New Release Round-Up, Mainstream Edition: Shakira, John Mayer, Wale

“Mainstream,” of course, doesn’t mean what it used to, but nevertheless: These three new albums, which have been in rotation off and on for the past couple of weeks, are all fairly high-profile new releases. You may have even heard some of them on the radio. At any rate, I don’t have enough to say about any of them to warrant full reviews, but I do have some quick-draw comments to make.

Shakira
She Wolf

I remember when Madonna used to make albums like this– sleek, stylish, sexy, club-ready pop. Only, I don’t remember Madge ever comparing herself to an old coffee pot, or pining for Matt Damon. And that’s the biggest difference between the Material Girl and her most striking and confident heiress in 2009; Madonna’s music was always interwoven with her style, to the point where the songs and the accompanying images were frequently impossible to separate. Her personality was, to a large degree, just a good bit of marketing. Not so with Shakira. Here’s a diva who’s not afraid to get weird, a sex symbol who is made all the sexier by her off-the-cuff humor and her willingness to put something of herself into her songs. So sure, these tracks are polished to perfection, but not at the expense of their soul, and that’s what makes this quirky little record arguably the best mainstream pop album of the year.

John Mayer
Battle Studies

Twenty years ago, Nick Lowe wrote a song called “I Live on a Battlefield.” John Mayer takes that metaphor and stretches it over the course of eleven songs that seem to last an eternity; comparing one’s romantic life to a war is fine, but making a concept album about it seems a bit lame, especially when you’ve exhausted the conceit midway through track #2, and when you lack any of the passion or wit to make it believable. I hate to say it, but after one very fine studio album (Continuum) and a stellar live date (Try!) that emphasized his greatest virtues– his blues guitar chops, his songcraft– Mayer is back to making vanilla pop albums that play up his greatest liabilities, namely his tendency to drift toward sound instead of song. These songs are buried under layer upon layer of rote, humorless synths and studio sheen. Maybe he’s trying to make a seductive, late-night bedroom album, but then why the take on “Crossroads?” This is a frustrating project from start to finish, which is bad news given that, until now, it seemed like Mayer was really coming into his own.

Wale
Attention Deficit

Wale is not an MC lacking in personality– remember, this is the guy who rose to fame on the basis of a Seinfeld-inspired record called The Mixtape About Nothing— but what personality he has is stretched so thin on his proper studio debut, he may as well not have one. Which is not to say that it’s a bad record– there are some terrific beats, some colorful production turns, some fantastic rhymes– but the whole thing is so bloated with producers and guest vocalists, jumping from style to style and topic to topic, that it’s simply very hard to tell exactly who Wale is or what he’s all about, making this a very enjoyable, Kanye-styled hip-hop album, but not the breakthrough that it could have been.

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