Teena Marie

Sapphire

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Teena Marie's Sapphire -- named after a nickname given to her by onetime partner and late funk legend Rick James -- doesn't sound like the work of a 50-year-old artist. While 2004's La Doña, Marie's first commercially released album since 1990, hardly sounded like the work of a 48-year-old artist, it's clear that she was only getting started (again). As with La Doña, there's the odd verse where Marie sounds like she's trying too hard to be hip. Longtime fans might also be a little surprised to hear Marie more sexed-up than ever, but any faults or jarring traits are canceled out by the supreme excellence of Marie's voice and the quality of the songs she has written and produced. (She gets some assistance, along with some guest spots from Smokey Robinson, George Duke, Gerald Albright, Kurupt, and daughter Alia Rose, but she calls the shots here as much as she did on any of her albums since Wild and Peaceful.) This is another very long album that never runs out of ideas, with plenty of room for some of her classiest throwback ballads and her most up-to-date, colorful jams. Though some of the songs might be skippable -- it all depends on the mood of the listener -- there's no more meandering here than on any of Marie's half-as-long albums. There's a handful of particularly commanding songs to get stuck on. "Cruise Control," with Smokey Robinson, gets the album going and is pitched brilliantly between Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance" and Robinson's own "Cruisin'." "Make It Hot" bounces and struts with as much irresistible playfulness as "It Must Be Magic" or "Square Biz." "You Blow Me Away," a heartbreaking ballad, references "You and I," "Fire and Desire," and makes its subject completely clear at the very end: "I love you, Rick -- there, I've gone and said it." The greatest knockout of all is "Love Is a Gangsta," a fresh, dynamite acknowledgment of prime Dr. Dre-generated G-funk, with whining synths, sinewy wah-wah guitar, and layered vocal hooks that might make Nate Dogg keel over. Marie is her bad-ass best on this song, and her shout to Pam Grier is extremely apt. Why? Because Sapphire is her Jackie Brown.

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