Life [DualDisc]

by: Ricky Martin

Ricky Martin fell from grace hard with Sound Loaded, the 2000 sequel to his eponymous 1999 mainstream pop breakthrough and its hit single "Livin' la Vida Loca." Sound Loaded photocopied many of the sounds and styles of Ricky Martin, but it wasn't an exact duplicate: it was dingy, murky, and smudged, lacking the style and flair of the original, as evidenced by "She Bangs," the album's spin on "Livin' la Vida Loca." Following its commercial disappointment, Martin retreated from the spotlight for a brief period, releasing a Spanish album called Almas del Silencio in 2003, returning two years later with Life, his first English-language pop album in five years. On its album cover, Martin tries to strike a harder, tougher pose -- he has stubble on his chin and prominently displays a tattoo on his shoulder -- and that's just one of many different attitudes he tries out on the record. He starts the album with "Til I Get to You," one of the best (and maybe only) Robbie Williams knockoffs to date, segueing quickly into "I Won't Desert You," which is reminiscent of the best of early-'90s Jon Secada, before he hooks up with Scott Storch, producer of Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, for a bass-heavy dance track, complete with cameos from Fat Joe and Amerie. Martin doesn't stop sampling styles there -- he does a by-the-numbers Diane Warren power ballad, dabbles in reggaeton, brings in most of the Black Eyed Peas for a track. In short, he tries to be a little bit of everything to everybody, which isn't a surprising reaction for a global superstar trying to both recover from a flop and to reintroduce himself after half a decade. Not surprisingly, not all of the styles work -- for instance, on the producer-driven dance songs, he sounds like a bit player on his own album, at once tamed and overwhelmed by the thudding bass and hip-hop beats. But there are as many moments that work here as those that don't and, tellingly, they're all tunes Martin had a hand in writing, including the aforementioned "Til I Get to You" and "I Won't Desert You" and the title track, which suggests that if Martin relaxed and wrote all of his own material, he might have a more consistent record on his hands. But that's not what he did here: he made a big-budget album, filled with cameos and collaborators. It fits his status as an international superstar and it's a livelier, better record than Sound Loaded, but he never once sounds as assured as he did on his 1999 breakthrough -- the difference between that album and this is that everything seemed to come easy for Ricky Martin six years ago. On Life, you can hear him struggle with what he should do and who he should be. Sometimes he struggles and succeeds, which is enough to make it worth a listen -- and it might even score him a hit or two -- but that palpable sense of exertion means this isn't quite the comeback or makeover it was clearly meant to be. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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