Gwen Stefani has always been something of an oddity in the music industry. She rose to fame with her Southern California ska-pop band No Doubt, but she would later reinvent herself as a fly white chick by hooking up with rapper Eve a few years later. With her solo debut, 2004's Love.Angel.Music.Baby, Stefani further stretched her artistic muscle by referencing '80s pop sounds and Japanese fashion. L.A.M.B. wasn't exactly the most consistent album, even though it produced the monster hit "Hollaback Girl." With her second solo album, The Sweet Escape, Stefani gets her schizophrenia in check and delivers a mostly streamlined set of bass-heavy hip-hop cuts sprinkled with pop lyrics and soaring retro-flavored anthems. It's a far more enjoyable listen than Stefani's debut is, and it's destined to spawn another massive single.
Part of that accessibility comes from the indelible stamp of the Neptunes. As the producers of "Hollaback Girl," it was inevitable that they'd be the main contributors to this album, and Stefani and the Neptunes do make an exciting team. The collaboration produces some of the Neptunes' most adventurous work in years, such as the mildly annoying yet entertaining lead single, "Wind It Up," and the playful "Yummy," which ends with a bizarre voyage into a mechanic's shop. The Neptunes also pull the most radio-ready singles out of Stefani. The 808-heavy "Orange County Girl" could be the new California anthem, and "U Started It" and bonus track "Candyland" are among the best on the album. However, it's Swizz Beatz who comes up with the most likely heir to the Hollaback crown, with the bumping chants and boasting raps of "Now That You Got It."
But Stefani is more than just a rapping white girl. Many of the album's highlights are the softer tracks. "Early Winter" and "4 in the Morning" soar thanks to Stefani's girlish vocals and brilliant hooks that reference iconic moments from Madonna and Tears for Fears. And things don't quite click when Stafani seems to throw a million sounds into a pot. Neither the musical train wreck that is "Don't Get It Twisted" nor the Gogos-inspired title track has a clear direction, and the results are pretty dismal.
Stefani will probably always be an artist who projects style over substance, but she continues to make some of the most interesting music in pop. Few mainstream artists can hope to produce an album as wonderfully weird as The Sweet Escape.
Artist: http://www.gwenstefani.com/Label: http://www.interscope.com/