the loose disco-esque drums on No Limit, or the sturm-und-drang R&B on Remember You (a collaboration with the Weeknd) — and in response, he sounds energized, bounding around like someone whose high has worn off. He’s paying attention, and it shows.

— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service

Lifehouse, ALMERIA, Geffen

Unblinking reassurance in the face of a nominal struggle: that’s the gist of most songs by Lifehouse, an inoffensively sure-footed alternative-rock band from Los Angeles. The cover illustration of its sixth studio album, Almeria, depicts the stare-down preceding a gun duel at 40 paces or so: a coolly stylized nod to the spaghetti Westerns for which Almeria, the Andalusian port city, is justly known. The suggestion is that Lifehouse, an operation that long ago found its working formula, has regrouped with a new starkness; that the stakes are somehow higher, and the payoff more grimly satisfying, than before.

But Almeria, which was produced by Jude Cole and recorded in Box Canyon, California, has little of the grit or tension of its chosen premise. What the album does deliver is a gentle retooling of the Lifehouse sound, a few notches further from its post-grunge roots and a few clicks closer to the earnest, soaring fare finding traction on modern-rock radio.

Jason Wade, Lifehouse’s lead singer, has always been a sturdy purveyor of melody, though rarely a distinctive one; when his voice conveys strain, it tends to feel like a calculated risk. One indication of his current mind-set can be found in this album’s lead single, Between the Raindrops, which features a guest vocal by Natasha Bedingfield: it’s imperturbably peppy, despite its suggestion of cloud cover.

Some other songs pay amiable lip service to hardship, as metaphors for relationship turmoil: Barricade is about the walls we build, and Pins & Needles is about being strung along. “The worst is far behind us now,” Wade promises on Aftermath, a piano ballad fortified with military drums and a gospel choir.

The rest of the band — the guitarist Ben Carey, the bassist Bryce Soderberg and the drummer Rick Woolstenhulme Jr. — locks down on a solid but fairly anonymous competence throughout the album. When Peter Frampton shows up with his Les Paul guitar on Right Back Home, his easy heat and plangency marks him as an alien life form.

But Lifehouse doesn’t need to loosen up to get its message across. Wade, who for all his talk of duress never seems to be caught off-guard, sells it well on Where I Come From, a twinkling pledge of devotion: “Wherever you are/Is where I come from.”

— NATE CHINEN, NY Times News Service