The arrival of her 41st (!) studio album, “Better Day,” makes it clear: Dolly Parton is the closest science will ever come to an animatronic synthesis of Lady Gaga, Loretta Lynn and Hello Kitty.
“Better Day,” like Parton’s last disc, 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie,” is a restless jumble of styles weighted toward mainstream country. “Together You and I” is one of those jaunty, genre-less buddy songs that pop up on Pixar soundtracks; the bluesy, talk-sung title track is something only Dolly can get away with, if only just; likewise “In the Meantime,” a rejection of End Times doomsayers that, like so much of “Better Day,” would seem maddeningly facile if anybody else were doing it (“Drop this doomsday attitude,” chides Dolly, who is not going to tell you twice).
“Better Day” is only as great as it needs to be, existing mainly as a containment vehicle for Sassy Dollyisms such as “You don’t drink the water if you don’t dig the well,” “I’m quite content with who I am / And if you ain’t, well, kiss my ham,” etc. There’s such a formidable steeliness to songs like “Country Is as Country Does,” one of those traditional twang-fests Parton mixes in to shore up her base, it would seem only logical to send her to North Korea to negotiate with Kim Jong Il.
But even at her grittiest, Parton is the definition of effervescent adorableness, as irresistible as kittens or cupcakes or rainbows. She skirts self-parody throughout, and comes dangerously close to comparing herself to Jesus on the things-I-gave-up-for-fame weepie “The Sacrifice,” but it’s such a three-hankie cornball stunner, He probably wouldn’t mind.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended Tracks: “In the Meantime,” “Together You and I”
Detroit rapper Big Sean signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. label after an impromptu freestyle performance for the superstar back in 2005 and has been West’s alter ego and heir apparent ever since. Though the title of Sean’s long-marinating official debut, “Finally Famous,” sounds like a boast, Sean has actually been famous for a while, thanks to a series of widely circulated mix tapes.
“Finally Famous” is a helluva thing: It’s good but not distinctive, enjoyable but not interesting and impossible to dislike, even if there’s not a lot of there there. Constructed with the help of an A-Team of hitmakers including West, Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross and famed beatsmith No I.D., “Finally Famous” positions Sean as a talented MC without an identifiable personality.
Instead, he’s a chameleon: On the John Legend-assisted ballad “Memories (Part II)” he recalls Drake; on the torpid “High,” he’s Cheech to Khalifa’s Chong. Left to his own devices, Sean often tries to wax philosophical. On “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” with its vaguely classic rock underpinnings and weird near-beatlessness, he tells his girl, “I wish you were ugly / It wouldn’t be so hard to leave.” He means this to be sad.
West hovers over the proceedings like the Wizard of Oz. When he’s there, like on the bumper-rattling banger “Marvin and Chardonnay,” Sean suffers by close comparison. When he’s not there, he’s still there, though he escapes blame for “Dance [bleep],” which manages to be terrible despite, or maybe because of, its “U Can’t Touch This” sample. Reanimating the desiccated corpse of MC Hammer’s career is a task even Yeezy can’t handle.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended Tracks: “My Last,” “Wait For Me,”
“Marvin and Chardonnay”
“The Light of the Sun”
Jill Scott’s first album in four years is a record made by a woman who’s been “bruised raw” by love only to come out on the other side with a new outlook and her sense of self intact. “Struggle’s gonna happen,” she waxes philosophical in “Blessed,” the heartfelt gratitude inventory that opens the proceedings. In “Le Boom Vent Suite,” buoyed by a finger-popping groove and some sprightly jazz guitar, Scott serves notice to the man who’s let her down that, as a “grown woman making decisions and choices,” she’ll be looking for passion — and commitment — somewhere else.
The full range of human emotion, from defiance to hurt and hope, is expressed over the course of the album’s 15 tracks. A celebration of new romance featuring soul singer Anthony Hamilton, “So in Love” gets a lift from infectious hand claps before climaxing with some steamy double entendre on the outgoing vamp. Frisky in a different way, “Shame” interpolates the tagline from the Spinners’ 1970 hit “It’s a Shame” and has rapper Eve helping out on the mike. The casual banter between the two women as they tell off a guy who blew his chance smacks of the sisterly sass of Fannypack or Salt ’n’ Pepa.
The record’s arrangements blend sumptuous orchestration, jazzy flourishes and neo-soul beats to consistently uplifting effect. As the self-possessed likes of “Womanifesto” attest, resilience lies at the heart of this record, with Scott’s vocals, her soprano as silky as ever, moving effortlessly back and forth between singing, scatting and spoken-word.
— Bill Friskics-Warren
Recommended Tracks: “Shame,” “Blessed,” “Le Boom Vent Suite”