18 and a Rep

<!>3LW are at that awkward stage. Young enough to initiate their split with a food fight (the trio's now touring as a duo); old enough to follow through with accusations of sexual manipulation and race-baiting. "To say that [Naturi] was kicked out of the group because she was dark-skinned is crazy," Kiely explained in a recent Total Request Live appearance. "She was brought into the group because she was." Oh. Well. That's much better, then.

Back on their self-titled debut they played emotions like playing house. But those feelings are gaining some bite. Before, boyfriends were for holding hands with. Now, on "I Need That (I Want That)," Lil' Kim helps 3LW play their men for "money and hot rods." A Girl Can Mack is what happens when you stop pretending for yourself and start pretending for somebody else. The album is as petty, troubled, and compelling as their (ahem) creative differences—not for dancing, grindin', or singing along to, but for living with.

Gone are the beats modeled after Destiny's Child tracks like "Say My Name"—orchestral runs mimicking vocal ones, cute sound effects littering themselves throughout. Instead this is the first r&b album to fully integrate Timbaland's early minimalist stumble-drum production (circa "One in a Million") into a more lushly arranged sound. Occasional touches of faux-Bollywood orientalism keep things up-to-the-minute. Kiely's raps are all but gone, and I miss their rush of newfound assertiveness. Instead, the album front-loads upbeat singles featuring guest rappers: the P. Diddy-produced "I Do," with jump-up music-box sounds while the girls flirt on the dancefloor with a mealymouthed Loon from St. Lunatics (search for the leagues-better remix with Cam'ron); "Neva Get Enuf," featuring Lil' Wayne as the perfect boyfriend; the aforementioned Lil' Kim tune.

This makes sense, given how the guest-less tracks are more like half-formed textural gestures toward songfulness, resting on the girls' knack for imbuing the exceptionally average with unexpected flashes of poignancy: The group are perfectly executed backup singers to themselves. Think of 3LW as the new-millennial Delfonics, harmonizing a phrase with a few other platitudes in sun-drenched orchestration until it conveys the place where language stops short. When 3LW do try narrative structure on "Good Good Girl," it comes off hopelessly melodramatic—opening "Should I give you some, that is the question," and getting yet more precious as Adrienne debates whether she should do a "bad bad thing."

Just because a girl can mack doesn't mean she will. While 3LW are always chasing the fly thug with the rims and Escalade, they keep coming back to "street but sweet" "all-night working/Newport smoking . . . live with your mama/always in drama" boys. If there's a story in this 10-producer, 12-track mash-up of an album (at least four tracks pulled and replaced at the last minute) it's right here. Bling-blinging isn't what this group's about, but neither is it a Satan-sent force of temptation and test of faith. Money's just another thing to live with, and mostly without. One more item of status and necessity to populate escape fantasies and revenge dramas.

As the album reaches its three concluding ballads, the party girl of the initial tracks has woken up in the wrong bed with a broken heart and a nasty hangover. The hell with rims, she just wants to be held. We're treated to a self-consciousness of fantastically wistful choruses built of the inconsequential lapses and failures of adolescence. Failures which matter only because they will be the first of many—obsessed over, repeated, engraved as the best years of our lives. Girls, they gonna grow.

 
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