The relaxed tone of her third recording suggests that she has gotten over her fear of being mistaken for a disposable bimbo. Not that she would be (by anyone with ears), since her voice is unlike most others in pop. Low, grainy, and erudite, it seems better suited for the grizzly details of urban news-radio than the chirpy homilies of dance pop. Still, Waters has found clever ways to lighten her approach without losing her voice in the mix. Unlike the stereotypical church-grown sort who can huff and puff and blow the club down, Waters is more of a speaksinger, whose musical charm lies in her diction and fastidiousness. Most women who fit this profile work with acoustic guitars, not drum programmers. On her new recording, Waters' songwriting has matured; it's more personal and eloquent. But despite the improved craftsmanship, the recording lacks the sort of anthems that powered her previous albums. The sounds of her usual producers, the Basement Boys, have grown a tad generic, and their mix of electronic percussion with scratchy rhythm guitars and real brass is employed too often. Hit-makers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis throw in a slack arrangement on "Say ... If You Feel Alright." Dallas Austin's collaboration on "Body Music" is almost up to her usual standards: In a summer where every third four-by-four in my 'hood is blaring recycled versions of Diana Ross or Sting, I hope it's released as a single -- and soon.

-- Martin Johnson

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