Tuesday, September 18, 2007



When a successful rap artist like Chamillionaire vows to stop using all words that degrade his fellow men and women -- in particular, those beginning with the letters "n" and "b" -- you want to cheer him on. After all, too many rap stars could use their brilliance for good causes, but don't.

Chamillionaire broke out of Houston's local mix-tape scene in 2006 with a Grammy-winning, chart-topping song about driving while black called "Ridin'." On his latest ride, "Ultimate Victory," Chamillionaire turns up the politics and turns down the cursing, with mixed results.

Chamillionaire's signature singsong delivery yields a few distinctive tracks, such as "Pimp Mode," which evokes a slow cruise over the shimmering Houston asphalt. At the end of the song, when the gold-digging girl he's driving professes her love, Cham responds: "I hope you love to walk." In fact, it's Chamillionaire's sense of humor that shines on "Ultimate Victory," which includes some of the best interstitial skits since Raekwon's 1995 "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx." These moments are ultimately more fun than Cham's political diatribes like "Hip Hop Police" and "The Morning News," which wind up sounding didactic and canned.

Of course, it's unfair to fault Chamillionaire for not being Chuck D. Few lyricists can combine politics with a pop sensibility, and few are as diverse and dynamic. Alas, why is it that the artists with the best intentions also seem to be the least compelling?

-- Dan Charnas

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Hip-Hop Police," "Pimp Mode"


KT Tunstall

Scottish chanteuse KT Tunstall had a big hit right out of the box with "Eye to the Telescope," her 2005 debut (released in 2006 in the United States), so it makes sense, business-wise, that she'd be encouraged to change as little as possible for the follow-up. Her new "Drastic Fantastic" is more of the same, with the production, again by Steve Osbourne, brighter and more accessible this time around -- if anything is more accessible than a record that sold more than 3.5 million copies around the world.

But Tunstall's songcraft remains as it was: endlessly listenable without really being distinct. "Hold On," the scratchy, hand-clappy first single, gets a pass for sounding like "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" from "Telescope," because its infectious staccato rhythm is a trick worth repeating -- and because the other up-tempo numbers here are either bland ("I Don't Want You Now") or have been buffed and polished within an inch of their lives ("Little Favours," "If Only").

"Drastic Fantastic" fares better in its quieter moments. With its gentle bounce and resigned lyrics, "Hopeless" sounds like it could have been swiped from Aimee Mann's songbook, while "Beauty of Uncertainty," the album's smoky set piece, actually manages to suggest Lou Reed as much as it does Fiona Apple or other female singer-songwriters working this side of folk-pop aisle.

"Drastic Fantastic" is a good record, but not one that sheds much light on the question of whether Tunstall has a great one in her down the line. Let's hope.

-- Chris Klimek

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Hopeless," "Beauty of Uncertainty," "Hold On"

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