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Janet Jackson
The Velvet Rope
(Virgin)

Mariah Carey
Butterfly
(Columbia)

Is it mere coincidence that two of pop music's most angelic, transcendent songstresses both have a new release in the stores -- which, by the way, both proclaim to be their most emotional, personal, and gut-wrenching project to date? Sure, Mariah Carey's gossamer-winged Butterfly got a three-week jump on Janet Jackson's lovesexy The Velvet Rope, but all indications are that this is a battle to the high-pitched death. Or maybe just two gals in search of their creative reaches. Let's see what's what.

Ah, what time can do to a person. It was just eleven years ago that Jackson was putting "nasty" boys in check and telling them "Let's Wait Awhile" on her multiplatinum release Control. Now she's telling those same creeps to tie her up and bring a few extra chicks along for kicks. On The Velvet Rope, Jackson doesn't want you to read between the lines -- she wants you to ignore them, to cross them, and, if time permits, to snort them.

Innuendo runs amuck on Rope, and the CD will probably have listeners wondering if Jackson's a liberator of the passionate soul or just one big freakazoid. "Rope Burn" has her moaning and groaning in bouncy ecstasy over getting strapped, while her rendition of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," in which she didn't bother to change the gender references, may even win her a lesbian following. Never one to shy away from a concept, Jackson plays on the sexual-discovery stuff she brought to 1993's Janet, and this time around she also brings a message of acceptance and belonging. She propounds the idea that anything can be accepted openly as well as intimately. It's like she's saying, "Tear down that velvet rope, then tie me up with it!" "Twisted Elegance" are the first two words out of Jackson's pouty mouth; this is probably the only release in existence that best describes what it is the very second it begins.

Jackson's foray into postmodern swinging seems like space-age evolution when compared to the pop conventionalism of Carey's Butterfly. If The Velvet Rope is the hip choice to have spinning around in your CD player, then Butterfly is the guilty pleasure tucked away on the back shelf. Don't be duped by the prissy title -- there's something ghettoish afoot. Why else would Carey recruit Sean "Puffy" Combs and his Bad Boy crew to go buck-wild on her frumpy first track "Honey," or enlist melodious homies Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Dru Hill to join her on a couple of tracks?

It's simple: Mariah Carey wants to be down. Her attempt to come straight from the streets on Butterfly is so interesting -- and at times so silly -- that it's hard to resent. We all know that Carey is about as streetwise as a New York City tourist, so her semi-gimmicky effort to break out of songbird form, especially after her split with Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, has some unexpected appeal.

The only questionable cut is Carey's note-for-note and yelp-for-yelp cover of Prince's "Beautiful Ones," which matches Ginuwine's throbbing rendition of "When Doves Cry" as the most unnecessary Prince cover of the year. Not to worry, popsters: Even with its hip-hoppy overlay, the disc is still dominated by the schmaltzy, David Foster-esque ballads that have made Carey famous.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Various Artists
We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute
(Royalty)

If the Stooges were the godfathers of punk, Iggy Pop was their Sonny Corleone. Vital, quick-tempered, and frothing at the mouth, Pop was the archetype of a star careening out of control, a version of evil way scarier than Marilyn Manson -- and one that required far less makeup.

While Pop has "fuck you" charisma to burn, he has mellowed somewhat in order to survive. So it sort of makes sense that proceeds from We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute will go to LIFEbeat, an AIDS charity. The artists assembled here flaunt the tremendous influence the Iggster and his Stooges have had on rock; they're bands that have benefited most from Pop's path-clearing. His illegitimate stepchildren Joey Ramone and Joan Jett, New York punks D Generation and NY Loose, and postgrunge devotees of the "Search and Destroy" lifestyle (Monster Magnet, the Misfits, 7 Year Bitch) are all here with brisk interpretations of Iggy faves. Meanwhile, younger, poppier outfits such as Sugar Ray and Nada Surf dutifully put in performances with the necessary speed and thrust. The postmodern reading of "Loose" by queer-core punk act Pansy Division is of particular note. They knew full well the effect the classic line "Stick it deep inside deep/'Cause I'm loose" can have on a prudish populace, especially coming from a gay band. Pop's music never sounded so raunchy or so funny.

Of course, tribute collections always have a few clunkers. Here it's the Red Hot Chili Peppers' limp version of "Search and Destroy," which is almost as embarrassing as four naked idiots wearing socks over their genitals.

-- David Simutis

 
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