Nina B. :: Live and Learn Volume 4: Sex Sells :: Ravenel Records
as reviewed by Tom Doggett

In a male-dominated genre, precious few females have asserted their rightful claim to the music. To compound this problem, the women who have achieved commercial success in rap music have done so with overt sexuality and questionable song-writing skills. Plenty of fine artists have come along, but even in the case of someone like Rah Digga, impressive talent and the endorsement of Busta Rhymes hasn't amounted to noteworthy success.

Nina B. has her finger on this catch-22, because she called volume four of her "Live and Learn" mixtape series "Sex Sells." She doesn't seem too pleased about this realization, because the cover depicts her opening her shirt to reveal her cleavage with a hesitant look on her face. Stranger still, she doesn't even mention sex on the disc. For the most part, this is straight battle music, an old-fashioned showing that (for better or worse) aims broadly at her competitors.

Immediately, Nina B.'s voice kicks with a genuinely assertive snarl. This seems effortless, and she comes across as commanding without too much effort. "#1 Draft Pick" opens things up with a heavy, smoldering beat from Chrome. Nina flips a nice concept, using the NBA Draft as a metaphor for her position in the rap game. This is one of a handful of creative tracks on the album. Another, "Shattered Dreams," chronicles exactly what the title suggests. Unfortunately, Nina allows the clichéd nature of the material to stifle her ingenuity. The painful sped-up samples courtesy of Xtra Flames don't help either. I've just heard this type of song many times before, and Nina doesn't bring anything new. Still, her narrative is clear and logical, so it's a relief that she can put a story together. This definitely isn't easy.

Reverting to unimaginative battle-rapping can destroy a lesser emcee's likeability, and Nina can't avoid this fate. She raps with very simple rhyme patterns, so when she's not saying anything too worthwhile, her verses fail badly. Check out a few lines:

"Sufferin' succotash, I'm making suckers dash
You making sucker moves, I'm in another class
You couldn't even step into my spectrum
So play like Elroy, you better Jet-son"

She's just not a very good rapper. Her voice doesn't flow, leaving awkward gaps, and the overall presentation is atrocious. She never varies her voice or switches up the structure of her verses, and the punchlines are WAY too frequent. She'll utter something nice, like "forget Robin, ain't no merry men in the hood," but then follow it with three more puns, progressively more monotonous, that ruin the effect of the good one.

The production is standard mixtape fare, bringing a few quality tracks and a ton of mediocre ones. Somehow Bangaz gets production credit on a song called "Halftime" for tracking down an instrumental of the Nas classic, tweaking it a bit, and handing it to Nina. I personally don't get that one. Nasir's lyrics are evoked almost reflexively when I hear that beat, so you better believe I'm going to skip past an unworthy update.

Other than that, there are a few freestyle-type sessions tacked on at the end that are quite forgettable. Unsurprisingly, the borrowed production on these cuts sounds better than supporting cast's original productions. The new beats are all loud offerings designed to keep the pace and allow Nina B. some breathing room, and in that sense they all function well. But since they were selected for how well they accentuate Nina's words, it was a lost cause from the beginning. She just can't carry an album yet, even a mixtape.

I'm not sure what the deal is with the title "Sex Sells." Nina could have gone two foreseeable directions with that. She could have tried to prove the statement by talking demurely about carnal pleasures for the entire album, or she could have set out to crush the male-dominated culture that produced such a phenomenon. She does neither, so the title becomes an arbitrary label that allows us a blurry glimpse at her breasts. Regardless, the cover is only one of the problems with this disc. Nina needs to forget the verbal sparring because it brings out her flaws. More conceptual thinking and a batch of calmer beats could settle her down, because battling is not her road to success.

Music Vibes: 5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 4 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 4.5 of 10

Originally posted: April 18, 2006