I thought I would hate City High when I first read about them. Look at the ingredients — an over-hyped, MTV-driven, debut set from a teen-oriented Rap/R&B trio featuring two moody guys (former child actors) plus one (suitably gorgeous) female. It gets worse. The less-than-reliable Wyclef co-produces (watch out for all those Fugees comparisons) and, wait for it, they write meaningful lyrics and don’t want to be seen as another pop band. A better recipe for half-assed drivel I can barely imagine. And yet . . . and yet. Well, it’s not going to change the course of musical history but it’s not at all bad. Kids’ stuff almost certainly, but infectious and engaging nonetheless.
City High are Ryan Toby and Robby Pardio — plus 18-year-old Claudette Ortiz, who is very photogenic and whose light vocals will not cause Syleena Johnson to rethink her technique. Toby and Pardio are useful musicians but rather derivative both as rappers and singers. All three have ambitions as songwriters — a more positive statement will have to wait. One senses a certain contrivance in the elements that have been assembled for the disc — a bit of hip-hop, nursery rhyme hooks, a couple of sentimental ballads, a would-be-tough High School ethos and a stab at social consciousness. Questions of authenticity and sincerity keep nagging away throughout. Even so, the whole enterprise is somehow oddly likeable, even if a peculiarly adolescent earnestness provokes as many guffaws as it does thoughtfulness.
Things start promisingly with “Didn’t Ya”, a mid-tempo cheating song in mainstream urban style. Catchy hook and pleasant vocals ride a tight production. Very TLC and well-suited to radio or the early stages of any club set. “Three Way” follows with a more bouncy, masculine take on the same theme and nods to Blackstreet. So far so good. Then comes “Why”, one of a number of slow jams that begin to raise a few doubts. There is a sense that the angst and adult sentiments (“Why should we screw if we can’t get along.”) sit somewhat uneasily on the trio’s youthful shoulders. It just about works, thanks to some neat piano and production pushing the song towards an updated doo-wop feel. I am far less happy with the Donny Hathaway tribute that follows. This is so obviously an attempt to ape the Fugees success with “Killing Me Softly” that it is hard not to be prejudiced against it. Anyway, it’s a Leon Russell song and though Donny made it his own it never ranked among his best moments. File under less than adequate.
“15 Will Get You 20” is catchy to the point of irritation. It too has serious pretensions — ignore them. A promising head-nodder on first hearing, it soon palls. Radio stations will love it. It is a work of art compared with “Cats and Dogs”, the one truly unlistenable track on the album. Just skip forward to “Caramel”. Although this works better on the single — try the Trackmasters re-mix with Eve adding some rap muscle — the CD version is fine. It is superior pop with urban, hip-hop and Hispanic flourishes. Ortiz does the lyric proud — a gentler, Kandi Burris-material girl declaration — and the melody skips along without a care in the world. “Best Friend” and “Sista”, two more slow jams on the triangular tip, are just so-so. As a whole City High overdo the obvious possibilities of the two male-one female line-up. “Sista” is the beatier and more effective offering, but both strive and strain too much for comfort.
“What Would You Do?” was the lead-off single and you are probably sick of it by now. Its tale of degradation and survival is a bit Junior High essayish, but it has real spirit, a great chorus and is a fine piece of pseudo-deep social observation. People are getting it all wrong comparing it unfavourably with grown-up rap like Mos Def or Common or soul-poets like Curtis. This is the Shangri-Las for the Dre generation. “I Can Never Go Home”, “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “He’s a Rebel” are the song’s actual ancestors. In fact the whole set is best seen in that tradition — teen-anthems with the odd glance at the travails of modern life. Ghetto-sensitive Brill Building pop. Can you get with that? I love it.
Mostly downhill from thereon, it has to be said. The obligatory soft rock track (“So Many Things”) need not detain you, while the kitsch-epic “The Only One I Trust”, with its mock-Spanish ballad structure, is unintentionally hilarious. It is, I think, supposed to be heart-breakingly poignant. Similarly “City High Anthem”, a bathetic plea for a lost generation, is a collection of clichés beyond any chance of redemption and sounds like a storyboard for a more than usually bad TV movie. A suspicion, which rather dogs this project, that these are well-behaved high school kids acting out the lives of their more delinquent classmates reaches crisis point here.
The finale, “You Don’t Know Me”, lyrically dips its toes in the same treacherous waters but is saved by a great arrangement. A tasty slab of old school funk — complete with clavinet and brass — it ends proceedings on a positive note. City High demonstrates just enough of those to warrant investigation. My advice would be to steer the music further clubwards, don’t try quite so hard on the message front and go for songs which play to Ms Ortiz’ sweet but limited vocal range. “Didn’t Ya”, “Caramel” and “What Would You Do?” show the way. Jerry Wonder’s Booga Basement has not produced the new Fugees but we are going to hear more of this New Jersey trio, of that there’s little doubt.