Omarion

21

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Like Ciara, who released her own second album weeks prior to 21, Omarion sees his new age as a major milestone in his life. Thankfully, he doesn't get nearly as wrapped up in it as Ciara does on The Evolution. He instead gets down to making an album that is an across-the-board improvement over 2005's O. He's beyond whatever growing pains he was going through as a new solo artist, has more input as a songwriter, and gets more out of his collaborators (including returns from the Underdogs and Pharrell Williams). Almost as crucial, there's more natural confidence and far less posturing -- even if, at the very end of "Ice Box," he can't help but plug in a "'Marion, bitch!" (It's up for debate as to whether or not these positive changes have anything to do with the drastically reduced role of executive producer Chris Stokes, who had been involved in nearly every aspect of Omarion's career since the B2K days.) Nearly each song, from the ballads to the club tracks, has something to recommend it. The brilliant Timbaland-helmed melodrama of "Ice Box" stands above all else, a fittingly brisk production crammed with desperation and one of the great hooks of 2006/2007: "I got this ice box where my heart used to be." But it's the middle patch, tracks five through seven, that truly makes the album, as it's filled with breezy synths, crafty rhythms, and one memorable melody after another. 21 is the best, most balanced R&B album made by an under-30 male since Usher's Confessions. That might not be saying much, but the field has been in desperate need of something like it for over two years. At the very least, it shows that Omarion has truly surpassed his status as the former member of a boy band.

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