In 2006, several pop stars were full of themselves or full of it. But of course that's nothing new. Here are a few major, over-hyped releases that disappointed me.
Beyonce, B'Day --This sophomore release by the former Destiny's Child focal point was reportedly cranked out in just two weeks. Though it isn't sloppy, the album still feels underdeveloped in spots. Beyonce sounds strained, almost frantic on "Deja Vu," the album's lead single whose strutting, horn-spiked rhythm vaguely recalls Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. "Ring the Alarm," the follow-up single, was even more nerve-fraying as Beyonce wailed and screamed over a noisy, hard-edged track.
Several of the songs are overwrought. And Beyonce's lyrical focus, which usually centers on her "fabulousness" and indestructibility, is limited, often boring and sometimes downright ridiculous. "Upgrade U" features the most absurd line I've heard all year: "I can do for you what Martin did for the people." Oh, now she's on the level of Martin Luther King Jr.? Somebody please tell this chick to get over herself.
The main thing B'Day has going for it is its brevity. Dangerously In Love, Beyonce's hit 2003 debut, featured better-crafted songs, but it was overlong and uneven. The Texas native has the potential to deliver a knockout pop album. And we're still waiting for it.
Janet Jackson, 20 Years Old --After growing up watching brother Michael conquer pop and after making her own mark with a hit-filled career spanning more than two decades, you'd think by now Janet would have a clue. But as 20 Years Old proves, she's lost -- maybe hopelessly so. Instead of pushing her sound in a bolder, more mature direction as she did on 1986's Control (the title of the latest CD commemorates that album's release), Miss Jackson If You're Nasty decides to follow the pack. The same performer who set the template for the Ciaras, Britneys and Rhiannas of today seems desperate to stay relevant.
Before the CD landed in stores, she appeared on several magazine covers looking like a washed-up Playboy model. In addition to the tacky clothes-optional campaign, Jackson also held news conferences in different cities about three months before 20 Years Old hit the streets in September.
I attended the one in Washington. After keeping a small knot of journalists waiting for about 45 minutes, the slightly weathered-looking pop star strolled in with her entourage and panted, moaned and whispered about a whole lot of nothing. She didn't even preview any of the new music. I was so annoyed I wanted to throw my notebook at Janet's head.
And I was even more upset when, two months later, I finally received an early copy of 20 Years Old and found nothing remotely interesting on it, nothing with a pulse. Janet used to make fun albums blazing with tunes you couldn't get out your head. However, the cuts on 20 Years Old went in one ear and out the other.
Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds --The former Mouseketeer is responsible for one of the most ridiculous catch phrases of 2006: "I'm bringing sexy back." (Yeah, right.) All he brought back was that thin, whimpering singing voice. But on FutureSex, it was mostly obscured by producer Timberland's banging electro-funk production.
On Justified, the former *NSYNC member's 2002 solo debut, Timberlake did his best Michael Jackson impersonations. But this time out, the wannabe fly guy tries to channel Prince's early carnal days. Like the album's title, Timberlake's execution throughout is clumsy. He stumbles through the CD's first half. In the songs, Timberlake affects tired cliches -- the lusty club king, the slick playa -- but he's not at all convincing.
What Timberlake lacks in charm and chops, Timberland makes up with immediate, grinding grooves ablaze with squelchy synths. Although the arrangements are mostly catchy and energetic, Timberlake often kills the vibe with his stilted vocal approach and graceless lyrics. Check this self-penned line from the "protest song," "Losing My Way": Hi, my name is Bob/And I work at my job. Ah, yes, Timberlake is so profound.
Gwen Stefani, The Sweet Escape --I certainly wasn't expecting profundity from this California chick. But Love. Angel. Music. Baby, Stefani's 2004 smash solo debut, was so fun in a surreal, zany way, I just knew the follow-up would be a crazier, more thrilling ride. Not so. Where her new-millennium material girl persona was cute and sufferable on the debut, the former No Doubt lead singer comes off as just plain shallow and dumb on The Sweet Escape.
Although it's only her second album, Stefani is already repeating herself: "Wind It Up" is, for the most part, a retread of "Hollaback Girl," the performer's ubiquitous 2005 summer smash. The rest of the record is just mindless, tuneless drivel.
Jay-Z, Kingdom Come --About three years ago when the Brooklyn hip-hop superstar-mogul announced his retirement from the rap game, I didn't believe him. In that time, he put out The Black Album, collaborated with Linkin Park on Collision Course, recorded and toured with R. Kelly (what a disaster that was) and appeared on tracks by Memphis Bleek, Pharrell and his lady love, Beyonce. And when he wasn't making rap cameos, the man born Shawn Carter was handling duties as the president of Def Jam Records. So Jay-Z didn't really retire from anything; homeboy just took a little break from doing his own thing behind the mike.
But he should have waited to come back to rap when he had something to say. Kingdom Come is by far Jay-Z's weakest album. It's devoid of any charismatic thumpers. Jay-Z's place in the hip-hop pantheon was secured 10 years ago when he dropped Reasonable Doubt. But as Kingdom Come shows, he has hit a dry patch. Save for the somber "Minority Report," a track about the Katrina disaster, the album is one big yawn.