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About halfway into EV3, En Vogue’s first new album in five years, the vocal group applies lush harmonies to a loop taken from Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s.” Its rhythm track isn’t the only familiar element of “You’re All I Need,” of course. The romantic devotion comes from a thousand past pop songs, the church-bred, street-fed joy from scores of past soul singers ranging from Aretha to the Emotions. The meld of traditionalist and hiphop power also won’t sound strange to anyone who’s been listening to En Vogue’s generation of nouveau R&B acts. The sense that the outfit is doing something more than borrowing may be a new one, though.

Although the loss of a founding member—Dawn Robinson, who’s gone solo since the release of “Don’t Let Go (Love),” last fall’s hit single from the Set It Off soundtrack—could easily have hobbled En Vogue, EV3 is this manufactured group’s best excuse for itself yet. One of the most satisfying things about it, in fact, is that finally Terry Ellis, Maxine Jones, and Cindy Herron Braggs sound like they don’t need excuses. The crafty album title derives both from En Vogue’s new trio status and the disc’s place in the group’s recorded history, but it’s certainly a point of confidence, not an apology.

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Since its 1990 debut, En Vogue has come off as more a good idea than a fully executed reality. Its harmonies were creamy enough, and the sentiments of its ballads were generically sentimental enough, that the group’s singles became radio staples. That success in turn helped breed a new age of girl groups whose members fancied themselves equally “born to sing,” as their role models’ first CD put it. En Vogue’s iconic presence grew even stronger with 1992’s Funky Divas and its collaboration with Salt-N-Pepa on the duo’s “Whatta Man” single a year later. While “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” was pretty stomping—due more to a sample of James Brown’s “The Payback” than to the singers’ convincingly putting over the attitude demanded by the lyric—and “Free Your Mind” was a decent stab at making a bold “rock” move, neither was completely satisfying.

Whether the product of a long layoff, personal growth, or the ill treatment the women reportedly received at the hands of Luther Vandross on a shared tour in the wake of Funky Divas, En Vogue finally sounds as if it’s going through more than the motions. EV3 is producer-driven music, song titles derive from previous hits by everyone from Sophie B. Hawkins to Randy Travis, and “Let It Flow” contains a would-be sly reminder of “Free Your Mind,” but there’s life beyond the recording session and the photo shoot in these grooves.

These dozen tracks leap from drama to drama with an assurance that has too often been assumed but unearned in ’90s R&B. The slow drag of “Don’t Let Go (Love)” is a predictable highlight, but it’s also to the credit of En Vogue and the Organized Noize production team that this expertly stripped-down sound holds up after months of massive media exposure. The group is also able to lend some credibility to one of Diane Warren’s cookie-cutter complaints, “Too Gone, Too Long”: In the hands of some less adept diva, the song could be another insufferable adult-contemporary ball of cheese.

Not that some of the tracks here don’t flirt dangerously with such fates. “Damn I Wanna Be Your Lover” sounds destined for one of those soft-rock-summer-breeze-true-love compilations sold on late-night TV. And for all the group’s progress, En Vogue can’t resist continuing its tradition of glee-club-ready harmonizing: Each listener will have to decide for his or herself whether the softheaded polemics of “Does Anybody Hear Me” render it more or less intolerable than the versions of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Yesterday” that marked the group’s earlier albums. But with the brittleness of that work in the past and the batting average otherwise high, EV3 fulfills much of the promise that’s always been claimed for En Vogue.

“Taste the culture, know who you are,” exhorts a voice in the opening seconds of Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival. While the Fugees’ mastermind sets a high goal for his first solo album, one that essentially serves as a follow-up to the Brooklyn hiphoppers’ multiplatinum The Score, he never succumbs to feel-goodism or preachiness while traveling the songlines, African-American and otherwise. “We are not stopping for no red lights tonight!” Wyclef promisingly pronounces. With everything from over-the-top operatic scatting to Bee Gees samples to Celia Cruz part of this rhythm nation, The Carnival proves that, “Killing Me Softly” or no, the rapper/producer is far from losing his knack for mad fun and games. And indeed, if you’re not careful, you may end up learning something.

Structured, like The Score, as an imagined blaxploitation flick, The Carnival also stays true to that disc’s credo of phat beats and smart words. Where the Fugees’ breakthrough largely concerned itself with the questions of assimilation Haitian refugee Wyclef and his countryman Pras Michel faced after coming to the States, The Carnival wonders aloud about the costs of staying true to one’s school. Its loose plot involves accusations of robbery against Wyclef despite what should be an airtight alibi (“I was at the Grammys with Brandy”). In spite of this bleak scenario, the album hardly lacks humor; when Wyclef proposes a toast “To All the Girls” he’s loved before, a voice mockingly reminds him of those he’s cheated on.

That Wyclef is still unready for compromise is demonstrated by the segue of the Neville Brothers-sung ballad “Mona Lisa” into “Street Jeopardy,” which begins with a white voice exhorting, “Guys, you have to be more gangsta—more blood, more gun talk, more people dying, more hardcore,” and turns out to be a protest against violence on the streets and in schools. That all this fits on a record named for a big party is just another part of Wyclef’s special magic.CP