Tanya Stephens

Gangsta Blues

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Onetime dancehall diva Tanya Stephens is back after an extended exile in Sweden, where she spent three years away from her beloved roughneck riddims making alternative rock for Warner Bros.' Swedish subsidiary label. She picks up pretty much where she left off, with expert but not exactly revelatory dancehall reggae based on rhythms provided by a handful of A- and B-list producers. Stephens' most significant asset is her genuinely rich and cultivated singing voice, a dark and supple alto that slips effortlessly from melody to chat and back again. Her lyrics are mostly a predictable mix of defensive braggadocio and by-the-numbers slackness; exceptions include the emotionally complex "Little White Lie" and the brilliant "What's Your Story." (She also makes an interesting choice of covers with a pretty fair version of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman.") The more vintage-style rhythms seem to bring out her best performances -- the album's highlight is "It's a Pity," which is built on a rich and dubwise Fatis Burrell production. Like most rap and dancehall albums, this one is too long by half -- of the album's 17 tracks, maybe nine are worth repeated listenings, and most of the rest feel like filler (not to mention the tiresome spoken word interludes). Not bad overall.

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