Monica "After the Storm" (J). 2 1/2 stars -- Overcoming tragedy is a timeworn theme of R&B, and Monica has had her share of sorrow and loss in the five years since her multi-platinum second album, "The Boy Is Mine." She needn't worry about staying in the game -- her taut new No. 1 R&B single, "So Gone," has that covered. The obsessive love call of an unrequited female suitor, the tune boasts a hip Missy Elliott production, with funky-to-humorous old-school touches including horns and vinyl surface noise.
Miss E. produced five of these 13 tracks for Miss Thang, steering confidently as the singer gamely tries on roles, even rapping (c'mon, you gotta ask?) a couple of times. Monica's voice is just too blandly sweet to carry the Tweet-like heat intended in the percussive dance-floor filler "Get It Off," but Elliott makes it a highlight, along with such erotic boogie fare as "Knock Knock."
But great R&B moments have come from singers who dwell on tragedy as intensely as on overcoming. Clearly, the title "After the Storm" implies moving on rather than wallowing, but the album too often feels generic, despite the personal sentiments Monica lets out in "I Wrote This Song" (with the help of five co-writers). So maybe she should've dwelt a little more, at that.
-- Natalie Nichols
Luther Vandross "Dance With My Father" (J). 3 stars -- There is something poignant about the combination of Vandross' struggle to recover from his recent stroke and the title track of his 15th album -- a beautifully sung, ultra-nostalgic ballad cataloging childhood memories of his long-departed dad. But more to the point, the follow-up to 2001's platinum-plus "Luther Vandross" better updates the singer-songwriter-producer's time-tested strengths as a butter-voiced chronicler of romance.
Although a few songs never rise above serviceable, the R&B veteran avoids lyrical cliches and puts fresh twists on the he-said-she-said in such numbers as the funky "She Saw You," with its sound of shattering glass and message that a friend's cheating ways have been discovered.
Vandross, 52, often produces himself, at times abetted by different partners. On such numbers as "If I Didn't Know Better," he adeptly melds R&B-pop traditions such as a sprawling, gospel-esque backing chorus and the modern hip-hop style of stark, Timbaland-esque percussion.
Guest stars including Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown further modernize things, even when Vandross enlists the new school in paying tribute to the old. Busta Rhymes' rap adds playfulness to a buoyant, soulful rendition of Bill Withers' 1977 track "Lovely Day," but the duet with Beyonc Knowles on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's 1978 ballad "The Closer I Get to You" proves unmemorable.
-- Natalie Nichols
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