Photo by Kate SwanONE OF THE BEST R&B PERFORMANCES OF THIS decade was all but lost in a blur of hoochie outfits, hooker hair and sexpot posturing. Mariah Carey's radio-single “Breakdown,” from 1997's Butterfly album, took the signature elements of new-millennium R&B — breathy vocals, rap-star cameo, lyrics about heartbreak — and did what almost no one else who's used the formula has been able to do: trip onto that rarified plane where music, words and voice all converge into pure emotion. Lazy-rhyme lyrics become profound; the rap cameo by Bone, Thugs -n- Harmony (a truly inspired choice) flows logically and organically into the sung phrases; Carey's breathy delivery is the sound of someone so consumed by loss that she can barely summon the energy to speak. It's a sublime recording. But even though it was a massive radio and MTV hit, the track was reduced to little more than the soundtrack to a Jersey girl's shopping spree and fashion layout — Carey's joyless makeover into a real-life blowup doll overshadowed the music, squelching what should have been an unqualified artistic triumph.

There are a lot of blowup dolls, male and female, in R&B today. There are very few artistic triumphs. You have to catch them where you can — sometimes in a single line or verse of a song. Rare is the album that holds you in awe from start to finish, or even to the midway point. Case in point: the new Chante Moore CD. Her latest single, the ballad “Chante's Got a Man,” kicks off with state-of-the-art airy vocals; the despair she's singing about, however, is not hers, but belongs to her girls, who've all given up on men. Using her lover as proof that there are still a few good guys in the world, the singer is alternately sympathetic and gloating. The track's money spot comes when she breaks it down with a blasted, throaty plea: “Listen to me, girls!” At that moment, the singer and the song are transformed, intertwined. All pretense of cool and restraint is dropped, and what's left is undiluted passion. Moore goes back to church, conjuring images of a crooked Sunday hat, kicked-off shoes and flying earrings.

It'd be hard to match that moment again, but Moore's new album, This Moment Is Mine (MCA), doesn't even try. It's filled with dreary ballads that never spark to life, in part because they're all anchored in uninspired, formulaic production. The lowest point comes with the disc's first track, “If I Gave Love,” which was produced by one-note-wonder Rodney Jerkins. Not content that all of his work (from Brandy and Monica's “The Boy Is Mine” to the job he did on Whitney's last album) already sounds the same, this time he's given Moore the exact same track (and nearly the same song) as he gave Jennifer Lopez on her new single, “If You Had My Love.” If Jerkins ever learns a second tune, he'll be a dangerous man.

Upping the margin of satisfaction significantly is former Boys' Choir of Harlem member Olu, who sports what may be the biggest, saddest eyes in all of music. A whole three out of the 11 tracks on his debut album, Soul Catcher (Gee Street/V2), are worthy of classic-soul status. “Sista Why,” a string-laden, heartfelt plea for a lover to reconsider her decision to leave; “Long Way,” an achingly beautiful declaration of devotion; and the first single, “Baby Can't Leave It Alone,” the story of a girl born addicted to drugs and who lives a life defined by her inability to kick, would all make the masters of soul proud. (You can hear a trace of Donny Hathaway's influence in both the vocals and the songwriting.) It's not that the rest of the tracks are bad; it's just that they were co-produced by Stewart Matthewman (guitarist and sax player with Sade, and Maxwell's co-producer and collaborator). What that means is that the vast majority of the album is nice, tasteful aural wallpaper, the kind of stuff you put on when you're trying to snatch a buppie. But the three cuts mentioned above show Olu quivering a bit, coloring outside the borders, and the music soars as a result.

Maxwell, by the way, turns in a best-of-his-career performance on the R. Kelly­written and ­produced hit single “Fortunate,” taken from the soundtrack to the movie Life. (K-Ci and Jo-Jo's rendition of the title song also solidifies their position as heirs apparent to the spot once ruled by the likes of Bobby Womack and Teddy Pendergrass. They have the kind of gruff, gritty style that has almost receded out of existence, leaving whiners and asthmatics to set the pace for black male singers. The brother duo is a necessary antidote.) There's never been a question that Maxwell has an amazing voice, but he usually coasts on that fact, delivering lovely sounds that simulate sexual ardor, that suggest passion or pain — he can't be bothered to muss his hair by swimming in the murk of real abandon. Kelly, pulling off a feat that neither Matthewman nor Maxwell himself have yet been able to accomplish, gets the singer to connect his dazzling technical abilities to genuine communication. When he half-growls, half-moans, “I never sang a song with all my might,” you believe him — he's clearly telling the truth. The song's hook is a shameless ripoff of the chorus to Alicia Meyers' R&B classic “If You Play Your Cards Right,” but the thievery can be forgiven because what's ultimately brought to “Fortunate” is transcendence.

IF MARIAH CAREY'S TURN AS LIL' KIM HAS RENDERED her music a negligible factor in her career, with hair, makeup and fashion overpowering her real gifts, she need only look to Diana Ross as a warning to step off that slippery slope. On the cover of Ross' latest album, Every Day Is a New Day (Motown), the pop diva looks like she's auditioning for the lead role in a Negro remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Slathered in makeup, with her hair an insane mass of nappy weave, the singer looks tragically adrift. Unfortunately, the record doesn't redeem the packaging.

Ross still sounds great, with a voice as strong and lovely as ever. The problem is the subpar material she's stuck with, none of which is remotely memorable or engaging, despite the guiding hand of legendary producer Arif Mardin. The presence of Hex Hector, who is to dance music what Rodney Jerkins is to R&B, doesn't help at all. Only on the stomping dance track “Carry On,” a tune Martha Wash made her own a few years ago, does Ross sound like she has any connection at all to the material. Someone at Motown ought to figure out that hooking the singer up with latter-day house wunderkinds Masters at Work, David Morales or the guys from Murk/Funky Green Dogs would be a stroke of genius. No producers currently working in the R&B genre can rival any of those guys for soulfulness or innovation. (Given the breathtaking job he did on future club classics “Flowers” and “You Don't Know Me,” even Armand Van Helden would be a smart choice.)

Until that happens, though, take a pass on Every Day and grab copies of the newly reissued, remastered versions of Ross' biggest-selling album, 1980's Diana, and her best, 1979's The Boss. The former contains the hits “Upside Down,” “I'm Coming Out” and “Have Fun (Again),” and the crispness of Chic's production punches right through the speakers thanks to digital remastering. But it's The Boss that's the real prize. Larry Levan, the late, great DJ at New York's legendary Paradise Garage, used to spin Boss tracks “No One Gets the Prize,” “Once in the Morning” and the title cut, and the crowd would go absolutely wild. The reissue contains bonus tracks of the original 12-inch disco remix of “The Boss” and the long-unavailable, promo-only remix of cult favorite “It's My House.” Produced by Ashford & Simpson (who also provide stellar backing vocals), this is the album that silences Ross detractors. Soulful, deeply funky and filled with astonishing vocal performances, The Boss is a fantastic disco record that doubles as an underrated R&B/pop gem. Diana Ross was never this good before, and hasn't been since — at 20 years old, The Boss is a serious candidate for 1999 album-of-the-year honors.

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