Gwen Stefani discovers that collaboration can be key to solo success
These days, blonde bombshell Gwen Stefani is a girl caught between two worlds, balancing collaborations with artists like Dr. Dre, Andre 3000 and Jimmy Jam with her appearance in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” playing Jean Harlow.
Her latest release, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” finds her mixing it up with a stellar lineup of yesterday and today’s stars to produce a sound rooted just as firmly between both worlds, part Depeche Mode and Debbie Deb, part gangsta rap and Britney Spears.
You really don’t know what’s in store when the album opens with Stefani singing a soft a cappella intro, but within seconds, “L.A.M.B.” sizzles as it kicks off with “What You Waiting For?” a pop anthem about triumphing over procrastination. Stefani says the song was inspired by the final nudge from former No Doubt band mate Linda Perry.
“Rich Girl,” featuring bad-ass diva Eve, is definitely inspired by the current style of shout-out rap songs, with the innovative use of the “Fiddler on the Roof” refrain of “If I Were a Rich Man.” Watch out, Tevye.
From these first two tracks, Stefani also begins to give props to the Harajuku girls of Tokyo’s underground scene, whose funky fashion sense has inspired her new look. (Stefani has teamed up with Le Sport Sac to produce her own line of accessories, also titled L.A.M.B.)
With Johnny Vulture, Stefani turns to the past for inspiration in the campy, infectious track “Bubble Pop Electric.” This fun, bouncy pop song borrows from the style of the musical “Grease”––or more precisely, “ Grease 2,” the wretched sequel with Michelle Pfeiffer as a Pink Lady––in relaying teenage lust at the drive-in movie. “Tonight I’m gonna give you all my love in the backseat,” croons Stefani, the sound of car wheels peeling out in the background.
And Stefani practically guarantees that she will be big in Japan with her track, “Harajuku Girls,” with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. This tech-infused tribute to Japanese fashion has Stefani singing, “What’s that you got on? Is it Comme des Garçons? Vivienne Westwood can’t go wrong, mixed up with second hand clothes.” This ode to couture also pays homage to A Bathing Ape, Hysteric Glamour and John Galliano, the designer who Stefani says is her biggest inspiration. The Japanese girl back-up singers add some international flavor to an already stellar track.
Stefani gave a taste of her latest fashion inspiration at the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards earlier this month, when she sang a medley of “What You Waiting For?” and “Rich Girl” accompanied by a troupe of Harajuku girls dancing amidst giant “Alice in Wonderland” toadstools.
Sophomoric, yes, but even these campy, pop-heavy tracks are enjoyable. The cri de coeur “Serious” has staying power. Despite your best attempts to shake it, you will find yourself humming the chorus. This heavily synthesized track reminds me at first of “Rock Me Amadeus,” by one-hit wonder Falco, but soon devolves into an almost comically sultry song, like Madonna’s track “Erotica”—about five years after it was released. “Tell me what my treatment is, your love’s got me insane. My prescription is your kiss and boy you got me wantin’ it,” sings Stefani.
Some critics, especially in Europe, have criticized “L.A.M.B.” as merely a sugary pop album. Admittedly, several tracks, including the saccharine “Cool” and the only slightly more substantive “The Real Thing,” evoke memories of Debbie Gibson headlining at the local shopping mall—its refrain of, “I need you, you’re my love supply” makes me cringe. And “Crash,” with it’s lyrics, “Drive back baby to me fast in your car/ I’m here waiting/ Crash into me real hard,” reminds me of warmed-over Duran Duran. But the album is a triumph of tiny treasures that compensate for the undeniable lapses.
It is not always so easy to discern when Stefani is being sincere and when she is shooting for irony. In her track “Luxurious,” Stefani sets up the typical rap bling-bling song, with lyrics like “We’re so rich in love, we’re rollin’ in cashmere, got it in fifth gear, baby. Diamond in the rough is looking so sparkly.” She goes on to catalogue her fortunes and fame, “trying so hard saving up the paper. Now we get to lay back.” Two-thirds through the song, however, she adds comical “ca-ching” sound effects, which somehow shakes the image of Stefani tooling through L.A. in her Escalade.
She teams up with OutKast’s Andre 3000 for “L.A.M.B.”’s final track, “Long Way to Go,” a song about battling racism. The two begin the track with a somber, spoken word introduction, cutting into fast synthesizer and drums. “When snow hits the asphalt, cold looks and bad talk come,” the two sing. The song is followed by a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In her press notes, Stefani remarks, “This record is a collaboration of a lot of great talents coming together and trying to make something that’s classic. Something that you want to listen to over and over.” If this is her goal, Stefani succeeds in producing one of the best new classics of 2004.