“Love, Angel, Music, Baby,” the interestingly titled first solo album from No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani, is a fantastic techno trip. The once-punk princess is surprisingly willing to explore new sounds, expanding her horizons in off-beat but engaging ways. And while the album may not exactly be intellectual, or even incredibly catchy, it’s certainly fun.
Recent scientific discoveries claim the blonde is a dying species — a small, recessive clique of genes destined to be wiped out by their dominant brunette brethren. While our great-grandchildren may never understand the definition of towheaded, our generation still revels in the blondes that have shaped our pop-culture consciousness: Debbie Harry, Madonna, Britney Spears, to name a few. But none of these chanteuses can wrench the crown of top blonde from the newly anointed queen, Gwen Stefani.
The hip, poppy and eminently danceable “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” is an opus of pure blonde ambition. With her SoCal pedigree, snow-white locks and hot synth-pop sound, “blonde” describes far more than Stefani’s hair.
The album’s first single, “What You Waiting For?” thrusts its way towards a frenetic chorus of buzzing synthesizers and chirping Japanese schoolgirls. Indeed, a hip Japanese sensibility permeates the entire album, denoted by constant references to “Harajuku Girls,” Stefani’s latest stylistic muses. “What You Waiting For?” is one of many songs that layers beats upon beats, mixing in exotic sounds to keep things interesting. It’s bold that a pop singer would favor musical experimentation over tight, catchy melodies.
The recipe often succeeds. On “Bubble Pop Electric,” a collaboration with Andre 3000 of Outkast, electric guitars and bursting bubbles ride Stefani’s sizzling, sexual vibe all the way “to the backseat” (where she plans to get randy with her drive-in movie date). The aptly titled “Harajuku Girls,” which sounds like flowing waves interspersed with electric volts and violins, recalls Madonna getting dirty at a Tokyo nightclub. The song’s weird lyrics extol Harajuku fashion, which most likely resembles the hot pants and ruffled tank top she wears in the album’s photos.
Other influences abound. Most notably, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” benefits widely from collaborations with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Dr. Dre produced the second single, “Rich Girl,” which nonetheless sounds a bit more like Dre on a surfboard than in da club. The track is one of the album’s few irresistibly catchy tracks, thanks especially to its chorus, though it is unexpectedly light and airy for Dr. Dre.
As usual, Stefani’s lyrics are a bit of a throwaway, serving as mere vehicles for her chameleon-like vocals. “If I was a wealthy girl/ No man could test me, impress me, my cash flow would never end” she sings, skillfully fluctuating her cadence. Not exactly poetry, but with everything else going on in the song, it doesn’t matter all that much.
Another stellar hip-hop collaboration is “Hollaback Girl,” produced by the Neptunes. Leave it to one of the hottest teams in pop music to craft the hottest song on Stefani’s album. A bare-bones percussion beat, modeled after a military drill or even college marching band, pounds under Stefani’s bold proclamations of her dominance. Though assertions that “this s**t is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S,” may make listeners think that all the peroxide has finally gone to her head, the sheer coolness of Stefani’s verbosity is undeniable. The track’s hypnotic sticks-and-stones beat evokes Snoop Dogg’s amazing hit, “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” also produced by the Neptunes.
Stefani doesn’t stop there, reaching back to the ’80s old-school, though with mixed results. On the sedate “Cool,” Stefani languidly trudges through a recycled beat and emotionless lyrics, mostly about her ability to hang with her ex (No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal) and be cool about it.
The two still work together, and their collaboration “Serious” does much more justice to the ’80s than the aforementioned failure. Emphasizing one of her usual favorite subjects, sex, Stefani explores the depths of her vocal sensuality, bouncing up and down over Kanal’s dynamic, heavy drum beats.
At its best, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” is a rollicking good time, whether jet-setting to Japan or turning back the clock a decade or two. At its worst, it’s still freak-tastic fun, a true blonde’s delight: the slickest, most polished style in town, without a hint of substance, of course, but who can really tell anyway? The hair blinds you to everything else.