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Gwen Stefani Review: This Is What The Truth Feels Like

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Rachel Platten: Wildfire Review

Live Review: J-Lo Is the Ultimate Showgirl in "All I Have" Las Vegas Residency

Adele Powers Through a Lifetime of Regret & Weariness on '25': Album Review


Gwen StefaniGwen Stefani Review: This Is What The Truth Feels Like

Pluggedin.com

Album Review

Shattered love. Blossoming love.

That's the stark thematic contrast found on Gwen Stefani's first solo album in a decade, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. In one old-school, Madonna-like pop song after another, Stefani unpacks the heartbreak and disorientation she experienced in the wake of her divorce from Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale after 13 years of marriage (upon discovering his affair with the family nanny). Mingled amid those mournful, melancholy musings are songs about falling for fellow Voice coach and country crooner Blake Shelton.

Never mind that Shelton's marriage to country star Miranda Lambert recently dissolved amid acrimonious allegations of cheating. And that's not ancillary (read: gossipy) information here. It's merely a sobering reality that's difficult to push out of your mind while listening to often-fragile Gwen getting drunk on the joys of a fresh love.

Pro-social Content

"Used to Love You" navigates Ms. Stefani's pain upon discovering that her husband had been cheating on her. "I thought I was the best thing that ever happened to you," she unloads. "I thought you loved me the most." Later she says of Rossdale's choices, "You thought/There were no boundaries/ … I guess nobody taught you/Nobody taught you how to love." Similarly, "Red Flag" laments not seeing warning signs in her marriage and recognizing them for what they were. "Naughty" alludes to catching her husband in his infidelity, after which she tells him, "No matter how hard you try, you're never washing out the stain/Because you're addicted, so addicted to the shame."

"Me Without You," then, is a post-divorce empowerment anthem that explores Gwen's journey to rediscover herself ("I can finally be myself, be myself/ … I forgot how good it felt, good it felt"), while "Make Me Like You" includes honest lyrics describing her hesitancy to plunge into a new relationship ("I really like you, but I'm so scared/Why'd you have to go and make me like you?"). And there's more introspection on "Truth," where the singer ponders how people might respond to news of her new relationship ("I really don't wanna embarrass myself/And no one's gonna believe me, not even myself/And they're all gonna say I'm rebounding"). "Asking for It" asks if her new man is willing to accept her, weaknesses and all ("Are you sure you wanna love me?/ … I know that it's a lot to handle me/ But it, it is, but it is what it is/It's all a part of my broken history").

Objectionable Content

Grief, meanwhile, loiters precariously close to bitterness on "Used to Love You" as Gwen Stefani admits, "I don't know why I cry/But I think it's 'cause I remembered for the first time/Since I hated you/That I used to love you."

By today's standards—even as they're defined by yet another popular Voice judge, Adam Levine—Stefani never ventures too far into explicit naughtiness. Still, her playfully suggestive lyrics are hardly mysterious in their sexual meanings, either. "Misery" proclaims, "You're like drugs, you're like drugs to me," then practically begs a man to come over for a tryst ("So put me out of my misery/Hurry up, come see me/ … At the door/I'm thinking things I never thought before/Like what your love would taste like/Give me more").

More of the same fills "Your My Favorite" ("The way you kissed me wasn't typical/Take me out of my body, something spiritual/Think I need seconds, maybe thirds or fourths"). Still more smooching fans physical flames on "Where Would I Be?" and "Make Me Like You." "Send Me a Picture" flirtatiously, suggestively pleads, "Send me a picture right now," one with "no filter" and one that will "show me what you're doing, boy."

Stefani's description of what truth is (on "Truth") makes it all about emotion as she equates certainty with feelings ("So this is what the truth feels like/ … And I'm feeling it, I'm feeling it/Something about this just feels so right, alright"). Guest contributor Fetty Wap defines a successful romantic relationship in materialistic terms on "Asking for It" ("Baby, let's fill the swimming pool with money/Make it splash in, yeah, baby").
Gwen also proclaims that she's seen and done it all, including drugs ("Shook it, stirred it, smoked it/More than I can count").

Summary Advisory

By the time I finished listening to This Is What the Truth Feels Like, I felt like a protective older brother reacting to news that his little sis was being manhandled by life's big baddies. On "Rare," Gwen Stefani vulnerably admits, "I am broken, I am insecure/Complicated, oh yeah, that's for sure/I feel worthless, I've been hurt so bad/I get nervous that you won't love me back."

That's a precarious precipice, for sure. And it's like she's not even aware of the danger. Because when she's not articulating the agony her ex-husband put her through, she's all in—both emotionally and, it would seem, physically, too—for the new guy she herself has admitted will be seen as her "rebound."

Stefani insists that she can feel the truth of her latest relationship, and she desperately wants to believe it will be the real deal this time around. But feelings are flawed barometers of solid substances such as truth—both for pop stars like Gwen Stefani and for all of the rest of us who internalize the familiar-but-still-problematic philosophy she espouses.

If it feels so right, it can't be wrong, she gushes.

And while one would hope that such a seasoned artist would have been through enough to recognize the peril of capitulating to that old lie … perhaps hope is not always the best strategy.

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Macklemore & Ryan LewisMacklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Pluggedin.com

Album Review

This Unruly Mess I've Made is an apt title for the sophomore effort from rapper Macklemore and his behind-the-music producer partner, Ryan Lewis. As was true with the duo's debut, 2012's The Heist, This Unruly Mess careens between the sublime and the salacious and the ridiculous. One minute, Macklemore's rapping about the joys of piloting a moped in "Downtown," the next he might be letting loose a litany of obscenities while pouring out his insecurities, challenging listeners to confront racism or pondering the advice he'll someday give his newborn daughter.

"Growing Up (Sloane's Song)" unpacks Macklemore's hopes for his daughter. (Macklemore married his longtime girlfriend, Tricia Davis, in June 2015, shortly after Sloane's birth). "I just wanna be a good dad/Will I be? I have no idea," he says, and then he encourages Sloane to imitate her "tough" mom, keep broken hearts in perspective, pursue her passions and focus on others' needs.

Offering a glimpse into Macklemore's experience attending the Grammy Awards, "Light Tunnels" confesses his uncertainty regarding how he's supposed to act ("I watch the other people that have been around for a while/Just excited I got invited, feeling cool in the crowd") even as he skewers the music industry's narcissism ("'Cause tonight we toast our accomplishments/Insecurity dressed up as confidence") and perceptively observes how "celebrities who take selfies with celebrities" get exploited by executives who want to profit from their foibles and failings ("They want the gossip, they want the drama/They want Britney Spears to make out with Madonna/They want Kanye to rant and to go on longer, 'cause that equates to more dollars").

Macklemore has long been open about his struggles with addiction. Accordingly, most references to drugs and alcohol here have a cautionary feel, especially on "Kevin," which memorializes a friend who died of an overdose at the age of 21. Macklemore clearly recognizes the tragically destructive influence of drugs and drink ("Wings clipped by the grip of 80 milligram sniffs of Oxycontin/Every day through the nostrils/Death a line or two away and a couple of tall cans"), even as he's honest about his own temptation to use such substances to dull the ache of his guilt ("I'm already feeling hollow/Might as well go crack a seal and might as well go chug a bottle"). Still, he knows deep down that it's only a "Band-Aid [for] that problem."

"Kevin" also condemns doctors who overprescribe such meds and criticizes a culture that's addicted to them ("Got anxiety, better go and give him a Xanax/Focus? Give him Adderall. Sleep? Give him Ambien/ … So, America, is it really worth it?"). Similarly confessional, "St. Ides" chronicles Macklemore's struggle with alcohol addiction.

Meanwhile, death is deemed a spiritual reality on "Kevin," ("You never know when God is gonna call, man"), as the lyrics honestly speak to how tragedy makes holding on to faith difficult ("'Cause I hate myself/No praying's gonna cure this pain"). Positive (passing) references to God show up on "Light Tunnels," "Brad Pitt's Cousin," "The Train" and "Need to Know," the latter of which suggests that we've tried to replace God with material things ("I'm tryna find God through a purchase, I'm not tryna go to church"). "White Privilege II" packs a great deal of complex soul searching into a track that challenges listeners to think seriously about racism ("It seems like we're more concerned with being called racist/Than we actually are with racism").

Though it's been roundly ridiculed in some reviews, the Deluxe Edition track "Spoons" offers a real-world (albeit frankly explicit) take on sexual intimacy over the long term in a committed relationship. Macklemore and his wife aren't always on the same physical page, he admits, but he emphasizes that intimacy is more than just sex ("Every time I go to sleep/I wish that you were next to me/Two people that were meant to be").

Whether they're serious and sober or asinine and absurd, what's indisputable is that Macklemore & Lewis are all in when it comes to their unusually Messy contribution to popular music. More often than you might think, that messiness shows up in positively provocative ways. Almost as often, however, cursing, crudity and caustic counsel rise only to the level of poking and provoking.

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Rachel PlattenRachel Platten: Wildfire Review

Pluggedin.com

Album Review

Thirty-four and married. It's not the optimal demographic template to become a breakout music star—a game usually played by younger, much-less-attached ingenues.

But Rachel Platten never got the memo.

After toiling away anonymously as a singer-songwriter for 15 years—and doing it the "old fashioned" way by touring constantly in a van instead of pursuing fame on YouTube or American Idol—Platten became an "overnight" sensation last summer. That's when her empowerment anthem "Fight Song" zoomed up the charts all 'round the world. Suddenly, the gifted pianist, guitar player and singer was everywhere. And now she's released a major-label debut (her third album overall) to prove she belongs on the big stage.

Pro-social Content

"Stand by You" and "Superman" both find Platten vowing support to her husband. On the former, she acknowledges that both have their share of brokenness ("And hurt, I know you're hurting, but so am I"), but Platten nevertheless promises, "If your wings are broken/Borrow mine till yours can open too/'Cause I'm gonna stand by you." The latter mirrors those sentiments as she tells her man it's OK for him to be human … and lean on her strength ("If I could break away half of all your pain/I'd take the worst of it and carry you like you carry me"). She adds, "You don't have to be Superman/You don't have to hold the world in your hands/You've already shown me that you can."

The "aww"-inducing track "Better Place" sweetly tells a beloved beau, "I see the whole world in your eyes/It's like I've known you all my life/We just feel so right/So I pour my heart into your hands/It's like you really understand/You love the way I am." Owl City-esque "Astronauts" counsels making the most of every moment and finding safety in relationship with those we love.

As for Platten's plucky "Fight Song," it's drenched with dogged determination. "This is my fight song," she practically shouts, "Take back my life song/Prove I'm alright song/ … And I don't really care if nobody else believes/'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me." "Angels in Chelsea" bears witness to random acts of kindness in the city ("Last night I saw a suit give a buck to a bum"), comparing those spontaneously compassionate people to angels ("And everywhere I look tonight, I see angels around me/ ... I see angels in Chelsea").

"Lone Ranger" could be heard as a shout-out to solitary rebels everywhere ("I wanna roam from city to city/Let the highway and the crowd fill the hunger that's in me"). But Platten eventually admits that this oft-romanticized tendency is driven by an unhealthy fear of being hurt ("Get close to somebody, but I don't stay there/Much less brave than I admit/Much more scared than they all think/But I'm protecting this organ in my chest/ … I don't want to get broken, baby").

"Beating Me Up" finds a woman battling her own heart after a hard breakup, while "You Don't Know My Heart" is the title of a song that repeats that sentiment in different ways to a thick-skulled boyfriend.

Objectionable Content

"Speechless" is one of two rising-heat songs on Wildfire. "Why does this part always go so fast?" she asks breathlessly. "And I really want this to last so bad/ … Just give me that touch, I want it/Quit talking so much, I'm ready/Stop moving your lips and kiss me/Keep taking my breath away/'Cause you make me speechless." She also suggestively references making some noise in the bedroom ("We're getting loud tonight, we're allowed tonight to be").

"Hey Hey Hallelujah" dishes similarly steamy stuff ("I'm turning you up, I'm turning you on/Your head's saying, 'Danger, danger!' but your heart must be drunk/ … You're begging me for me/You never seen nobody do the things I do before"). As the song's title indicates, her man's response to this seduction is framed in spiritual language. Guest singer Andy Grammer adds, "Love me like you should, and you make me wanna scream hallelujah."

Potentially well-intended spiritual allusions on "Stand by You" nonetheless open problematic doors. "Even if we can't find heaven," Platten sings, "I'll walk through hell with you/ … Oh, truth, I guess truth is what you believe in/And faith, I think faith is having a reason." There's another dose of that kind of optimistic agnosticism on "Astronauts," where Platten ponders what happens when we die ("'Cause after all, we're only one triumphant bang away/From resting in infinity or darkness or some brighter place").

"Lone Ranger" repeats a line that could be heard as a reference to drug use ("Sometimes I get high, sometimes I get low"). "Congratulations" finds a woman angrily confronting an ex, saying bitterly, "Congratulations, you tore my heart out/Congratulations, it must feel good digested, to be so d--n aggressive/ … Help me find a sharper knife/I need to cut you out of my life."

Summary Advisory

I really wanted every track on Rachel Platten's follow-up album to be as powerfully inspirational and free of problems as its big hit single, "Fight Song." And most of the time, Platten's lyrics do blaze with wildly exuberant passion for her life, calling and marriage. But there are a few fires here that need to be put out, not fanned. Despite the fact that Platten's happily, devotedly married, it's still not great that she's suggestively talking about making noise in bed. Likewise, her fuzzy references to faith, belief, heaven and hell could be taken positively by some … but could reinforce doubts in others who hear her suggesting that we can't really know what to believe.

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JLOLive Review: J-Lo Is the Ultimate Showgirl in "All I Have" Las Vegas Residency

Billboard.com

The only question after seeing Jennifer Lopez's "All I Have" residency in Las Vegas is: What took her so long?

Given her trajectory of Fly Girl to actress to pop star to TV personality to all of the above at once, it's not surprising that Lopez was tailor-made for Vegas. It's much like the Rat Pack's heyday in the 1960s: Was anyone asking Frank or Sammy to choose a single career path? No, they were expected to excel in all things, and J.Lo surely did that in the first night of her residency at Planet Hollywood's AXIS theater.

The show played out like a walk through her multi-hyphenate life, beginning with her very first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit, "If You Had My Love." Following the feathery and sparkly opening number, Lopez had a modern trick up her sleeve for "Love Don't Cost a Thing," as her male dancers rolled out on hoverboards, presenting her with sequined roses. As Lopez climbed up the mirrored staircase at center stage surrounded by gentleman callers, it was very reminiscent of Madonna's "Material Girl" music video (you know, aside from the hoverboards). J.Lo went full Vegas next with "Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do" from Bye Bye Birdie, performing a soft-shoe number complete with jewel-encrusted cane.

When it was time for the first costume change (we were all waiting for one), a hip-hop interlude kept the crowd occupied, as dancers dressed as speakers filled the stage. When a bedazzled 6 Train rolled out, it was clearly time for the Bronx portion of Lopez's walk down memory lane. How could she prove just how real she still is, even after all the international fame? By performing "I'm Real," of course, with special guest Ja Rule joining her as the night's first special guest. She transitioned to "Feelin' So Good" and then her signature "Jenny From the Block," rocking a sequin pink Yankees cap that she gifted to a lucky New Yorker in the crowd.

"Mind if I change?" she mused to no one in particular to kick off the sultry section of the night. This is where she really let out her inner-Vegas showgirl, as she became less and less clothed throughout "I'm Into You," "Girls" and "Booty," including some vigorous shaking of her famous derriere and a J.Lo sandwich on a chaise lounge with two female dancers. During "Booty," her band even played a line of Drake's "Hotline Bling" as Lopez announced, "Booty call!"

But forget the booty for a second, because next up was J.Lo, the mom. After performing "Feel the Light" from the animated movie Home ("You have kids and all you want to do is a cartoon," she said as an actress) in a stunning green-screen dress that made her look 10 feet tall, she wanted to do something for her twins Max and Emme. She chose Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" -- by far her most personal and emotional song of the night, as her voice cracked in the last line. "I just want them to be happy," she said of her 7-year-olds.

Jennifer Lopez's All I Have Las Vegas residency - Caesars Entertainment

Never one to bring the mood down for too long, it was time for more surprise guests. Rule returned for "Ain't It Funny" and Ne-Yo came out to duet on Debra Laws' "Very Special" and the J.Lo hit that sampled that song (and the residency's namesake) "All I Have" -- with Ne-Yo even singing LL Cool J's parts.

But what about her Latin roots? Lopez had that covered too. It started with Celia Cruz's "Quimbara," then "Quien Sera" (also known as Dean Martin's "Sway" in English) and then the Grammy-winning "Let's Get Loud," which was co-written by Gloria Estefan. Lopez never stopped dancing throughout the night (except for when she was locked into her mile-high gown), but she especially got down during the Latin section.

Finally, it was time to end in the area where J.Lo started and has found her most recent success: dance. She finished the two-hour spectacle with "Waiting for Tonight," followed by "Dance Again" and, finally, "On the Floor." The crowd was stunned to see Pitbull emerge from below the stage for the final number to cap the over-the-top night. Can the regular residency crowd expect this much star power? That remains to be seen.

A number of celebrities filled the opening-night crowd, including Justin Bieber (whose arrival prompted the biggest non-J.Lo scream of the night), Leah Remini, Rebel Wilson, Kelly Osbourne, Today host Hoda Kotb and more.

Early in the night, Lopez announced to the audience: "There's a new girl in town!" She's just kindly letting Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John and the other Vegas staples know that they have some company in Sin City -- and she already seems to have a pretty good feel for the town.

Jennifer Lopez's All I Have set list:

If You Had My Love
Love Don't Cost a Thing
Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do
Get Right
I'm Real (with Ja Rule)
Feelin' So Good
Jenny From the Block
I'm Into You
Girls
Booty
Feel the Light
I Hope You Dance
Ain't It Funny (with Ja Rule)
Very Special/All I Have (with Ne-Yo)
Hold It Don't Drop It
Quimbara
Quien Sera
Let's Get Loud
Waiting for Tonight
Dance Again
On the Floor (with Pitbull)

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AdeleAdele Powers Through a Lifetime of Regret & Weariness on '25': Album Review

Billboard.com

Adele Adkins is still a young woman -- just 27, which is to say two years older than the number on the cover of her third album. But she’s determined to sound as old as the hills. The love-wracked ingénue of 21 has given way to a lioness-in-winter, shouldering a lifetime’s worth of world-weariness and regret. The song titles tell the story: “When We Were Young,” “Water Under the Bridge,” “Million Years Ago.”

In one song, Adele casts herself as Old Woman River, reaching for a soggy riparian metaphor: “The reeds are growing out of my fingertips.” Eventually, she pumps up the ennui to Full Gallic. Harmonically and spiritually, “Million Years Ago” is a cousin to French chanson, with a brooding melody that’s nudged forward by plucked acoustic guitar, and a lyric that sounds like it’s being hissed across a café table to Jacques Brel: “I know I’m not the only one/ Who regrets the things she’s done…Life was a party to be thrown/But that was a million years ago.”

These sentiments have a slightly callow ring: a young person’s idea of an old fogey’s ruefulness. But to be fair, pop stars grow up fast and do a lot of living. Over the last five years, Adele has gone from a rising star to world-beater, releasing an album, 21, that’s the closest the music industry may ever again come to Thriller. Also, she had a baby -- a heady experience that can make a person feel like she’s aged decades overnight. In any case, Adele’s elegiac turn makes sense as a career move. From Edith Piaf to Dusty Springfield to Barbra Streisand and beyond, nostalgia has been standard torch singer fodder. If a diva isn’t mooning over lost love, she’s lamenting vanished time.

Adele certainly has the pipes for the job. 25 is first and foremost a showcase for her titanic voice. The grandeur is announced by the album opener, the global No. 1 “Hello,” which sets a mood of mournful longing while traveling the heroic power-ballad trajectory, from stately verse to booming chorus to falsetto whoops and back again. Her singing is at its most luminous on “All I Ask,” co-written and produced by Bruno Mars’ Smeezingtons crew, which strips back the instrumentation to piano only, and sets Adele gusting over the octaves.

That song, like nearly everything on 25, pursues a simple strategy: get out of the way. The liner notes reveal a roster of heavy-hitting talent -- Max Martin and Shellback, Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder, Danger Mouse, Adele’s longtime sidekick Paul Epworth -- but this is not a producer’s record. The one exception is Epworth’s “I Miss You,” whose stuttering beat and eerie swirl of backing vocals and effects gesture mildly in the direction of nu-R&B. For the most part, Adele and her collaborators place her burly mid-range front-and-center and keep the ornamentation to a minimum. There are hints of the singer’s soul revivalism in hooting backing vocals and tolling gospel chord progressions. But there is nothing as explicitly old-school as Motown girl group update “Rolling in the Deep” -- nor anything as gripping.

Looked at from one angle, the Adele aesthetic is perverse -- based, seemingly, on a determination to do the soberest and most uninteresting possible things with an all-world voice. Martin and Shellback’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is sprightlier than anything else on 25, but you can sense those Swedish pop wizards straining to keep the song in check, as if too many hooks, too much fun, would be a crime against the brand and a breach of good taste. Adele, after all, is nothing if not tasteful. In everything but vocal prowess, she is aggressively normal. Her lyrics traffic in clichés but aren’t recklessly gauche enough to qualify as schlock; her arrangements are huge but tidy, prim. She doesn't have the fearless tackiness of Adult Contemporary stalwarts like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or, God knows, Streisand. She is, you might say, quite English.

And yet: that voice. On 25, the material is occasionally inspired, sometimes dull, but always serviceable -- and with Adele, that’s enough. Ballads like “Love in the Dark” and “Sweetest Devotion” revisit timeworn themes (of heartache and uplift, respectively); but with Adele’s voice swathed in echo, sounding like she’s wailing beneath the vaults of the planet’s most cavernous cathedral, they hit hard. History teaches us that the power to blow back ears is the power to jerk tears -- and that the pop audience craves catharsis even more than it does a hot dance beat. That’s not about to change: there’s every reason to believe it will be true when Adele actually is long in the tooth, and the title of her new album is 78.

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