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Duffy wants nothing to do with Amy Winehouse after an impressive debut cast the Welsh singer as the soberer shadow of the drunken mess. But, to separate the conjoined twins of neo-soul, her follow-up to 2008’s “Rockferry” goes too far – neutralizing her retro sound into a fumbled, overly calculated (almost methodically looping ballads and dance) collection that, even at only 33 minutes, will have you begging for “Mercy.” That single from two years back at least had verve, something tracks on “Endlessly” lack as the album projects Duffy as something much more horrifying than Winehouse: a Disney tween. “Girl,” a ’60s-sounding roller skater, tries to seduce with its hypnotic groove but just comes off annoyingly immature. Which is precisely the problem with her sophomore outing: This is Duffy’s “Alice in Wonderland,” where’s she still blooming, unsure of who she wants to be when she grows up. Soul revivalist (“Breath Away”)? Dance diva (bright spot “Well Well Well”)? Torch-song singer (“Don’t Forsake Me”)? The talent’s there, especially on ballads like “Too Hurt to Dance” that give her pinched vocals an achy exhibit, but barely any of it’s used as powerfully as it was on “Rockferry.” Duffy’s finally far from being Wino, but who she is now couldn’t be any more vague. Grade: C
Kandi Burruss, ‘Kandi Koated’
Trash TV gave the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star, and former member of ’90s girl group Xscape, the boost she needed after her 2000 debut, “Hey Kandi…,” was a chart bust. The drama doesn’t stop on Bravo, though: On Kandi Burruss’ long-overdue sophomore CD, she threatens to walk out on a lazy lover, then she chews him out for cheating with a chick that “don’t even dress that good” (keep in mind, this is the same songwriter behind TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills”). He comes back, she don’t need him; it’s all very soap opera-esque. That works for tawdry reality TV, but it doesn’t always translate to dynamic music – and more often than not, this isn’t. Burruss’ dear-diary confessionals are monotonous to a fault and there’s just not much thought given to the phoned-in lyrics. So even if she sounds remarkably delicious as her voice cascades along Ne-Yo’s on “Me & U,” the song’s a drag. “Haven’t Loved Right,” championing the disc’s best vocals, is one of few highlights after lead-in “I Want You,” a sleek mid-tempo that, too, promises bigger things from Burruss. This, sadly, isn’t it. Grade: C+
Nicki Minaj, ‘Pink Friday’
Girls aren’t her thing anymore, but that doesn’t mean the lady rapper du jour isn’t up for some experimenting. Pulling back from the fierceness that the femcee tore into with her early-career mixtapes, there’s surprising heart behind the hard edge (especially on “Dear Old Nicki,” a love song dedicated to her lost self) and a fondness for classic pop. She still gets nasty, especially on the fantastic “Roman’s Revenge,” but at least she’s less plastic than her Barbie image.
Josh Groban, ‘Illuminations’
Pairing a human Hallmark card with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ producer sounds like a bomb-making compound. But gosh, Josh, does it work. And it’s even quite explosive, as the choirboy crooner’s shellacked approach is elegant without being overdone, something Rick Rubin steadily keeps in check with staggering guitars that give Groban an organic spin. He still raises you up, particularly on the stunning “Straight to You.” Most of the goop, however, is gone.
The dark side of Rihanna on the uninhibited “Rated R” was so fantastically leftfield that its follow-up feels disappointedly lightweight by comparison. Of course, that’s the point – to put Rihanna back under her “umbrella,” going pop-party with “Only Girl (in the World)” and Janet Jackson on “S&M.” “Love the Way You Lie” with Eminem gets a decent sequel, but at least she’s still taking some risks: That’s Enya on “Fading.”
Pink, ‘Greatest Hits…So Far!!!’
Cheers to Pink, whose first best-of package adequately shows what a cool chameleon the pop renegade is. She’s party girl (empowering new single “Raise Your Glass,” an underdog anthem) kiss-off queen (“U + Ur Hand”) and bitter ex (“There You Go”), but beneath the badass is potent honesty: “Family Portrait” and “Dear Mr. President,” featuring the Indigo Girls, definitely rank among her greatest. You know, so far.