Fat Joe's lips move, his made-for-music timbre bellows, and, in the end, little is said. The Bronx native's lyrical vacancy is tragic considering his intellect, pummeling flow, and infectious charisma. His music should be better. But enough's enough. On his sixth album, All or Nothing, it's as though even his beats are fed up -- the barreling kicks, mosquito-esque synth horns, and chipmunk chorus of "Intro" work together to drown out Joe's defensive hello ("No, I'm not lettin' y'all take me out the game," starts the MC who prides himself on being underrated). During the break, he clearly describes the album as "a variety of shit." Ah, lucidity.
The overstuffed Nothing, which includes the previously released "Lean Back" remix (we already have it) and the Jennifer Lopez duet "Hold You Down" (we don't want it), is a sort of communal toilet overflowing with guest producers. Inevitably Joe sounds only as good as the producers who cloak him. Cool and Dre dress Joe for radio (the exuberant first single, "So Much More"); Scott Storch does his usual minimalist piano flareups ("Get It Poppin'" featuring a limp-as-ever Nelly); and Timbaland disappointingly does little more than pick up Storch's pace with "Everybody Get Up." Swizz Beats, though, smolders on "Listen Baby," which shifts from a bright, sprightly hook (delivered by Beats's wife, the Blige-like Mashonda) to Joe's verses, which have a mellow, back-in-the-daze vibe.
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SHOW ME HOW
All the while, Joe's lyrics have the range of a stove. All or Nothing's trajectory goes something like this: He's great, he's great, he's a great lover, his problems are as great as his wealth, he's great, clubs are great, violence isn't great but necessary, now lean back. He's at his most inspired when doing something he previously said he wouldn't: answering 50 Cent's "Piggy Bank" dis. On "My Fo Fo" (previously known as "Fuck 50") Joe brings out the big gun, vindicating himself with a mix of wit and pop-culture savvy ("Is it me or 'Candy Shop' sound like 'Magic Stick'?").
And this makes All or Nothing, if not Fat Joe's entire career, so frustrating: He knows how hip-hop should work and has many sharp observations to offer, but he rarely shares them. This album should be as good as the Game's best seller The Documentary, but it ends up seeming simply tangent-prone. There's no question Fat Joe loves hip-hop. But this love gives him the illusion of privilege, which makes for consistently lazy, sloppy music. Sometimes love just ain't enough.