The Ruler Is Back

Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Dave Matthews guest.

So, you pick up Supernatural and see that it features appearances

by Everlast, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob, Eric Clapton,

Dave Matthews, Eagle-Eye Cherry and Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. This must

be a collection of hip-hop and roots rock songs with scorching Carlos

Santana solos dubbed in, right? Some A&R guy's idea of introducing

Santana to a new generation to spur stronger catalog sales, right?

Amazingly enough, it isn't. It is, however, Santana's best album in eons,

a 13-track return to the scorching, Latin-flavored soul-rock of his first

three albums. After nearly 30 years spent playing mostly listless

jazz-rock, the tug-at-the-heartstrings-while-moving-the-booty guitar of

Santana is back. And not a moment too soon. Though modern music stars

make many a guest appearance here, they conform to Santana's style, not

the other way around.

Of all the guest stars on this album, who do you think would do the

worst job? If your answer was Rob Thomas, get yourself a dunce cap, a

portable CD player and go sit in the corner while listening to "Smooth" (RealAudio excerpt)

to understand how wrong your answer is. "Smooth" is sultry, horn-driven

Latin soul, and Thomas gives a grooving vocal performance that proves

he has some funk in him after all. A glance at the liner notes shows

Thomas co-wrote the song; how this salsa workout came from the same man

behind mainstream rockers like "Push" and "3 a.m." is testament to the

mysterious ways of the muses.

The bulk of the album's guests also do well standing toe to toe with

Dave Matthews. "Love of My Life" is the best Dream of the Blue

Turtles-era Sting song you've never heard, though the call and

response between vocals and guitar is a bit tiresome. "Put Your Lights

On" (RealAudio excerpt), a song that consciously or not sports the rhythm to "House of the

Rising Son," finds Everlast in full Whitey Ford blues drag and

singing about living life to the fullest over Santana guitar stylings

that close the argument. Clapton's appearance on "The Calling" isn't the

Guitar God Summit it could've been, but its rampaging solos and shuffling

beats ain't half bad either.

Interestingly enough, the two guests who don't live up to expectations

are two who've given Santana very public props: Fugees members Lauryn

Hill and Wyclef Jean. Hill, who got Santana to bless her very personal

"To Zion" with some flamenco guitar work, phones in a rap on "Do You

Like The Way." But her slack is taken up by Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo, who

sings more and more like Curtis Mayfield with every track he releases.

Wyclef -- who has incorporated Santana guitar licks into his rollicking

live show -- produces "Maria Maria" but hands off vocal duties to

newcomer the Product G&B. An R&B song at heart, even Santana's flamenco

guitar and charging solos can't save it from sounding like there's a

much better hip-hop remix in the wings.

Guest shots aside, Supernatural is also notable because it

features more changes than a YMCA locker room, shifting with ease from

Latin pop to instrumental psychedelic jams to salsa to tearful soul-rock

ballads. What ties all the diverse elements together is that there's

just so much life on this disc -- the horns on songs like "Africa Bamba"

and "Smooth" explode with passion, while the Latin percussion on "Corazon

Espinado" and "(Da Le) Yaleo" (RealAudio excerpt)

show Latin-pop stars what living la vida

loca is really about.

When all y'all get tired of sticky sweet Latin pop -- when you decide

you actually want some substance -- trade in your Ricky Martin and

Jennifer Lopez albums for Supernatural. You'll be glad you did.