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CITY HIGH (2001)
City High - Click to view! I'll admit I'm not a big fan of the whole pop/R&B scene, and perhaps my bias will show here. I can't stand 'N SYNC for more than the time it takes to switch radio stations, and there are very few "soul" albums I can listen to for more than ten minutes (though R. Kelly's "The World's Greatest" is a song that gets a lot of play on my stereo lately). Nonetheless, I became determined to pick up City High's eponymous debut album not long ago. I became totally enamoured with their first single, "What Would You Do?" after hearing it on the radio a couple of times. When I heard "Caramel" lofting through the speakers of my (mom's) '92 Camry, I was sold.

If you've been listening to secular R&B, Top 40 or urban stations at all, you've likely heard the aforementioned songs. Classic, soulful, and Marvin Gaye-ish in spots, one can't listen to them without thinking of another successful R&B trio, the Fugees. There's a reason for that. The group is the brainchild of highly respected solo artist and Fugees member Wyclef Jean (the group had initially consisted only of Robby Pardlo and Ryan Toby, but Jean invited then-18 year old Claudette Ortiz to join). Jean co-produced the album.

Though there aren't enough hit songs on this album to in any way rival 1996's blistering Fugees debut, The Score, it album has many bright spots, and the talent of its members is undeniable. But there are several blemishes that make this disc unworthy of your $15.

Dichotomy
Spirituality (or at least the appearance of it) is in vogue these days. The general population may have gotten over their Apocalyptic fears of the pre-millennium, but several artists are still prone to thank God on their albums, while doing all they can do tear down His kingdom with their music. Such is the case here. In their liner notes, Ortiz calls God her "guidance, strength and best friend." Toby even dedicates the album to "CHRIST JESUS, my LORD and SAVIOR the ONE TRUE GOD." Pardlo thanks God for blessing him with the gift of music. Nice words, but God-honoring practices are scarce in their music.

The album opens with "Didn't Ya," an anthem in which a vengeful woman catches her boyfriend with another woman, and apparently kills him ("I lost my control...Now I'm sittin' in these d*** cuffs locked up.") The song contains two profanities (two of the more than 20 peppered through out), and the word "ni****" (another word that's used frequently).

The next song is "Three Way," in which a male character (perhaps one of the singers) recounts a time when he's caught with a woman other than his girlfriend in a mall ("I ain't know how to be monogamous," he sings). He's caught, but tries to lie his way out of it ("You know your friend's jealous of you and I," he says of the woman who catches him. "You're...acting like you've got no trust in me..."). The only thing he learns from the incident is to be more careful ("A word to all men: If you're gonna be out creepin', look out for her friend").

Promiscuity is a theme in several other songs. In "Cats and Dogs," the singer professes to be "that of brother that your mother tried to warn you about" after lying to his woman and leaving her "before the sheets are warm." "Why," "Caramel," "Best Friend" and "Sista" all feature tales of lewd sexual behaviour. Later cuts give pictures of other unwise life choices. "The Only One I Trust" tells of a woman who keeps house for a murderous boyfriend, and ultimately takes the fall when the police come to pick him up. "City High Anthem," spitefully looks back on the influence of an older generation's influence on our own. The group vows, "As we get older and our children grow up/We ain't gonna teach them what you showed us."

As stated, there are several bright spots-"What Would You Do?" encourages a young stripper/prostitute to get a respectable job in order to support her child; "So Many Things" is a wonderful ballad, and describes a love that might be aimed at God; "15 Will Get You 20" and "You Don't Know Me" are weird, but essentially harmless.

The scope of the album, though, can be summed up in this way: the aforementioned "City High Anthem" rails against teenage pregnancy, abortion, dead-beat dads and suggests that today's youth can change the world for the better. The group expresses sorrow over young souls being led astray by "negative music." But they seem oblivious to the fact that their acid-tongued, sexually suggestive approach to making music is part of the problem.

This album is not without its aphorisms and radio-friendly hits, but you'll want to skip it.
- Ben Forrest
February 2002
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