The Life (Epic)

The popularity of tough-nosed hip-hop continues to present challenges to R&B vocalists. Soulsters who go too heavy on sentiment, eschewing the sort of musical nods that might enhance their credibility with 'bangers, risk coming across as weak, passé -- old-school in a tame way. But those who overemphasize biceps, body-piercing and bitch-slapping are just as likely to turn off the very fans who traditionally support the genre -- the lay-dees. What's needed is that ideal balance: Soft, yet hard. Hard, yet soft.

Ginuwine achieves this blend on The Life's cover (he wears enough showy jewelry to impress the boyz in the 'hood, but his scowl has a certain dreamy quality) and on most of the tracks -- especially the opener, "Why Not Me," which is both insanely catchy and perfectly calculated to show that he's as comfortable on the streets as he is in bed. Our hero introduces the tune with the timeless query "Am I too ghetto for you?" after which he demonstrates with his magnetic manner and smooth, sensual warbling (occasionally mutated with a vocoder) that he's not too ghetto -- he's just ghetto enough! Then, in a display of confidence that initially seems foolhardy, he follows up with "There It Is," a ditty that finds him telling his beloved, "You've got three seconds, pack your things and get on out of here ... You don't appreciate what a man like me is about." But instead of coming across as a sexist brute, Ginuwine emerges as a dedicated breadwinner who's been done wrong by a lover with seriously misplaced priorities. After all, how could she prefer money to a fella this fine?

Such behavior would be more justified if it were directed at the Ginuwine of "That's How I Get Down," the rappingest moment here; featuring a guest emcee, Ludacris, the song contains such squelch-the-romance couplets as "You pour some Ginuwine, I'll pour some Night Train/I'm a turn these lights out -- we can do our night thang." But he more than redeems himself in the smooch-music department with "Tribute to a Woman," one of the canniest seduction numbers ever: As the big moment nears, he reassures his partner by purring, "Don't be scared/It's your world/Don't trip/Shout it out/You're the bomb/Don't be scared/It's your world."

That, friends, is the kind of skill anyone can respect. Soft, yet hard. Hard, yet soft.

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