Shaquille O'Neal
You Can't Stop the Reign

It took $120 million to persuade Shaquille O'Neal to apply himself on a basketball court (free-throw percentage as of this writing: 46 percent). How much of himself can he be expected to commit to a rap album that returns but a fraction of that regal paycheck? And amid the whoosh of movie, mega-endorsement and merchandising deals--and, oh, yeah, the hoops--is it even possible for this guy to focus sharply enough to fuse a compelling musical statement for You Can't Stop the Reign, the debut album on his own label, T.W.IsM. (and his third recording overall)?

Reign is, in fact, only part of an overall package deal from a guy who recently played a genie living in a boom box in a Major Motion Picture. Shaq makes it damn clear every second of this disc: It's about the greenbacks. As for art . . . isn't that some guy in the Lakers' front office?

O'Neal has always been in a difficult position in his musical venture: He has to straddle an impossible line between corporate role model and street-cred-boasting badass, two distinct personas who can't credibly blend--unless he shanks Charles Barkley in a game with the Rockets. So O'Neal's music at the start represents a creative compromise, and an uninteresting one at that. A so-so rapper at best, Shaq often has to wrap his tongue around some unwieldy, arhythmic rhymes, so to spruce things up he brings in a lot of first-class producers and guest talent (Snoop Doggy Dogg and Bobby Brown are among the contributors here). The songs, undistinguished and weakly structured as they tend to be, require between four and seven writers, and Shaq's not a great judge of material: On one number, Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" provides inspiration.

Here's a sample lyric hinting at what's going on in O'Neal's innermost soul: "Somebody wake me up, this can't be real/Lookin' in the paper, Shaq's about to make a hundred mil/. . . Five-movie deal with Disney/Man, I'm gettin' dizzy/Dizzy collecting/Twenty-mil check from Pepsi." Any musicologist worth his or her salt will admit rap riffs about how cushy life is aren't fearsomely compelling--maybe O'Neal should be busting some phat grooves for the Wave.

Critics are jealous, Shaq repeatedly grouses, anticipating the reaction to his album before it even came out. But no, Shaq, I'm not jealous at all. In fact, believe it or not, I get the same hourly paycheck for hacking out this review that you do for clanking those bricks off the rim from the free-throw line.

Michael Jordan has earned the right to such follies as Space Jam because he has the rings to back it up. If Showtime II never claims championships during O'Neal's tenure, only non-Lakers fans will be able to enjoy his CDs, knowing every hour Shaq spends in the recording studio dicking around on these vanity projects is another hour spent not improving his game.

--David Kronke

Joan Osborne
Early Recordings

To those who relished Joan Osborne's pre-Relish career, it was obvious that her Etta-meets-Etheridge, blues-mama roots got something of a major-label dye job. Mercury downplayed Osborne's impressive wailing pipes in favor of a more sensitive, singer-songwriter persona. Her radio hit "One of Us" was tailored for a Cyndi Lauperish, little-girl-lost style of delivery, and given that songwriter Eric Bazilian is an old Cyndi crony, it's likely the She-Bopper had first dibs on the deity ditty and passed. You get the sense from interviews that Osborne views the success of "One" as a Faustian bargain--it was the only song on her debut that she didn't at least co-write, and the only one that hit.

Still, in light of all the ongoing industry panic over "sophomore jinxes," it's surprising that Early Recordings--a collection of mostly live cuts from 1991--is surfacing now, when, according to formula, Osborne should be releasing a solid, commercial follow-up. All the material here was passed over for her debut, and every song carries her natural voice, which is more powerful than plaintive.

For material, Osborne raids the rarely covered Captain Beefheart songbook for an evocative interpretation of "His Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles." And if some of the originals seem like average blues-bar-band fare ("Dreaming About the Day," "Get Up Jack"), well, duh, she was writing and singing for NYC blues-bar patrons at the time. What do you expect, sea chanteys? Early Recordings rightfully establishes Osborne as a roots performer, and should give her more staying power than the current crop of disposable MTV chanteuses. Yeah, yeah, Joan is good.

--Serene Dominic

Ride the Fader

You want to recapture that panicky feeling of driving 50 miles from home and suddenly remembering you've left a burner red hot on the stove? Plop this second Chavez offering into your player, punch up any track and see if your personal panic button isn't immediately and mercilessly pummeled.

A low-rent supergroup of sorts, these refugees of Bullet La Volta, Skunk, and Wider have devised an urgent, twin-guitar attack that gets triggered in every song like an oversensitive fire alarm. The vocals are almost subliminal, and what words do rise from sonic submersion are negligible anyway. It's the grinding axes of Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver that do all the communicating--screaming at you to drop everything and flee like you're that plucky girl that just has to go back into the haunted house. Not since the soundtrack to Jaws have demonic triads been so effectively overused.

But it's not all strum and dread. Things get Sebadoh-soft on the downright pretty "Unreal Is Here," the most radio-friendly point of entry here. And classic-rock enthusiasts have several touchstones buried under the fuzz, including "The Guard Attacks," a notable demonstration of what the noise adrenaline rush of the Beatles' "It's All Too Much" might've sounded like had the Blue Meanies prevailed in Yellow Submarine.

--Serene Dominic


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