C'MON, PEOPLE. NOBODY in her right mind bites P.M. Dawn. I mean nobody--least of all a hip-hop newcomer like Queen Pen, whose debut LP is helmed by the market-savvy R&B entrepreneur Teddy Riley. Indeed, by the SoundScan numbers, it must have been Riley's idea to appropriate the 1983 Spandau Ballet hit "True"--the same track that fueled P.M. Dawn's regrettable "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" in '91--on the ethereal Queen Pen cut "It's True." We can only hope that the sassy rap diva simply bit her lip, more than a little bugged by the similarity but too nonchalant to speak up. Luckily, this unfortunate bit of re-recycling is just a minor blemish.
Pen's a compelling new arrival, actually. Her smooth mic demeanor is a healthy hybrid of contemporary female modes, tempering Lil' Kim's libido-soul with the stony enunciation of Bahamadia, and hinting at a stern social conscience that begs comparison to that other hip-hop Queen's. Occasionally, these competing interests cancel each other out; the title track, a fuzzy homage to a boyfriend with a sordid playa past, is both reverent and dangerously forgiving. "Girlfriend," a bold, eminently bouncy treatise on bisexuality featuring (who else?) Me'Shell Ndegeocello, also fords muddy waters. Sure, it feels cathartic when Pen defiantly threatens to "pull you out yo closet"--heaven knows pro-gay hip hop has been a virtual contradiction in terms. But even the delicious, empowering ironies of this rap turnabout leave a funny aftertaste: "How you gon' just be playa-hatin' on me/Cuz I got mad bitches just wantin' me." Bitches, huh?
Producer Riley, the man who rode BLACKstreet's "No Diggity" all the way to his own label imprint here, does churn out some sumptuous thumps on "Party Ain't a Party" and "No Hooks," and Pen keeps up with formidable flair. Even when the message is mixed, the delivery is magnetic. And for those scoring at home, Phil Collins pulls a Sting by sitting in on the anti-abuse anthem "Get Away," delivering a live "sample" of his bygone smash "In the Air Tonight." O Lord.
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