Whereas U.K hip-hop artists previously struggled to compete with their American counterparts, the last few years has seen the likes of Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal, and Tinchy Stryder more than hold their own. While they may not be able to match the glamor, super-expensive videos, and star-studded collaborations of Jay-Z, Kanye West, or Eminem, their unique home-grown sound has resonated with audiences able to relate to their tales of everyday British life. Three-piece R&B/rap trio N-Dubz have enjoyed a transformation in their fortunes perhaps more than anyone else, after breaking out of their underground London-centric roots to become one of the biggest and most controversial urban acts in the U.K., scoring several platinum albums, Top Ten singles, and MOBO Awards in the process. But following their slow-burning debut, Uncle B, and their breakthrough second album, Against All Odds, which included the aptly named chart-topper "Number One" and a track written by pop maestro Gary Barlow, 2010 has reversed their steady rise toward commercial and critical respectability, thanks to several tabloid scandals involving drugs, paintball guns, and a death threat sent to a radio listener by outspoken member Dappy. Their third album in three years, Love.Live.Life, therefore, is their opportunity to wisely let the music do the talking. Having secured a five-album deal with influential label Def Jam, it's no surprise that several of its 15 tracks have one eye firmly on the U.S. market, with songs co-produced and co-penned with the likes of Jim Jonsin (Usher), Soundz (Ciara), and Salaam Remi (Nas). It's certainly their most polished offering to date, thanks to the likes of "Took It All Away," based around a Michael Jackson-esque rock guitar solo, their reworking of Compton rapper YG's "Toot It and Boot It," and the military-styled dancehall of "Love Sick." However, despite the slick production, much of Love.Live.Life is still quintessentially British. "Scream My Name" is a synth-led slice of grime which harks back to their street beginnings, "Skit" is a frenetic jargon-filled tale which is surely unintelligible by anyone outside their native North London, while "So Alive" is a squelchy, bass-driven collaboration with former Boy Better Know MC, Skepta. Thankfully, the unintentionally comedic Dappy doesn't dominate proceedings as much as he did on their previous two albums. His irritating "Na Na Niii" catch phrase is still ubiquitous throughout, but instead it's Tulisa, an undeniably gifted singer who's more than a match for any X-Factor warbler, who shines, particularly on the techno, dancefloor-filler title track and the bouncy, Dr. Dre-inspired "Living for the Moment." Of course, with their macho bravado, immature lyrical content, and occasional early-'90s console-game-soundtrack instrumentation (particularly on the dreadful "Girls"), Love.Live.Life is still undoubtedly an acquired taste, and despite its slightly more commercial leanings, it's difficult to see how it can possibly translate outside the U.K.. But its unrelenting upbeat and infectious nature, several potential hit singles, and uncompromising attitude make it impossible, however begrudgingly, not to admire. ~ Jon O'Brien, Rovi
Track samples provided courtesy of iTunes
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