Now that corporate mergers and synergy are all the rage, it was only a matter of time before pop music caught the bug. Record moguls want to be performers, producers want to be stars, and singers want to be label ownerscall it the Puffyization of pop. The latest insider with cross-pollination dreams is Atlanta producer and So So Def label CEO Jermaine Dupri. For most of the decade, Dupri has been content to work in the background. On the hits he's produced and often cowritten for Usher, Mariah Carey, TLC, Da Brat, and a slew of others, Dupri has forged an airy, danceable (if not entirely distinctive) sound that's both suburban smooth and urban hard. If a Southern breeze could be translated into music, it would sound like one of Dupri's productions.
Apparently, that list of hits isn't satisfying enough. Dupri wants his name on the front, not back, of CD covershence the first album released under his own name, Jermaine Dupri Presents Life in 1472 (The Original Soundtrack). To show off his Rolodex and perhaps bolster his own rapping, Dupri has recruited a who's who of contemporary R&B: Singing, rapping, or cavorting throughout the album are Carey, Usher, Mase, Lil' Kim, DMX, Nas, and his So So Def protegees Xscape, among others. To hell with the Puffy comparisons: With friends like these, who needs samples?
Dupri doesn't -- not to the extent that Combs does, anyway -- and he proves it on Life in 1472. The album is harder and tauter -- more streetthan his past hits, but it retains Dupri's Gulf Stream grooves. Pumped along by bass lines, percussion, and the occasional jab of musical color, tracks like "Money Ain't a Thang" (which skillfully intertwines Dupri's and Jay-Z's voices) and the swaying "The Party Continues (Video Version)" are spare and clean, yet don't lose their dynamic charge. Next to the bustling Puffy sound or the congested tangle that often characterizes the Wu-Tang clang, Dupri's style of R&B breathes. From start to finish, Life in 1472 jingles, baby. (In case you're wondering, J and D are the 10th and 4th letters of the alphabet, hence 14, and 1972 is the year he was bornsimple, huh?)
With his scrawny voice, Dupri isn't much of a rapper. But he's smart enough to realize it and leave the heavy lifting (and rhyming) to the all-stars, who turn the album into a veritable museum exhibit of R&B vocalizing in the '90s. There's gruff and garrulous gangsta rapping (Eightball, Too Short, and others in "Jazzy Hoes"), old-school rhymes (Slick Rick, who boasts, "Charisma now felt/To the point that I can even make lesbians melt" in "Fresh"), emotive lover-man balladry (Usher, who lends a moaning hook to "The Party Continues"), and ultra-polished pop-rap (Krayzie Bones of Bone Thugs, on "Don't Hate on Me"). The multitude of guests is often a plus: The weakest moments, like some of Dupri's own solo spots, are over before you know it.
Alas, being known as a grade-A networker and producer isn't enough for Dupri. He wants a larger-than-life star persona. Toward that end, he refers to himself throughout Life in 1472 as "Don Chi-Chi" ("a glamorous, fly-ass playboy") and riddles the songs with lines about parties, platinum records, bullets, and money. This can be amusing: For instance, Life in 1472 may be the first hip-hop album to give props to a country act ("Just thinkin' about gettin' paper, like Garth Brooks," from "The Party Continues"). But it also leads to a numbing barrage of references to bitches, ho's, and such. Some are tiresome ("Bag these bitches like groceries"). Some are proudly, defiantly offensive. "Going Home With Me" lays down these disturbing rules: "Don't even think about lyin', baby, or tryin', baby, to set me up for rape/'Cause it's all on tape." It's doubtful James Brown ever thought a man's, man's, man's world could be so repugnant. Even Carey contributes, perhaps unwittingly, to this scenario. On the mild electro-funk of "Sweetheart," she turns herself into a subservient Barbie, cooing about her need for a "storybook romance."
If the best moments on Life in 1472 are a musical high, Dupri's superstar ambitions, born out in the lyrics, become a buzz kill. By album's end, the effect is cynical and lazy, as if Dupri took the easy, gangsta way of establishing his own career instead of aiming for something more adventurous. Even in pop, it seems, synergy has its downside. B-