(Cash Money **1/2)
nolead ends Nicki Minaj's third proper solo album is an overabundant mess, an occasionally wildly entertaining collection that can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Opening tracks "All Things Go," "I Lied," and "The Crying Game" present a human, non-cartoon version of the pneumatic rapper, who just wants "to love and be loved." It's refreshing in theory, but rather dull in reality, after a yearlong buildup focused on proudly crass bangers like the Sir Mix-a-Lot-sampling "Anaconda."
Never fear, though, the Trinidadian rapper's "Boss Ass Bitch" persona does return, most impressively on "Feelin' Myself," a celebration of female power, which (naturally) features Beyoncé, of whom Minaj did a winning impression on a recent Saturday Night Live. But along with bangers that show off how rhythmically sophisticated and varied Minaj can be as a rapper - including two with Philadelphia emcee Meek Mill, recently released from prison - there are ill-conceived misfires like "Only," featuring Drake and Lil Wayne. It rightly got Minaj in hot water for its lyric video modeled after the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. - Dan DeLuca
nolead begins J. Cole
nolead ends nolead begins 2014 Forest Hills Drive
nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia/Roc Nation/Dreamville ***)
nolead ends This, the third studio album from rapper J. Cole, might not be perfect, but it's high-quality.
One thing many listeners are looking for is music that is socially conscious. And there is some of that here. But Cole can't decide. What is his stand exactly? Even in his public comments on acts like Macklemore, he has been quick to say he was just kidding, as if shy of controversy. And there is some of that feeling here.
Starting with an intro in which Cole sings, "Do you wanna, do you wanna be happy?", he sets the tone for this soul-searching album. In classic Cole manner, tracks have heavy bass lines, but are still tranquil. Some tracks bleed from one into the next, causing a sense of sameness, but there are several standouts. In "Wet Dreamz," Cole flexes his storytelling muscles as he narrates his past virginal dilemma. "03 Adolescence" could be called "Ado-lessons" as Cole recalls a conversation with a friend that changed his life. In this generally understated album, "Fire Squad" stands out for its braggadoccio, as Cole calls out white artists for appropriating and profiting from black music. "G.O.M.D" has one of the best hooks on the album, and in "No Role Modelz," Cole raps about lack of female role models for women. No club-bangers here, or many potential radio hits, but Cole says, "This is my canvas." It's thought-provoking and vulnerable, and it's also brave, with no featured artists: 2014 Forest Hills Drive is straight J. Cole, no chaser. - Sofiya Ballin
nolead begins Gina Sicilia
nolead ends nolead begins The Alabama Sessions
nolead ends nolead begins (VizzTone ***1/2)
nolead ends This five-song EP marks a new beginning of sorts for Gina Sicilia after four superb albums rooted mostly in blues and R&B. The singer from Newtown, Bucks County, has relocated to Nashville and is working with new musicians.
"No Use at All" is steeped in country-soul, and "I'm in Trouble" exudes a retroish hipster vibe, but overall, The Alabama Sessions is less rootsy, as three of the songs lean toward ringing guitar-pop. What most links the set to Sicilia's earlier work, however, besides her striking, smoky alto, is the way she continues to dig deep in her writing. The songs may tell a story of an artist trying to spread her wings and establish a new independence and identity, but Sicilia does so with a maturity and command of her craft that give them, for all their melodic accessibility, great emotional heft. - Nick Cristiano