February 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it a C

Recently, over a meal with a music attorney, I heard a sad, familiar tale: A singer he had helped sign to a label had recorded an album, only to have the label shelve it. But there was an unfamiliar twist to his story. Not releasing finished records, he said, is becoming increasingly common now that companies are seeing a major, MP3 related drop-off in revenue. Instead of spending the standard millions on promotion and advertising, labels are more inclined to cut their losses and can a project they feel is a commercial loser. Perhaps that explains why a number of major to buzzed-about releases from the last year or two have languished in the vaults — and why it seemed like a good time to dust off early review copies of those albums that had been sent to EW. The following discs — all likely available on one music-sharing site or another — are the lost boys (and girls) of the music business, victims of a hardened economic reality or maybe just bad luck.

If anyone should be smarting from this new world order, it’s the Product G&B, the Long Island singer-rappers featured on Santana’s hit ”Maria Maria.” Their first disc, ‘Ghetto & Blues,’ scheduled to debut in 2001, included that song and yet another Santana collaboration. But when the first two singles failed to ignite at radio, their label, J, decided to hold off on the album and eventually tabled it altogether. It turns out we didn’t miss out on much: ‘Ghetto & Blues’ wants so hard to be everything to everybody (it lurches from blowsy ballads to smooth-as-linoleum pop-rap to an ersatz-hard track in which they call out an unnamed rapper for his excesses) that it wouldn’t have satisfied anyone.

From the standpoint of a crass marketer, it’s easy to see why Q-Tip’s 2001 ‘Kamaal the Abstract’ got clipped. Ditching the aggressive stance of 1999’s ‘Amplified,’ the former ‘Tribe Called Quest’-er chose a far different approach — rhyming and murmuring over electric-piano and flute noodlings more common to fusion records. One of the most head-scratching albums ever made by a prominent rapper, the appropriately named Abstract deliberately challenges its audience and only occasionally offers up coherent melodies. Q-Tip’s voice retains its loose, slippery allure, but the disc feels like a worthy experiment abandoned halfway through; it doesn’t end so much as nod off.

Cali rap-metalists Dry Cell were all set for stardom until they had a falling-out with Warner Bros. and were dropped. Their ‘Disconnected’ may be picked up by another company, but listening to it, one wonders if all involved missed the boat and the dock by not releasing it during rap-rock’s heyday. Every ingredient of that genre is here — the belchy roaring, thrashy beats, and pained lyrics about ”my broken soul.” But now that America’s youth are discovering leaner punk-pop, Disconnected sounds like an instant relic.

After a decade spent acting and, in general, avoiding the thought of following up 1989’s ”She Drives Me Crazy,” former ‘Fine Young Cannibal’ Roland Gift was gearing up for his long, long-delayed return last spring with ‘Roland Gift.’ But when MCA grew concerned that the disc wouldn’t make much of an impression in the new century, the label nixed its U.S. release. In this case, the executives had a point. Gift’s voice is grainier and less helium-inflated than when last heard, yet he’s saddled with slight, formulaic songs and the stiffly syncopated (and now dated) rhythms of FYC tracks. Gift unintentionally wrote his album’s own eulogy in ”Lady DJ,” in which he asks a radio personality to play his song: ”Please, lady DJ, play my record on your show.” Roland, she probably can’t even get it.

Gift’s foretelling of his obstacles, though, has nothing on ”A Star Is Born,” the final track on ‘Supernova,’ the solo project that the late Lisa ”Left Eye” Lopes cut in 2001 (and which was released only overseas). ”So, Dad, I know you miss me/How you been?” she addresses her father in what was intended as an apology to him but is now a spooky farewell. Reports that Lopes was attempting to change her lifestyle and outlook are confirmed by positivity messages like ”I Believe in Me” and ”Keep Your Head to the Sky.” Yet Lopes also comes across as troubled and embittered by TLC’s success (”I’m Diana Ross — not a Supreme!” she announces), tainting some of the album’s New Age good vibrations. Musically, the album is a jittery patchwork of robot-wars electro (the single ”Block Party”), minimalist hip-hop, and suave R&B with so many guest singers that Lopes seems like a guest herself. Alternately confusing, contradictory, solipsistic, and charming, Supernova is an apt finale to a turbulent career. Ghetto & Blues: C- Kamaal the Abstract: B Disconnected: C- Roland Gift: C Supernova: B-

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