Imani Coppola
Chupacabra
(Columbia)


Imani Coppola is a funny girl. From the first funky downbeats of the opening track "I Am A Tree," you get the immediate impression that this is a wacky woman who would be hard to keep up with.

Coppola has created in Chupacabra a bizarre amalgam of rap, smooth croons, funk bass, retro '60s hippie love riffs and come up with a collection of unblemished pop. "I Am A Tree" which deals with the difficulty of "growing" amidst the smog of the city ("keep your head up," she advises), has a country fiddle middle break in the midst of hipswaying beats and a Raspberries-era organ riff. "Legend of a Cowgirl," Coppola's breakthrough first single, celebrates female freedom:

"I'm a woman on fire
with a huge desire
can be as good as any man."

It's interesting to note that Coppola's "wild west" nod runs in complete opposition to the theme of Paula Cole's breakout "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" single of just a few months ago.

Coppola really shows her offbeat side in "It's All About Me, Me, and Me," a goofy beatnik lounge-based rap about Coppola's inner character playground, from "tone deaf Jeff" to "Superman"-derived "Brenda Bean." She sings longingly to herself:

"Someday you'll come to me
supersonic personality
never know just where we'll be
secret source of reality
it's all about me and my other personality."

More melodic than Salt-N-Pepa, Coppola is sassy, spunky and a lot of musical fun.

 

Mariah Carey
Butterfly
(Columbia)


Butterfly opens with its best three tracks, "Honey," "Butterfly" and "My All" and then sadly descends into elevator music mundane-land in short order. But those first three songs are among the best Carey has recorded in her hit-studded career.

"Honey" follows the lead of "Fantasy" (from her last disc) and samples a couple of oldies to fashion a catchy background for Carey's rapidfire soulful crooning:

"It's like honey when it washes over me
you know sugar never ever was so sweet
and I'm dying for you, cryin' for you, I adore you."

The titletrack rests on a gorgeous piano-based melody that rises to a big vocal chorus with a touch of gospel that reiterates the old saw "if you love something, set it free." "My All" is a torchy ballad driven by a gently picked Spanish guitar lead and Carey's plaintive, emotional vocal. From here, however, Butterfly devolves.

"Whenever You Call" shows a ray of hope in its paint-by-numbers piano ballad moves — it's a slowly building piece in the spirit of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." But "The Roof" is a breathy bit of nothing and "Fourth of July" sounds like a bland leftover from Carey's 1970s Adult Contemporary Pop 101 class. Carey's problem, as it has been throughout her career, is that she has a beautiful instrument, but too little good material to play. There are light doses of dub scratching and even a hint of rap (from a guest male vocalist) on a couple of Butterfly's tracks, but they don't breathe any real life into these listless compositions. These songs would make great background music for a supermarket.

The album closes with a dance mix of "Butterfly," an uneventful (and indulgently long) duet remake of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones," and a final whispery waltzing ballad in "Outside." If you buy this CD at a $14.99 cover price, you're basically paying $5 a piece for the first three songs.

 

Janet Jackson
The Velvet Rope
(Virgin)


Janet Jackson's fourth studio album in a decade is also her deepest, most intricate creation to date. Working with both the kind of vicious dance grooves that made Control and Rhythm Nation smashes with the softer ballad side that made janet's "Again" a platinum single, The Velvet Rope explores two key themes: the importance of feeling special, and the hidden thoughts and feelings that everyone keeps hidden behind their personal, theatrical "velvet rope."

But this is not an album of "songs." It's a passion play, and just like janet, it's constructed with interlude snippets between each proper "song." The album opens with Jackson's credo for the CD:

"It's my belief that we all have the need to feel special
and it's this need that can bring out the best of us
yet the worst in us this need created the velvet rope."

The title track follows, with an eerie "Tubular Bells' kind of synthesizer loop, as Jackson sings of our "special need/to feel that we belong."

"You" finds Jackson growling elegantly over a slinky bassline about someone who puts on an act instead of being real. The chorus is a "Scream" style punch. "Got Til It's Gone" is a brilliantly bound together merger of a repetitive Joni Mitchell sample ("you don't know what you've got til it's gone") with Jackson's quiet vocal counterpoint and earthy rap additions by Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip.

While there's nothing on The Velvet Rope that has the staccato dance brilliance of "Miss You Much" or "Control," "Go Deep" offers a heavy synth bass groove for a retro '80s style grinding dance number. "Together Again" also reaches to the past for inspiration, offering a Donna Summer disco beat. And "Free Xone," with its hip hop samples, works as the album's best hipshaker.

But the most intense song comes in "What About," which opens with a gentle guitar and the sound of ocean waves before cutting to a slam chorus that allows the narrator to spit out all of the repressed feelings at her lover, who is making an attempt at romance. She wails:

"what about the times you lied to me
what about the times you said no one would want me
what about all the shit you've done to me
what about that, what about that?"

It's a song of brutal emotion, and one of Jackson's most memorable performances. The velvet of The Velvet Rope comes in "Every Time," a sweet, soft sing-song ballad with piano and light strings. And the sexual side of the rope comes out in a handful of tracks. A speaker phone interlude, "Free Xone" and a reading of Rod Stewart's Tonight's The Night" all speak to Jackson's unprejudiced embrace of all sexuality. "Free Xone" is both the album's funkiest, and most dangerous song: merging Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" with a cool rhythm and Jackson's protest of homophobia ("that's so not mellow," she says) it should be a club hit for months to come.

"Tonight's The Night" continues Jackson's theme of sexual ambivalence as she sings the song's key line "cuz I love you woman, ain't nobody gonna stop us now" without changing the sex of the targeted lover (she sings "girl" instead of "woman" until the song's end, when she substitutes "boy.") "Rope Burn" and "Anything" continue the more overt sexual element of The Velvet Rope as they explore the power of sensation and pleasure with a trusted partner.

The album closes with two songs reaffirming the album's theme of being "special" and expressing oneself. In "Special," Jackson sings:

"we're all born with specialness inside of us
I have the need
to feel real special too
you see you can't run away from your pain
because whereever you run there you will be
you have to learn to water your spiritual garden
then you will be free."

The Velvet Rope is Jackson's declaration of freedom. It includes adult themes, but rather than dealing with sexual elements in an exploitative way (as Madonna would), Jackson explores them with intelligence and tact. The result is an album that listens like an internal diary. It's a privilege to be let inside the bounds of this rope. "Don't let nobody tell you you ain't strong enough," she sings to close the album. Indeed.