The NutraSweet Escape

By Eric Kelsey

For a decade we knew
Gwen Stefani as just a girl in this world. No matter how
tongue-in-cheek or sincere she meant it, seventh-grade girls related
to her No Doubt persona of female suburban world-weariness on the eve
of adulthood. On her journey of character transformation, Stefani put
aside the rigid confections of suburban pop-rock for the hipper, more
creatively accessible synergy of hip-hop. Her 2001 duet with Eve,
“Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” completed the process of turning Stefani
from a girl in the male-dominated world of rock and roll into a
representative of feminist club culture.With all such mutations
cementing its features in the Neptunes-produced hit “Hollaback
Girl,” Stefani’s second solo effort, “The Sweet Escape,”
expands on the her persona at the price of musical content. This
doesn’t have to be so, and in the case of someone as sensible as
Stefani, it shouldn’t. But “The Sweet Escape” is littered with
half steps that wanted to be full, misguided intentions and foremost,
the artifice of personality without much art.

“The Sweet Escape”
opens with Stefani reuniting with the Neptunes on the first single,
“Wind It Up.” The song serves as a microcosm of the album itself,
as it runs through an index of its own hopes and subsequent pitfalls.

“Wind It Up” begins with a yodeling sample from Rogers and
Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” and ironically becomes the
album’s brightest moment. The catchiness of Rogers and Hammerstein
overshadows the Neptunes’ churning percussive beat. The song
suggests that it should be danced to by its rhythm and Stefani
singing, “Every time the bass bangs, realize it calls your name,”
but its drawn-out verses and chorus never sails past its sample
impeding any dance-ability.

The formal misgivings
of “The Sweet Escape” come mostly through the production of the
Neptunes. The Neptunes produced five tracks on “The Sweet Escape,”
where they were only responsible for “Hollaback Girl” on
Stefani’s solo debut, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” Although the
Neptunes tandem of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams have been behind
for countless pop and hip-hop hits across the young 2000s, their yin
and yang chemistry is nowhere to be found on “The Sweet Escape.”
Instead, it sounds as if Hugo has gone missing. What’s more,
Williams gets the song writing credits on Stefani’s album. Even
though Williams is largely responsible for the minimalist
percussiveness of their aesthetic, Hugo was always the necessary
melody maker that would temper Williams’ hubris. On their tracks
with Stefani, Williams is incapable of staying behind the studio
knobs, foregrounding his production style and even his own vocals to
the point where songs are less about Stefani than Williams fulfilling
his own self-estimations.

The results seem to be
tragic on both sides. For one, Williams has been on a steady decline
of self-parody ever since 2004’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
collaboration with Snoop Dogg. And secondly, for all the cachets of
talent and personas that Stefani can mine, she can’t find an
identity with enough malleability and cohesion to easily shift from
one track to the next. On “The Sweet Escape,” Stefani is still
just a girl in the world that she lamented 12 years prior. She is
split between her two loves: hip-hop and new wave. Although this
division is easy to overcome, if Stefani is really committed to dance
music, as she relates on nearly every song, it must center on the
formal elements rather than a public personality. Otherwise,
everything is just saccharine.