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In a genre that relies on sonic and visual conformity, blond-and-pink-haired singer Kelis sticks out like Dennis Rodman -- brash, independent, and alien but too talented to ignore. Her debut album opens, as so many hip-hop and R&B albums do, with an "intro." Kelis interrupts her sci-fi flavored bio with a condescending, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, and now I'm all grown up." She has neither the time nor the patience for the perfunctory.

The 20-year-old made her mark parrying with that other urban alien, Old Dirty Bastard, on his recent "Got Your Money" single. The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) cowrote that track and cowrote/produced Kaleidoscope, providing a nice bit of synergy for Kelis' debut. The duo's production leans toward drum 'n' bass spaciness -- staccato beats bounce quickly by, getting stiff keyboard riffs to bend into the groove. Kelis' voice is elastic, bouncing from sweet to street without losing the personality behind it.

There are moments of smooth greatness, like the jazzy guitars of "In the Morning," when the Jeep-rockin' beats mesh with Kelis' sticky voice for smart and lustful backseat make-out music. Moments of anger and playfulness counterpoint the bump and grind. The highlight is Kelis' first single, "Caught Out There," a focused blast of estrogen rage dedicated to all the women who have been lied to by their men. It's guaranteed to be the breakup song for 2000, capturing the same woman-scorned vibe as Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know," only much, much funkier. (Lord help the man who has this tune requested on the radio in his honor.) Shooting stars of keyboards fly by, and the beat grows more insistent as Kelis details what her cheating man has put her through. Then she screams, "I hate you so much right now," and follows it up with a wordless howl. Subtle it ain't, but the power of the lyric is its emphasis on "right now." This isn't a post-breakup song; it's a breakup in progress reported from the scene, which makes it all the more riveting. -- David Simutis

Ani DiFranco
To the Teeth
(Righteous Babe)

She's back. Again. On the heels of Up Up Up Up Up Up and Fellow Workers (a collaboration with leftist storyteller Utah Phillips), Ani DiFranco has released her third album of 1999. That's as many discs as some bands release in an entire career. To the Teeth finds Buffalo's favorite daughter up to her old genre-bending tricks.

Tracks such as the slinky "Carry You Around" pair DiFranco's open-tuned guitar chords with spaced-out electronica. The wildly syncopated "Freakshow" has the lurching, hurdy-gurdy production and distorted lyrics of a Marilyn Manson song. DiFranco laid down both songs, all by her lonesome, in her new home studio. Elsewhere, she's assisted by a cavalcade of backing players. The rollicking "Back Back Back" benefits from bandmates Jason Mercer (bass), Daren Hahn (drums), and Julie Wolf (clavinet), as well as legendary George Clinton/James Brown sideman Maceo Parker (saxophone) and Brian Wolf (trumpet and trombone). Wolf contributes his drubbing tuba stylings on "Soft Shoulder," while Parker offers delicate flute flourishes. No doubt the most ballyhooed collaboration is with Prince, who supplies wispy harmony vocals on the ethereal ballad "Providence." He's mixed so low, though, that it's hard to hear him.

While there's little doubt that To the Teeth is DiFranco's most adventurous album, sonically speaking, not every cut fares so well. "Swing," DiFranco's first foray into hip-hop stylings, feels goofy and forced. Corey Parker's guest rap is laughable, and the turntable scratchings smack of contrivance. DiFranco's political jeremiads, most notably "To the Teeth" (a blast at the gun lobby) and "Hello Birmingham" (about the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian by an abortion-rights opponent) are appropriately outraged. But after ten albums of this kind of material, her naked didacticism is starting to wear thin. It should be possible, after all, to be angry and nuanced at the same time.

DiFranco is to be praised for her willingness to chart new territory with each release. And as the owner of her own indie label, she has the luxury of releasing as much material as she wants. But for the sake of her own career, she might want to consider stockpiling her best material and sticking with one release next year. -- Steve Almond

Midnite Vultures

Sly Stone is the wrong reference point for the new Beck record, though you wouldn't know it from the dozens of callow critics who have dutifully copied Sly's name from the press release (or the review they read just before writing their own). Yes, it's true that America's favorite pop chameleon has changed skins once again, leaving behind the breakbeat breakthrough of Odelay and the Dock Boggs-meets-Donovan stylings of Mutations. And yes, it's true that Midnite Vultures aims for some righteous funk and hits more than it misses. But the album doesn't have any of Sly's grit or political savvy. Instead it's a bright, brassy party from start to stop, the half of the funk seesaw that leans into disco rather than soul.

"Sexxlaws," the first single, kicks off with a somewhat unrepresentative bang, riding along on a wave of horns and horniness over which Beck unleashes the lyrical equivalents of James Brown splits and twirls ("Can't you hear those cavalry drums/Hijacking your equilibrium/Midnite hags in the mausoleum/Where the pixilated doctors moan"). More organic than the rest of the record, right down to the hilarious banjo outro, "Sexxlaws" is a significant addition to the Beck canon. The rest of the album doesn't seem that way at first. In fact it seems like petty theft, pieces borrowed from other records and glued on the mix decoupage-style. But Beck's magpie habits begins to pay dividends with repeated plays, and before long most of his tricks seems both hilarious and touching: the Princely horn flourishes at the end of "Mixed Business," which could have come right off Lovesexy; the last movement of "Peaches and Cream," which employs Parliament-style chants.

The standouts, as always, are those in which Beck taps his prodigious gift for melody: "Peaches and Cream," the tangy "Mixed Bizness," and especially "Get Real Paid." On the face of it, "Get Real Paid" is simply a tour through dance-music styles: Kraftwerk electronica gives way to brittle dance-floor shouts, an atonal sing-song, and then full-out party harmony. But Beck turns the song into high-concept comedy -- a sonic evolution from dispassionate machine to full-blown groovy human -- intensified by the speed of the execution; the whole trajectory takes about 20 seconds. Elsewhere, Midnite Vultures opts for more traditional songcraft ("Beautiful Way," with a vocal contribution from Beth Orton).

Like other great pop artists before him, whether critically acclaimed (the Beatles, the Small Faces, the Buzzcocks) or critically eviscerated (the Bee Gees, Culture Club, Duran Duran), Beck refuses to write a song without at least three or four hooks. When one misses, the next one hits. Sometimes they all hit.

If there's a problem with Midnite Vultures, it's that the party atmosphere, relentlessly apolitical, works against those few moments when Beck's lyrics seem to be substantive. (At least two songs, "Nicotine and Gravy" and "Broken Train," attempt a "1999"-style irony by depicting revelry against a backdrop of social breakdown. Neither is successful.) There's more than a whiff of Al Jolson in the way that Beck slips into black street slang on mack-o-rific tracks like "Hollywood Freaks." And "Debra," which has long been a showstopping ballad in Beck's live shows, doesn't have the heft it should on record. He sounds like a kid playing with adult emotions -- not as bad as LeAnn Rimes, but not as good as the Manhattans. In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. Few pop singers this year have made a record as adventurous as Midnite Vultures. -- Ben Greenman

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Ben Greenman
David Simutis