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Earlier this year an AllHipHop.com interviewer asked Christina Milian about criticisms that she’s biting Beyoncé’s style. “Oh gosh! Well that’s not true!” she responded. “Do people think that every light skin Black girl that has blonde hair has to say that she wants to be like her?”
Well, hate it or love it, Beyoncé’s carefully nuanced formula—she can belt out a tune and seems really nice, but she’s not above appearing wet, half-naked, and/or in chains to sell albums—works. So record companies are pushing as many light-haired, low-necklined young women off R&B assembly lines as they can in hopes that the general public can’t tell one unnaturally blonde, voluptuous, cap-toothed singer from another.
Such is the case with songstresses Milian and Rihanna. And what makes their Beyoncification so odd is that Beyoncé’s boyfriend, Jay-Z, is behind both their albums. As the relatively recent head of their label, Def Jam, He-yoncé has been unable to cultivate a strong R&B contender, so like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, he keeps creating clones of his beloved, hoping to get it right with each new iteration.
At first glance, Milian is a reasonable facsimile of the child upon whom destiny smiled. She’s gorgeous, no stranger to suggestive writhing, the object of immeasurable sexual attention. Her looks even rated a mention on last year’s Kanye West track “Late.” West runs through a litany of missed opportunities and tardy moments that have affected the rapper’s life and career, but he says a rendezvous with Milian—or, more specifically, a ménage with two lesbian Milian look-alikes—is one thing he could be on time for.
Unfortunately, for all Milian’s purring and body-baring, her music is diluted by her gruel-thin voice. So it’s not a huge surprise that production is the only aspect of So Amazin’ that lives up to its title. Miami sound squad Cool & Dre, the team behind Juvenile’s “Rodeo” and Terror Squad’s “Take Me Home,” have blessed Milian with an entire album of inspired dance tracks and innovative spins on the classic ballad that meld original instrumentation and well-disguised samples that sound like they should rightfully have gone to—oh, I don’t know—Beyoncé. But the team’s wizardry actually does Milian more harm than good: With a fluffy, unsubstantial canvas, as on Milian’s biggest hit to date, “Dip It Low,” the singer’s shallow, light vocals are less evident. But when she’s backed by decent music, every song leaves the listener mentally picking out another R&B singer who could’ve done the track justice.
Lead single “Say I”—despite a weird digression disguised as a guest spot that features Young Jeezy defending his parenting skills—is a snappy little puffed-up dance number on which Milian spends most of the 3:31 stuttering “I-I-I-I-I-I” like an unfaithful girlfriend caught sneaking through the back door. “Foolin’” takes Average White Band’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” to Miami with added congas and hand claps, and Milian uses the track to talks to the ladies about a man called “Mr. Big” who already has a girl but still wants to get at her. “If you’re foolin’/Only foolin’/All I ask is why,” goes the hook. Maybe because he’s married and just wants to sleep with you?
Cool & Dre’s most ballsy move on the album is “My Lovin’ Goes,” which is more an electronica track than an R&B one. Milian’s unpolished instrument is hardly up to the genre-bending challenge, so she goes for the next best thing: making convincing sex noises over the chorus, e.g., “My lovin’ goes uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh/My lovin’ it goes oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh.” Sadly, the song’s best point comes when the producers let the beat ride for almost a minute without vocal accompaniment.
So Amazin’ is Milian’s third album. The first two failed to make much of an impact on the charts, but when they were released, Milian was busy making teen movies—deep supporting roles in flicks such as American Pie and The Wood until she landed Love Don’t Cost a Thing with ex-boyfriend Nick Cannon. “Who’s Gonna Ride” is how she pays Cannon back for taking the public’s eye off her singing career: It’s a dis track on which Milian, with help from Three 6 Mafia, caps on her ex.
“You ain’t nothing but a buster/Still I find it so hard to believe/That I touched ya,” she sings, in addition to accusing him of taking her for granted and seeing other women. Things could get prickly at the next Def Jam event, though—rumor has his that Cannon is dating none other than labelmate Rihanna. Guess he couldn’t keep his Beyoncé clones straight, either.
Rihanna might be hugging up on Milian’s ex-man, but she hasn’t exactly embraced her rival’s approach to music-making—save for the looking-like-Beyoncé part, of course. She’s pretty though not over-the-top sexy, and in the video for her current hit “SOS,” which modernizes Soft Cell’s ’80s hit “Tainted Love,” she tries to emulate a scene from Beyoncé’s “Check On It” video by donning a pink bodysuit. But instead of doing some booty shake, she just flops against a mirror looking like a rag doll spent from an intense game of doctor.
And unlike Milian, Rihanna knows the limitations of her voice. Instead of trying to plow through songs as loud and as high as possible, Rihanna plays with her lower register and stays far, far away from R&B shriek. As on So Amazin’, the production on A Girl Like Me is often better than the vocals, but unlike Milian, Rihanna doesn’t let the tracks outshine her.
“SOS” isn’t representative of Girl’s tone. Most of the disc has a breezy, laid-back reggae vibe—roots, dancehall, and a little dub—that pays homage to Rihanna’s native Barbados. The songs don’t necessarily require Beyoncé- or Mariah-level singing skill, and as Rihanna showed on one of last year’s hottest singles, “Pon De Replay,” her understated strength is lending girly garnish to heady rhythms.
Girl’s most adroit production comes from Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, better known as Syndicated Rhythm Productions, who give Rihanna tracks with reggae foundations layered with enough pop elements that listeners aren’t jarred by the fact that the singer sounds more like Britney Spears than Marcia Griffiths.
On “Kisses Don’t Lie,” Rihanna is almost drowned out by a scratchy rock-steady guitar, and she doesn’t try to fight for prime position. She’s smart to fall back—listening to the track is like checking out an act while on a Caribbean vacation. The band can jam, and you can dance to the song, so Rihanna’s ability to enhance or detract from the groove is negligible. That’s especially apparent on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Selfish Girl” as well, both of which play with mellow grooves, spaced-out dub synth, and Rihanna’s kiddish emoting.
But Rihanna is capable of command. On the rootsy “Dem Haters,” she throws in a little commentary about users and abusers that steals the spotlight from the folks with the instruments. And on the hard-core dancehall track “Break It Off,” she doesn’t let guest Sean Paul steamroll her entirely.
The young singer falters only when her production does. Any abandonment of the island-urban formula for more standard contemporary R&B is disastrous. Rihanna lacks the pipes to carry a sappy piano ballad such as “Unfaithful,” an underdeveloped drum-machine slow jam like “We Ride,” or a hokey acoustic-guitar-assisted fiasco such as “Final Goodbye.”
While she may look like every other tarty chart-topper-in-training, Rihanna has a lock on reggae lite, which may be enough to distance her from numerous Beyoncé look-alikes. The singer herself seems desperate to make the distinction—she addresses cookie-cutter chicks at length on the album’s title track. “Some girls play the game/They all walk and talk and they dress the same/Nothing new to say/Don’t they realize/It’s so easy to see right through their disguise.”
If Rihanna were styled, packaged, and marketed a bit differently, it would take a lot less effort on the part of R&B/pop fans to discover that she’s not just another one of those cuties masquerading behind flaxen highlights. In fact, if Jay-Z would stop trying to sculpt R&B replicas of his famous lady friend, he could perhaps nurture talent rather than try to mark it with a “B.” You can date her, Jay, but you can’t duplicate her. CP