1 out of 3 is pretty bad

Black Pearl (EastWest)

By Allen Howie

Three things combine to make rap work: the music, the message and the voice. On Black Pearl, Yo-Yo has the first part down cold. The rhythms are tough, the samples are well-chosen, the backup singers shine and a cast of players delivers solid musical support.

That brings us to the other two elements. A rapper, like any speaker, needs a strong voice, and Yo-Yo's tends to wear a little thin and strident over the course of an album. And that voice is put to the service of a message that lapses in and out of focus, spending far too much time railing against the world she lives in and far too little offering solutions. While this is undoubtedly a reflection of the confusion and despair that weigh down many urban blacks, you would expect someone in the performer's position to use her podium to better advantage.

Still, the record has its moments. Yo-Yo often puts feminism before black pride, exhorting her sisters against the traps that she sees waiting to ensnare them. This is especially true in "I Can't Take No More," a genuinely affecting first-person look at a woman who sees her options vanishing all too quickly, but who struggles courageously forward. Nor is she without a sense of humor, as "Woman to Woman" and "Hoes" prove. And the album's closer, "Will You Be Mine,'" almost convinces me that "rap ballad" isn't a contradiction in terms (although "Too Funky" argues otherwise).

Yo-Yo clearly has good intentions, and the warnings she offers throughout Black Pearl should alert us all to the dangers breeding within the urban decay we so easily choose to ignore. With a clearer focus and a little more vocal experience, Yo-Yo may yet prove to be one of rap's leading lights.