ZZ Ward: Til the Casket Drops (Hollywood)

Like an Adele, Aretha or Amy who had gravitated to rap MCs, this talented singer from rural Oregon (by way of Los Angeles) wails convincingly at the crossroads of vintage R&B and blues, with more than a dash of hip-hop for contemporary street cred. Although she roughens it up here and there, Ward still has a lovely voice, strident and soulful.

The title track on Ward's full-length debut might at first seem contrived, but it sets the tone for the rest of the album: polished arrangements coexisting with a down 'n' dirty edge, all framing her robust vocals. Many of Ward's tunes include lyrical symbolism borrowed from crime and violence, but it's not a distraction. The explosive "Put the Gun Down," for instance, works great as a metaphor or a realistic document of a dangerous situation.

On the best track, "Cryin' Wolf," Ward mixes acoustic blues with dark synths and indulges in a rhythmic style of chanting that seems like a second cousin to rap; the effect is underscored by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar's stiletto-sharp verse. Freddie Gibbs lends his vaguely menacing flow to the spooky "Criminal."

Most of this material is undeniably magnetic, such as the old-school soul of "Charlie Ain't Home," with its modern sheen and bluesy guitar grit. Then, refreshingly, the bouncy groove of "Blue Eyes Blind" recalls a bit of the irresistible retro-dance mood of OutKast's now-classic "Hey Ya."

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