A solo recording from a member of the best-selling rap group of the '90s should be a piece of cake, but, things got complicated for Prakazrel "Pras" Michel en route to the dessert table. Pras, one-third of the Fugees, got started on a side project after his fellow Fugees, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, each released dazzling solo albums that glowed with musical savvy and vehement humanism. Their recordings put philosophy ahead of Prada -- while embracing both -- and took some of the nihilistic edge off of contemporary hip hop.
So then how do you top that? You don't, according to Pras. "I'm not on a crusade, and I'm not trying to save the planet," he told The Source. "I leave that for someone else." Instead Pras designed his solo debut, Ghetto Supastar, as a mainstream hip-hop recording. It takes a bit to adapt to that concession since he's trying to distinguish himself by running with the pack, but there are many fine straight-up hip-hop records every year (1998's batch includes discs by Jay-Z, DMX, and Killah Priest). And, the first Supastar single, which is also the title track, held promise that Pras could stand out within that crowd.
"Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)" -- first released on the Bulworth soundtrack -- blew up into one of the defining songs of the summer. The track combines delightfully saucy vocals by Mya, raps by Wu-Tang's ODB, a street-party production sound, and a furious guitar solo. It's information overload of the very best kind. However, the single's overwhelming success probably added deadline pressure to already heightened expectations.
It's entirely conceivable that the album was mostly in the can when the single became a hit, but it doesn't sound like it. There are smatterings of good ideas that go undeveloped, including the announced theme of the adventures of a character, Dirty Cash (he crops up mostly as a repeated allusion rather than a narrative thread), a brief rendition of a hallelujah chorus (perhaps a nod to eccentric Fugees fabulousness, but it comes off as a non sequitur), and a duet with a Slick Rick sound-alike. There are a handful of solid tracks on the recording, notably "Frowsey (Pt. 2)" and "Yeah 'Eh Yeah 'Eh," featuring Mack 10, but overall Pras' album lacks the sort of central focus that holds most good hip-hop records together. The disc's first 15 minutes feature the hallelujah chorus, the title track, then an interlude of phone messages wishing Pras well from a variety of celebrities, and finally two more songs similar to "Supastar." That's the kind of insecurity that unknown artists display when they're fearful that we might rotate the CD carousel at any second.
-- Martin Johnson
Tammy Wynette ... Remembered
One of the sweetest sounds in country music was Tammy Wynette hitting the high notes. Singing in a lower register than most of her contemporaries, Wynette mastered the art of slowly building up the pathos in a song, then, usually in the chorus, releasing a flood of longing or sadness by soaring to the top of her range. It was a trick that never grew stale. It was melodrama, but it worked because Wynette believed it, and because the women she was singing for, the suburban housewives of the pre-Lib generation, knew well the heartaches of a life lived between your ambitions and the place society prescribed for you.
What to make, then, of Tammy Wynette ... Remembered, an enervating, emotionless "tribute" to Wynette, who died in April? Is it that songs like "I Don't Wanna Play House" just don't lend themselves to postmodern interpretation? It's a tempting explanation, especially after hearing Elton John and Rosanne Cash embarrass themselves on "Stand by Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," respectively. Both get whipsawed between the high camp potential of the material and the real emotion that Wynette was able to invest in the songs. John is especially execrable. "Stand by Your Man" might have been a fun romp and a reminder that after Wynette fell from favor with feminists she found an appreciative audience among gay men. Instead, John chooses to take the tune at a cheesy, mid-'80s, light-rock tempo, layer on a horrifying faux-gospel chorus, and top it off with vocals that sound like he's trying to channel Elvis and Engelbert Humperdinck at the same time. The result is historically bad. It's almost, but not quite, "Candle in the Wind '97" bad.
Melissa Etheridge does a creditable version of "Apartment #9," and Trisha Yearwood doesn't screw up "'Til I Get It Right." As for the rest, Lorrie Morgan, K.T. Oslin, Sara Evans, Faith Hill, and Wynonna and Yearwood do "'Til I Can Make It on My Own," "Woman to Woman," "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "You and Me," and "I Don't Wanna Play House." It hardly matters who did which, since they all sound the same, especially backed by session hacks who could've all been replaced by a karaoke machine.
The biggest disappointment is George Jones' "Take Me to Your World." Considering that Jones and Wynette were the country version of Burton and Taylor in their heyday, it's disquieting somehow to hear him sleepwalking through a song that could have been gut-wrenching. The only artist who gains in stature here is Emmylou Harris, who with help from Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle absolutely nails "Golden Ring," originally a duet between Wynette and Jones. Harris and company seize the folk potential in the song, layering delicate acoustic guitar work, a simple banjo figure, and beautiful harmonies to bring a forgotten classic back to life.
Wynette shows up on her own tribute album, dueting with Brian Wilson on "In My Room," one of the last songs she recorded. Hearing her sing Wilson's disarmingly simple melody -- "There's a place where I can go to tell my secrets to" -- you realize that this mournful tune works perfectly for her. But overproduction, and an otherworldly sounding Wilson, ruin the moment soon enough. As a record, Remembered is a flop. As a tribute, though, it does its job. It makes you really, really miss Tammy Wynette.
-- Brian Alcorn