Robyn, ‘Body Talk Pt. 2’
On “Hang with Me,” Robyn’s lead single from part two in her “Body Talk” series, the every-girl of (smart) pop is hesitant to fall in love. We, though, hardly had a choice. Just coming off the June release of the first installment, she’s adorably irresistible, emotionally exposed like the BFF you never had but, in Robyn’s wonderfully upfront way, almost do. That single from this edition – slightly beginning-to-end better than the first – is too good for words; a slice of bursting dream-pop that’s so honest and innocent it reads like a diary entry and feels more real than anything on radio, right where this particular charmer belongs. It’s heartily inviting, just like the two addictive openers before it, “In My Eyes” and “Include Me Out” – the latter featuring the silliest and sweetest of Left Eye-like breakdowns. Both songs are the consoling friends she needed when a lover broke her heart on the first disc’s “Dancing on My Own.” Sadness mostly sits out this time around, while Robyn warns that “Love Kills” and then shakes out some sass on “Criminal Intent” and the hardcore toughie “U Should Know Better,” alternating boasts with Snoop Dogg like a tag-team fierce enough to take down Osama bin Laden. She closes with “Indestructible,” and like the acoustic version of “Hang with Me” from “Body Talk Pt. 1,” it’s string-powered and sweetly melancholy. When the song is, as her cycle suggests, cut for the clubs on the third and final chapter, we’ll be right there – hanging with her. Grade: A-
Fantasia, ‘Back to Me’
Fantasia Barrino never reached the heights of “American Idol”-winning peers Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, but she has just as much talent wringing from her. Talent that, again on her third album “Back to Me,” is squandered on songs that reek of regurgitation, forcing Fantasia into the simplest of R&B conventions that almost completely ignore her instinctual passion. She has a better backstory – single mom, reality show champ and, now, suicide-attempt survivor – than hit-making catalog, which has left nary a blip on radio and turned some horribly embarrassing jams. But at least she’s consistent; both “I’m Doin’ Me” and “Collard Greens & Cornbread” are almost funny enough to forget how truly atrocious they really are. Otherwise, she’s stuck with slapped-together songwriting that even Mary J. Blige couldn’t salvage: “Bittersweet,” the first single, is one big, crying Hallmark card that Fantasia bellows like she means every trite line she’s emoting; so is “Even Angels,” a trendy R&B jam with a walk-then-run motto that at least corks a singable melody within its glimmering synth groove. Old-school soul sweeps through “The Thrill is Gone” and “Trust Him,” calling up Lauryn Hill, and it’s invigorating to hear Fantasia sing something that suits her ragged, old-soul voice. Her shining coup, though, isn’t even studio produced; it’s her live version of “I’m Here” from her role in “The Color Purple” musical. From the gut, it’s a reminder that Fantasia can be great when the music allows her to be. Grade: C+
Kristine W, ‘Straight Up with a Twist’
Dance divas shifting outside the box sounds so Cyndi Lauper, but another big voice is going for beyond-her-roots glory. Kristine W’s doing it over two discs: a laid-back, Latin-seasoned mix of covers and dance-songs-turned-ballads paired with a livelier, Sade-sounding second disc. Ms. W sounds divine, her silky pipes rising high above some pedestrian production, but scene queens will be looking for less chill, more kill.
Zayra, ‘Baby Likes to Bang’
Now that Gaga’s set the precedence for dance-pop, wannabes want a piece of her disco ball. A chunk of it goes to this Puerto Rican vixen, who gives glam a go with songs on her debut disc, which includes six originals and five remixes. She goes M.I.A. with “Feel Good,” and on the fierce “V.I.P.,” a top-10 dance single, she’s too cool for you. If Zayra wasn’t so much like everyone else, that just might be true.