Still the (Pop) Queen

The Sweet Escape (Interscope Records)
Gwen Stefani

By Kory Wilcoxson

For those of us who knew Gwen Stefani way back when (yes, kids, there was life before "Hollaback Girl"), it's hard to imagine her as anything other than the feisty No Doubt lead singer. But she's made a surprisingly smooth transition to pop queen, with her second album, The Sweet Escape, ready to launch her into the music stratosphere.

Too bad she doesn't have a more worthy vehicle for the trip. While some might see Stefani's hip-hop makeover as a sellout to her punk-ska past, I think the two complement each other well. Her voice is suited for the staccato delivery on songs like "Wind It Up" and "Yummy."

Where she falls flat is when she tries to out-pop her contemporaries. She simply doesn't have the pipes of, say, Kelly Clarkson and power ballads like "4 in the Morning" and "Early Winter" don't have any teeth. "Wonderful Life" comes closest to recapturing her earlier vocal magic, but as the album's closer, it's only a reminder of what could have been.

The production on "Escape" is inventive (The Neptunes contribute five tracks), but at times feels overdone. The yodeling on "Wind It Up" is so contrived it feels like a product placement for Ricola. But give Stefani credit for being able to maintain her spunk and integrity in the shifting sands of pop music. She has no qualms singing about motherhood and asserting her identity without beating us over the head with how cool and independent she is. Too bad The Sweet Escape ends up tasting like cotton candy: instantly gratifying but in no way fulfilling.

Taste the sweetness at www.gwenstefani.com.