Rita Ora, “Phoenix” (Atlantic)
At 21, singer Ora seemed poised to knock down the Lady Gaga Ceremonial Door to pop megastardom — the Kosovo-born singer had three No. 1 singles, opened for Coldplay and met her idol, Gwen Stefani, at an awards show. Then disturbing things happened. She believed her label, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, marooned her with little promotion, and they sued each other; she split with her boyfriend, DJ Calvin Harris, prompting him to yank the hit he produced, “I Will Never Let You Down,” from her debut album, “Ora.”
Six years and a recurring “Fifty Shades” film-series role later, Ora has a new label and an album to show off her true, unfiltered personality. And it’s a little boring. Ora has a clean, strong pop voice, and she sounds fantastic in “First Time High.” She nicely shifts from low to high in “Only Want You,” building tension for the lyric “I don’t want to wear another minidress/to impress/another potential problem.”
Disappointingly, she shies away from saying anything at all. “For You,” her hit from the “Fifty Shades Freed” soundtrack, is jammed with clichés. “Summer Love” barely tells the beginning of a love story, and Ora sings bouncy opener “Anywhere” as if she wants a fancy vacation, not an escape from something consequential. It’s only when the more interesting Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX show up for “Girls” that the album shows idiosyncrasy, humor and drama.
Steve Knopper, Newsday
Swizz Beatz, “Poison” (Epic)
Swizz Beatz doesn’t need one grand gesture to define his career. As the hot-wired producer behind the rugged beats, stammering choruses and mellifluous tones of the Ruff Ryders crew, and early hits from Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z, Swizz had hits that ruled the ’90s and early 2000s before trying his own (wonky) hand at rapping. “Poison” was planned as a multigenre superstar epic (with Bono and Bruno Mars) that would show his command of pop and hip-hop in the present. The version of “Poison” before us is not that wide-net cast recording. Instead, this is a sharply cutting, thoroughly musical — and modern — take on the Beatz bounce, with nu-school cats such as Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug and 2 Chainz.
Perhaps not as “pop” as Swizz intended, “Poison” ’s best and most soulful moments showcase both him and his guest in their best lights. That’s most true for Nas and Jim Jones, who are given their most potently heated, old-school tracks in years with, respectively “Echo” and “Preach.” Pusha T benefits from sound and lyrics more humble and holy (“Cold Blooded”) than we’re used to from his boasts. The best cut, “Pistol on My Side (P.O.M.S.),” featuring Lil Wayne and Beatz’s wife, Alicia Keys, on piano, is the deepest, filled with Weezy’s usual vinegary harangues and some bittersweet soul on the side.
A.D. Amorosi, Newsday
• Meek Mill, “Championships”
• Bryan Ferry, “Bitter-Sweet”
• Jeff Tweedy, “Warm”
• Alessia Cara, “Pains of Growing”
• The 1975, “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships”