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Pop reviews — week of July 14

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CIARA

Ciara

“What I got, baby, you can’t have,” Ciara taunts a would-be suitor in a track from her fifth studio album, and that’s denial-as-usual for the appealingly aloof R&B singer who zoomed to stardom with the 2004 hit Goodies.

Yet beyond Keep on Lookin’ and the swaggering I’m Out with Nicki Minaj, Ciara mellows her approach here, the result perhaps of her reportedly happy relationship with the singer-rapper Future, who joins Ciara for two beautifully spaced-out slow jams: the acoustic-guitar-laced Where You Go and Body Party, in which she gently issues instructions — “Touch me right there / Rock my body” — over a plush soul groove.

The shift on Ciara may also be a reaction to the poor performance of her previous disc, 2010’s Basic Instinct. But Ciara, long one of R&B’s most adventurous beat-seekers, isn’t suddenly playing it safe. In DUI, she asks a lover to “put them handcuffs on me,” while Super Turnt Up includes a rap verse by the singer herself. Content? Sure. Complacent? Not yet.

— Mikael Wood

Los Angeles Times

MY EDUCATION

Susan Choi

Our first glimpse of Regina Gottlieb is as a graduate student in her first days at a prestigious university. Somewhat naïve and more than a little intimidated, Regina is drawn to an English professor whose reputation has been both burnished and tarnished by rumors of sexual misbehavior.

She enrolls in a seminar for which she is severely underqualified, but Regina soon becomes Nicholas Brodeur’s teaching assistant and is drawn into his innermost circle.

There, My Education takes an abrupt and unexpected twist by thrusting Regina into a torrid affair not with Brodeur, but with his beautiful and charismatic wife, Martha, also a professor. And the novel itself becomes an exploration of love, loss and obsession.

Susan Choi, whose previous novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and for the PEN/Faulkner Award, is at her best when describing the soul-consuming, life-spinning vortex of Regina’s desperate, needy love for Martha. The young student ignores the realities of her lover’s world — the husband who was once Regina’s mentor, the infant son who needs tending, the housekeeper who views her with suspicious disapproval.

Choi wields a dazzling dexterity with language, spicing the novel with gems of precisely crafted phrasing and slivers of insight into the human psyche.

Ultimately, however, the book suffers from the self-absorption of its central characters. Although painted as alluring, magnetic women, Regina and Martha emerge as selfish and unlikable, only dimly aware of the impact their actions have on the lives of those around them. Even Regina’s eventual awakening rings hollow, a redemptive act negated by an all-too-facile infidelity.

— Monica Rhor

Associated Press

DON’T LOOK DOWN

Skylar Grey

Revenge is the best revenge in Skylar Grey’s songs. Grey can be long-suffering, and she might even savor some of the torment, the better to examine it and house it in a dignified melody. She also writes about offering support, pulling herself together and moving on after a breakup. But when pushed too far, she counterattacks. In Final Warning, a song on her new album, Don’t Look Down, she sings, “Someone’s gonna get hurt/and it’s not gonna be me,” with breathy savoir-faire.

This is her first album as Skylar Grey, the name she adopted in 2010. She released her debut solo album in 2006 as Holly Brook, a brooding, piano-playing singer-songwriter. Her songwriting credit here is Holly Hafermann (Brook is her middle name), and solo piano opens and closes the album, but the name change shifted her sound and persona. As Skylar Grey, she’s still brooding, but her songs now also have the bluntness, electronic sizzle and rhythmic muscle of hip-hop; she also favors the higher, more cutting end of her vocal range. Her doormat days are ending.

Grey is the latest sensitive songwriter taking a career path through hip-hop. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park released Holly Brook’s debut album, Like Blood Like Honey, through his own label. Her bigger break was to collaborate in 2010 with an English hip-hop producer, Alex Da Kid, on a bitterly accusatory ballad, Love the Way You Lie, that Eminem turned into a multimillion-selling single. Eminem and Alex Da Kid are the new album’s executive producers; Eminem raps on the sarcastic flirtation C’mon Let Me Ride.

Grey’s influences can be obvious: Fiona Apple in Wear Me Out and Pulse, Alanis Morissette in Religion, Elton John in Back From the Dead, Dido in Final Warning. But she finds unusual situations for her narrators: left behind by an ex’s success in Tower (Don’t Look Down), unwed and pregnant in a song with a title that can’t be printed here. For Grey, angst, melody and a hip-hop backbone are a promising combination.

— Jon Pareles

New York Times


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