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The musical '90s began taking shape when grunge buys and gal-lovin' girls kicked mainstream rock's sagging butt, yet few could have predicted that the millennium-closing pop sensation would be a Puerto Rican former bubblegum idol of the '80s. Unknown to most non-Spanish-speaking Americans only a few months ago, ex-Menudo member Ricky Martin is unquestionably the hunk of the moment, the first solo male singer to conquer the United States since George Michael similarly grew from teen heartthrob into adult superstar.

Already an icon throughout much of the world, this singing-acting-dancing Latino dynamo has entertained mass audiences for half of his 27 years. At a time when most pop stars graduate from garage to MTV in a matter of minutes, Martin's long experience and confidence set him apart. It also doesn't hurt that he's got the kind of looks that make straight woman and gay men cry.

The timing couldn't have been better for Martin's first English-language album. With a cast of songwriters and producers that includes industry fixtures such as Desmond Child, Diane Warren, Jon Secada, Walter Afanasieff, Emilio Estefan Jr., William Orbit, and Madonna, this debut is a blockbuster of music and marketing designed to maintain the singer's Latino identity while ensuring that the result is easily comprehensible to Top 40 fans from 6 to 60. Combining Latin rhythmic propulsion, power ballad bombast, art-rock sound-scapes, and pop effervescence, Ricky Martin clearly wants to make everybody happy.

The kick-off single, "Livin' la Vida Loca," has at least half a dozen musical styles, from ska to salsa, driving its foolproof hooks, and the frenzied result is unquestionably one of the year's defining pop signposts. Martin's duet with Madonna, "Be Careful," is a sophisticated blend of strings, acoustic strum, and delicate electronics that unites the ballad styles of both performers in one subtle whole. Remixed "Spanglish" versions of Martin's percussive international hits "The Cup of Life" and "Maria" still sound fresh, while "You Stay With Me" suggests the understated grace of a George Michael love song.

Elsewhere, the weight of so many commercial heavy hitters bogs down Martin's artistry even as it brings to life his wildest crossover dreams. Dance numbers such as "Spanish Eyes," "Shake Your Bon-Bon," and "Love You for a Day" are more about Latin-lover kitsch than rootsy realness, and too often the ballads abandon the invention of the singer's 1998 Spanish-language album, Vuelve, to embrace proven formulas, not subvert them. Martin has the talent to break down ethnic, artistic, and sexual barriers. Let's hope he maintains his creativity while pursuing cultural compromise.

Walters is a pop-music critic for The Advocate.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Walters, Barry
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Jul 6, 1999
Words:432
Previous Article:RICKY MARTIN cross appeal.
Next Article:THE MAN behind the man.
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