Unsurprisingly, the debut from graduates of Sean 'Diddy' Combs's Making the Band reality show matches spotless production with over-processed, faceless singing. This would make the ideal soundtrack for artificial insemination.
The name. Danity Kane. Admittedly, it's not as lifelessly corny as, say, O-Town. Still, it sounds more suited to the dairy aisle at the grocery store than the R&B section of the music store. The artwork: Horrible. A logo that looks swiped from some '70s prog band's "greatest hits live" album. A cloud-covered, Martian sky. Clothing and hairdos straight out of Attack of the Voracious Hooker Babes in Space.
Seemingly trivial, superficial details like these are worth scrutinizing here, because there's no pretense that Danity Kane is anything other than cold, hard consumer product. Namely, the product of the latest installment of Sean "Diddy" Combs's Making the Band show that airs on MTV. Everything about Danity Kane -- from the five members who were hand-chosen by Diddy himself from a group of hopefuls, to the producers, songwriters, and wardrobe, has been carefully assembled. In fact, that name, taken from one of the members' anime drawings, is probably the most personal, naturally-occurring part of the whole deal.
You could argue, convincingly, that there's not that much difference between Danity Kane and the scores of other carefully-calculated pop acts out there these days -- that in this case what usually happens behind closed marketing department doors has merely been turned into a TV show. Or, you could claim that these five women -- former amateurs all -- are more the "real thing" than a rich kid with a Disney pedigree. The problem is that both those claims turn out to be negatives: Danity Kane sound just like the scores of other carefully-calculated pop acts out there, only less professional.
To his credit, Diddy, as executive producer, has poured resources into the music and songwriting. Familiar faces from within and without his Bad Boy Records stable have been corralled in (or, more accurately, paid) to ensure that Danity Kane sounds up-to-date. Bryan-Michael Cox, Jim Jonsin, Rodney Jerkins, Mario Winans, Scott Storch, Mario Winans, Ryan Leslie, Rami and Arnthor Birgisson, Timbaland -- all are veterans of the boy band / teen pop / desperate R&B veteran circuit; put their resumes together and you'll find Backstreet Boys, 98°, Christina, Britney, Janet, Boyz II Men, and more. But instead of being eclectic or even disparate, Danity Kane is full of the clattering, mid-tempo, bass-heavy, spaced-out grooves that currently dominate mainstream hip-hop and "R&B".
It sounds good as far as this type of thing goes. Every so often, the production is even interesting. The staccato Spanish guitar that forms the backbone of the Jonsin-produced "Heartbreaker" is oddly reminiscent of the Cure's 20-year-old confection "The Blood". Timbaland, the forward-thinking hip-hop producer, makes most everything he touches that much more palatable, and his two contributions are probably the album's strongest: "Want It" wraps a catchy, sassy vocal hook around old-school synths while the even better "Right Now" hangs its verses on a tense, circular piano figure before opening up to a warm, expansive chorus. These songs also lend the album its only hints of emotional resonance -- the ladies don't sound like they're singing something that's just been handed to them.
But most of the rest runs from undistinguished to intolerable. The Jonsin-helmed "Show Stopper" sounds more bored with itself than any smash hit single in recent memory, while Cox's ballad "Ride for You" is every bit as horrible as its title portends. Storch's sole contribution, "Sleep On It", apparently a last-minute addition, sounds like the Paris Hilton castoff it probably was, with the ladies embarrassingly exclaiming "sleep oowneah" many times too many. In another telling moment, "Touching My Body" -- the very first thing Danity recorded -- packs more attitude and sexual tension than the rest of the album put together.
Most tracks have separate "vocal production" credits, suggesting that the women of Danity Kane were rarely in the same area code as their producers. But the disconnect between music and vocals isn't nearly as big a problem as the vocals themselves. They're (mostly) in key and polished, manipulated, and multi-tracked to within an inch of their lives. Honestly, their mostly thin quality and the occasional missed note are the only hints that the voices are human at all. It's no coincidence, either, that from The Supremes to TLC to Destiny's Child, all the best R&B girl groups have been trios -- there's simply not enough space in the arrangements to fit five voices comfortably.
Danity Kane was a bit of a sales phenomenon in its first week of release, suggesting that a multimedia hype campaign trumps lousy graphic art. While the music's competent enough, any of the voices could be replaced by that of literally any competent female singer to no discernable effect. And that's probably just the way Diddy wants it. Hip producers will be around long after Danity Kane is nothing more than fodder for an MTV nostalgia show.