NEW YORK (Billboard) - Following up the biggest radio hit in history — “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira with Wyclef Jean — is no doubt daunting, so Epic is doing soft-shoe with the Latin siren’s “Illegal” from her tepidly received “Oral Fixation, Vol. 2.” This gorgeous ballad mourns the loss of a lover in the singer/songwriter/producer’s most understated performance to date, as Shakira laments, “It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart.” Santana effectively weaves a quiet electric guitar thread throughout, like tears accompanying the loss. It may take MTV/VH1 fuel to catapult “Illegal” and convince top 40 that there’s room for two ballads (this one and Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt”) — but this forlorn masterpiece is as instantly reactive on the slow side as “Whenever, Wherever” was on the fast.
SINGLE: LOST ONES (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Jay-Z made his less-than-triumphant return with the trumpet-blaring single “Show Me What You Got,” in which he musters dull metaphors, comparing his second coming to that of Michael Jordan. A much better depiction of the rapper is second “Kingdom Come” single “Lost Ones,” featuring an eerily jazzy hook by Def Jam soulstress Crisette Michelle. In three succinct verses, Jay reflects, respectively, on his severed ties with Roc-A-Fella cofounders Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, a female companion (Beyonce?) and his nephew’s death “in the car I bought.” A few stale references linger, but for the most part this is the Jay we know and love.
SINGLE: HOW MANY TIMES, HOW MANY LIES (A&M Records)
Who’d have imagined a year ago that the Pussycat Dolls — an image act with little more than T&A in its favor — would deliver the year’s most memorable pop hooks? “Don’t Cha” hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Stickwitchu” No. 5, “Beep” No. 13 and “Buttons” No. 3. Fifth U.S. single “How Many Times, How Many Lies” returns songwriting great Diane Warren to the mainstream with a convincingly seductive downtempo number, thanks again to the on-par vocals of lead Nicole Scherzinger. There’s little question that this ensemble owes all to Scherzinger — but amid so many horrendous top 40 mainstays that have made 2006’s hit scene smell like a barnyard, we give a hearty thumbs-up to any act whose hooks will give life to radio’s catalog a year from now, and the ‘Cats keep serving them up. Here’s to nine lives.
SINGLE: HIP-HOP IS DEAD (Def Jam)
Fans have cried foul that Nas’ Will.i.am-produced single “Hip-Hop Is Dead” uses the same “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” sample as 2004’s “Thief’s Theme.” But the dynamic drums and guitar riffs are an apt backdrop for the Queens rapper’s diatribe against hip-hop. In the opener, Nas prefaces, “I had to flip this track again, y’all.” Ironically, this anti-mainstream cut has been popular on radio. In an age when many rappers simplify their lyrics for mass consumption, Nas persists with fresh imagery, cunning wordplay (“like my girl Foxy, the kid went Def”) and insightful lyrics that require second and third listens. And he’s still rhyming as the song fades out.
SINGLE: EVERYBODY’S ON THE PHONE (Mailboat/RCA Records)
The second single from Jimmy Buffett’s “Take the Weather With You” disc, released in October, is a delightful and satirical take on our nation’s dependence on cell phones. The tune is cleverly written, filled with humorous observations that poke fun at our obsession and the cyber traffic jam that is snarling up the information superhighway. Each verse is packed with words that might twist the tongue of a lesser artist, but Buffett navigates the verbiage with a sly smile and tongue planted firmly in cheek. A master at this witty type of tune, he turns in a winner here. There’s an insinuating guitar riff that helps plant the chorus in the listener’s memory. The only complaint would be the background vocals, which add a little too much cheesiness to the track. Otherwise, it’s a fun, playful outing that should brighten country airwaves this holiday season.
SINGLE: FULLY ALIVE (Octone Records)
The second single from Flyleaf’s debut is a ready-made winner that’s as sticky as, well, flypaper. When it comes to shaping commercially viable music, producer Howard Benson (P.O.D., Papa Roach) keeps things snappy and tight, and for “Fully Alive,” if you wink you’ll miss it. It’s less brooding than Flyleaf’s first hit, “I’m So Sick,” and sans the nu-metal background gurgles. Despite the fuzz tones on Sameer Bhattacharya’s and Jared Hartmann’s guitars, every note is crisply executed, even the sprawling solo at the bridge that sounds like it and James Culpepper’s drums are coming from a distance. Flyleaf’s nonthreatening angst can appeal to Avril Lavigne followers who want to rock a little harder, as Lacey Mosley’s nasal vocals are not far removed from those of the anti-pop princess.
SINGLE: OCEAN SIZE LOVE (One Son Records)
Former Sixpence None the Richer lead singer Leigh Nash’s stellar solo outing “My Idea of Heaven” failed to spur interest from adult contemporary radio, perhaps because of Clear Channel’s hands-off approach to indie releases. With the company’s recent sale to private partners, the wall might at last come down — especially given Nash’s instant appeal and familiarity. Second single “Ocean Size Love” is another sweet, accessible track, this time with an added chugging tempo and a guitar lick or two that infuses a cool factor to the format’s ideal audience. The timing is off as adult contemporary stations make the transition to all-holiday, but come 2007, this one is waiting in the wings and merits all consideration.