CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 12

DEMI, Demi Lovato,Hollywood

Aggrievedness suits Demi Lovato well; always has. In her Disney days, she was — relatively speaking — the hellion of the crew, interested in abraded rock, tough girl postures, and smiles that cracked to reveal sneers.

Her years since teen-idol days have been chaotic: some great music and some not-so-great music, public struggles with bulimia and cutting, and in her latest phase, a role as empowerer-in-chief on the judging panel of The X Factor. Compared to the near-catatonic Britney Spears, Lovato was refreshingly direct, stern when she needed to be, but more often a source of wisdom. She was also a surprisingly good foil for Simon Cowell, whose signature disdain rolls off Lovato like so much rain, and whom Lovato rightly sees as a bloated target, not an unstoppable monster.

She has dealt with far worse: that is clear from her music, which has been credibly tense and wounded almost from the start, a tone that continues unabated, and even enhanced, on Demi, her often impressive fourth album. Produced by the Suspex, the duo of Mitch Allan and Jason Evigan, it smartly abandons the pop-R&B songs of her last album, Unbroken easily her shakiest to date — and recasts Lovato, rightly, in the Kelly Clarkson mold of big-throated singers who have had quite enough, thank you very much.

Unlike Clarkson, though, Lovato’s armor is not primarily vocal (though when she abandons the heavy vocal processing, she sings with firmness and an evident touch of vulnerability). Heart Attack, the single, has Clarkson’s familiar loud-soft pop-rock dynamics, matched with Lovato’s familiar self-doubt: “Never had trouble getting what I want/but when it comes to you I’m never good enough.” And throughout this album, from the chipper Really Don’t Care to the theatrical Warrior, to the bruising Fire Starter, she’s showing off her thick skin.

The production, too, is part of that skin, and it’s generally when it’s stripped down that Lovato confesses to any weaknesses, as on Shouldn’t Come Back, the latest in a suite of songs aimed at her estranged father, and also on the outstanding In Case, strikingly written by Priscilla Renea and Emanuel Kiriakou, which echoes the pomp of her 2011 hit Skyscraper. It places Lovato somewhere unusual: at someone else’s mercy: “Strong enough to leave you, but weak enough to need you.”

Lovato wears that frailty well, but not for long. A few songs later is the album’s other highlight, the breezy and tart Something That We’re Not. It’s a sign of pop’s out-of-whack gender relations that a song like this, in which an empowered woman blows off a guy who wants more, is so rare, and therefore so bracing. “Don’t introduce me to any of your friends,” she commands, “Delete my number, don’t call me again/We had some fun but now it’s gonna end.” No arguments here.

— Jon Caramanica

PRISONER OF CONSCIOUS,Talib Kweli,Javotti Media/Capitol/EMI

Talib Kweli’s new album, Prisoner of Conscious, opens with a scrap of audio verite from his visit to Occupy Wall Street in 2011. “They want to know what the end game is?” he says, adopting the call-and-response convention known as the human microphone. The crowd repeats his line, and he answers it: “This is the end game.”

You couldn’t do much better than that exchange to sum up Talib Kweli, a voice of earnest engagement and oppositional bias since the late 1990s, when he and his fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def formed the duo Black Star.

As a leading exponent of socially conscious rap Talib Kweli has long stood for integrity and responsibility, and also for a kind of moralistic grousing; there’s a reason some other rappers have taken pains to reject the conscious label. (“Don’t view me as no conscious cat, this ain’t no conscious rap,” ASAP Rocky recently disclaimed.) So this album’s title rings with self-awareness.

He doesn’t retreat from his position here, though he’s evidently trying not to be a killjoy. On Upper Echelon he reels off boasts over a tough, synthetic beat. Rocket Ships, an RZA production that sets the album’s high-water mark, gives him a more soulful backdrop, and a worthy sparring partner in Busta Rhymes, his motormouthed peer. Before He Walked, produced by E. Jones of the Soul Council, has him trading urgent testimonials with an energetic Nelly. And Come Here unfurls as a coolly blatant Marvin Gaye seduction ritual, with help from Miguel and a bit of orgasmic wordplay.

At the heart of all is Talib Kweli’s impressively nimble rapping, with its rat-a-tat cadence and intricate rhyme-play. During his verse on Push Thru, which also has strong work by Kendrick Lamar and Currensy, he aims to set himself apart from the rap mainstream:

I beautifully exude the vibe that’s free of ambiguity

Your goonery for the sake of goonery

Is cartoons to me

It’s coonery, it’s lunacy

But this album also falls prey to facile cosmopolitanism, evoking Afrobeat on High Life (with Rubix and Bajah) and Brazilian pop on Favela Love (with Seu Jorge). And while a pair of adjacent tracks addresses women’s struggles — first from a vantage of pitiful judgment (Hamster Wheel) and then from one of wonderment (Delicate Flowers) — Talib Kweli has covered this ground before, better than this. This can’t be his endgame, unless he’s content to keep preaching to the choir.

And as with that Occupy Wall Street pronouncement, his flickers of sociopolitical purpose form a kind of feedback loop. “This is the end game” makes for a good exhortation, but it doesn’t actually leave much room for progress.

— Nate Chinen