'Round midnight on December 20, 1989, at the World in downtown Manhattan's Alphabet City, Terence Trent D'Arby trooped back onstage to perform an obligatory encore for a scant crowd of a couple hundred concertgoers. The black-clad, dreadlocked soul singer was promoting his commercially doomed soph-omore album, Neither Fish nor Flesh, and quelled the applause to acknowledge a few famous guests. Apparently, Nona Hendryx was in the house – necks craned to catch a glimpse; so was Lenny Kravitz, at that time known mainly as the so-SoHo husband of actress Lisa Bonet. Lenny had just released his debut album, Let Love Rule, and in dedication to Kravitz, D'Arby strapped on a rhythm guitar and led his band in a cover of Jimi Hendrix's “Spanish Castle Magic.”

Wherefore art thou, TTD? He dropped from sight after his '95 effort, Vibrator. But D'Arby's vote of confidence that night led me to purchase Let Love Rule the following day. And the media blitz that followed its release constructed an image that has persisted for years: Kravitz is a flower child; his music is derivative; his lyrics are simplistic. In fact, replace “flower child” with “stereotypical rocker” and you've summarized the vast majority of reviews for his latest album, 5.

Still, things seemed so much simpler then. As a brother, I found Lenny & Lisa doing their boho John & Yoko act in Central Park on Earth Day entrancing. “Let Love Rule” was paced identically to “Hey Jude,” but this was during a period when the Black Crowes were aping Mott the Hoople and the Faces without much critical backlash (wherefore art thou, Black Crowes?). True, Kravitz's lyrics – lines like “little fishies in the sea say hooray” – were a bit mortifying (more McCartney than Lennon), but back then there was the prospect of impending growth.

Nine years later, after gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, recording a Yoko-sanctioned “Give Peace a Chance” cover, working with Aerosmith, Madonna, Sean Lennon and Mick Jagger, and opening for the Stones, Lenny Kravitz is still having props problems. When Prince was in nine years deep, he was savoring his second Album of the Year Grammy nomination for Sign o' the Times; at five albums in, he was commanding 1999 powers, plotting the Revolution.

For those who've been paying attention (and Kravitz consistently garners gold and platinum plaques), 5 might qualify as Lenny's first pop album – not as in Hanson, but as in U2 circa Zooropa. Less determinedly rock-flavored than Circus, less musically far-reaching than Are You Gonna Go My Way, but more funk-focused than any previous release, 5 is a give-'em-what-they-want album. Kravitz records digitally for the first time, seemingly abandoning his time-pegged analog cocoon, and crafts a CD to compete with contemporaries like Beck and the Verve.

As perfect a pop moment as he's ever produced, “I Belong to You” is an uptempo love song on which Kravitz blends the same potent elements as master alchemists Stevie Wonder and Prince; he plays every instrument on the track save the toy piano, including sandpaper blocks. “Fly Away” and “It's Your Life” are punchy numbers with fluid choruses that beam sunshine, perfect backdrop tunes for zooming down the California coast.

5's breezy, guitar-centered funk ambiance comes to a head on the highlight, “Thinking of You,” an ode to Lenny's late mother, actress Roxie Roker. Over fat, excellently miked drums and chunky Fender Rhodes bass chords, he sings in falsetto, “Tell me mama/Are the colors deeper shades?/And tell me mama/Are there great big brass parades?/Does the sun shine night and day?” (The often lyrically deficient Kravitz co-wrote the verses with songwriter Lysa Trenier.) The guitar solo on the lumbering, doomsday groove of “Take Time” exhibits Kravitz's improved chops – he usually left such sonic theatrics to longtime sideman Craig Ross. “Black Velveteen” declares the dawning of an age of cybersexual paramours; it's tongue-in-cheeky as churning synths, drums and Mellotron generate an electronic pulse that recalls Blondie. Critics who say Kravitz lacks a sense of humor might be taking him a bit too seriously themselves; with lines like “Nice piece of kit/Electronic clit” and “Black Velveteen's cat smells like strawberry kittens,” let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

But the above-mentioned are 5's highlights. The paint-by-numbers funk instrumental “Straight Cold Player” is more Brand New Heavies than JBs. “Flowers for Zoe,” Kravitz's Mama Said dedication to his daughter, is more poignant than his latest, the seven minutes-plus “Little Girl's Eyes.” And “Can We Find a Reason” ends things weakly (“It's the new millennium,” he tritely ad libs in closing), with a C&W twang.

He's searched for his own sound for the past nine years, and while his tunes don't move you as much as the artists they invoke (Sly & the Family Stone, the Beatles, et al.), Lenny Kravitz has written moving songs (“Butterfly,” “The Difference Is Why,” “All My Life,” Vanessa Paradis' “Natural High”). And despite the lows, 5 is his strongest album in five years.

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