- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
A crop of megastars has experimented with dubstep beats in the past two years: Britney, Bieber, and most dramatically, Taylor Swift. But with all the brouhaha around "pop EDM," it's easy to forget (or, more likely, to never have known) that Eve was one of the first pop stars to engage with underground dance music, predating Rihanna's Rated R or Kelis' Fleshtone. In 2009, producer Salaam Remi retooled a track from dubstep pioneer Benga's debut album, Diary of an Afro Warrior, for the Internet single "Me N My," on which E-V-E rapped, mantra-like, "Never knew a bitch like you could dance, come on." That was about two years after her last album, Here I Am, was permanently shelved by Interscope, and served as a bookmark for when Ms. Pitbull in a Skirt began trying new styles, frustrated by her label's disinterest despite that record's decent early reviews. (She eventually left Interscope, tweeting in 2010 that she was a "free agent now... Went back to re-doing music. Trust me.")
It's an important context for Lip Lock, which is only Eve's fourth album to actually see release since 1999. She's mentioned in interviews that this one represents her music at its purest; apparently, her pure soul consists of globe-spanning samples, shiv-sharp reggae and dance beats, and post-Diplo bass interludes. Yet this doesn't feel like a kowtow to the EDM massive. Instead, this sounds like a veteran performer choosing the sturdiest beats to support her Philly-tuff snarl, and for the most part, it's great — our hostess brags about her baddest-bitchitude amid hip-hop bangers that buck boundaries, mostly supplied by lesser-known producers.
Sure, she's gotten fancier since her early days as Ruff Ryders' First Lady (notably, frequent collaborator and fellow Ryder Swizz Beats is nowhere to be found here), but Eve still does not flinch. It's also remarkable that for her first album in 11 years, she's not hearkening to her past so much as daydreaming about her future. "My buzz stay strong, your buzz never started," she raps pon di floor of pared-down riddim "Grind or Die." "My albums are the shit, my career never faltered." Whether there's a specific target here or not, it's clear she still has the mettle to unseat a top contender.
This is not to say Lip Lock is without its missteps. The title of "Make It Out This Town" also includes one of the most tragic phrases in pop culture — "featuring Gabe Saporta" — and the Cobra Starship keener does his best to buff the album's edge to a dull sheen. Wherever this guy goes, overproduced acoustic guitar follows, and Eve's uplifting lyrics about transcending your disadvantages are wasted on a pre-fab pop song that corpo radio will eat up (surely the point). And her flows can feel a little straightforward in 2013: "All Night" is pretty irresistible as sly seduction ditties go, but her sassmaster approach, coupled with horns and handclaps, seem cribbed from 2006. (Still, gotta give her props for the punch line, "I had you geekin' like Screech / Nerd.")
But her sheer likability as a rapper is what shines through the most on Lip Lock, as on "Wanna Be," her first collaboration with Missy Elliott on one of her own albums since 1999's eminently badass "Ain't Got No Dough," which cast them both as harbingers of high-end futurist divadom for the new millennium. Here, they reprise their high-stepping enterprise over a nigh-juke beat by Blac Elvis, offering a back-alley flipside to Beyoncé's "Bow Down." (Missy's verse is even screwed both up and down: Take that, H-Town Bey!) When Eve wonders, "Where the real G's at?" it could sound dated, but she delivers her hyper-quick raps with an audible eye-roll, as though she's been the boss for so long she's extremely over it.
There's something non-combative about Eve's combativeness; even while she's ostensibly throwing shade at other rappers, she comes off more as the CEO whose tricks you wanna learn before you die. On the instructively titled single "Eve," crafted by basically unknown producer R8D!O (he's got 800 Twitter followers), she raps, "I'm the chick that they wish they'd be / Know by now to not fuck with me / Stay on top, no touching me," amid a cacophony of dubstep wobble. Her breath control is a little weird on the line, and they're not the cleverest lyrics in the building — let's face it, Eve's lyrics never have been. But as a clear mission statement on a long-delayed album, they engender respect, and as a piece of music, her plainspoken-ness and R8D!O's experimentalism fuse seamlessly. Lip Lock may not be the best rap album of 2013, but it's interesting, and it's honest. After 11 years, that's a respectable way to ride out.