Santana’s revolving door keeps on turning, and with every star who passes through to sing lead on a track off their latest album, what was once a great American band steps closer to becoming a permanent gimmick. It was cool the first time, back in 1999, when Rob Thomas sang “Smooth” and the corresponding duets album, Supernatural, turned into the biggest-selling effort in guitarist Carlos Santana’s long career. Then came 2002’s magic-free Shaman, which despite the presence of Placido Domingo and Seal was a series of nondescript songs tricked out in all the wrong ways. It even skimped on the guitar solos.
You’d think maybe Carlos and his band would change course. And they seem to initially: All That I Am opens with two spry Latin-rock adventures that hark back to pre-Supernatural Santana. After that, though, the celebrity parade begins. Every “guest” hails from a slightly different stylistic niche, and though Santana’s crew catches the essence of each genre, after a while the album plays like a bumpy high school talent show. It’s got outbursts of hip-hop (“My Man,” featuring Mary J. Blige and OutKast’s Big Boi) and a song from a neosoul kid who’s deeply infatuated (Anthony Hamilton, singing “Twisted”). It’s got a rock belter with a power-ballad fixation (Steven Tyler, whose “Just Feel Better” is so histrionic it’s likely to make you feel worse), a pop songstress trying to scuff up her image (Michelle Branch) and a mismatched pair of guitar demons (Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph), who coax Santana into some mean instrumental rock. About the only genre missing is reggaeton.
Santana knows he needs just one single to redeem this erratic smorgasbord, and he’s got the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am around to provide it. “I Am Somebody” is a rocket-ship blast of a song, powered by an intense hook and a message of affirmation that just plain feels good. You can tell this one has some juice by the way the wily Santana responds, with guitar thunderbolts: He really does give his all, and it’s blazing.