Contemporary R&B music has explicit physical pleasure covered, but what about genuine emotion and relationships?
An up and coming voice in R&B by the name of August Alsina released his full-length debut album entitled Testimony. Testimony is street-savvy, sporting titles including “Porn Star”, “Fml”, “Ghetto”, and “I Luv This Sh*t”. Rightfully, Alsina, a rough-and-tumble artist with a difficult background, delivers an album based on his life experience. That said, perhaps using examples other than Testimony, R&B in general seems to be trending more towards the ‘dark side’. If you ignore the stylization and write the genre out, you get rhythm and blues. The blues are naturally dark and historically, are fretful. Even if R&B has become more ‘extreme’ by conservative purist’s standards, then given the aforementioned definition focused on the ‘blues’, R&B is not that far out on its limb right? Well – sort of.
First let me say that I love R&B. Being the old-soul that I am in spite of my age, I grew up listening to a lot of classic soul – R&B in its heyday. Even as eclectic a music listener as I have developed into today, I personally have a special place in my heart for R&B. That said, even as much as I respect the genre even today, I also am skeptical. The artists can still sing and many times have more powerful voices compared to other artists in different genres, but the material has become questionable. Anyone who denies that they enjoy a dash of risqué in their R&B probably has looked past the overtness that late acclaimed artists such as Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass incorporated into their music (“Let’s Get It On” and “Turn Off The Lights” being prime examples). That said, a dash of risqué has turned into music that as of late has grew incredibly oversexed. What’s even more shocking is it’s not just the dudes and their love for pleasure – but also the gals too.
Taking a gander at the iTunes R&B section, many of the new offerings – single or album – have the once infamous parental advisory label gracing them. Personally, being in my twenties and still possessing the liberal swagger of my past college years, some stronger content within a song or album’s going to do little to faze me. That said, for the better good of the genre and perhaps the future generation (I sound like my parents), perhaps R&B artists have carried things too far. Strike that… R&B artists are relying too much on physicality and brash language to fuel the fire. Yeah, f-bombs have become commonplace whether they should or shouldn’t, but does that mean that this ‘say exactly what’s on my mind’ mentality is necessarily the answer to relevancy? While I’ll ignore the profanity in itself, I will further examine the predominance of a three-letter word.
Going back to August Alsina, many of us expect him to ‘push the envelope’ and those very familiar understand. But now it seems as if everyone is going there. Sure, British R&B/hip-hop artist Estelle was always a bit ‘rough around the edges’ (“Just A Touch” being a perfect example), but her latest single “Make Her Say (Beat It Up)” just lays it all out there – “make her p***y say…” SMH! Sure, it’s an interesting joint and Estelle has seductiveness vocally, but I’m not sure that it’s naturally sexy. Much of Jason Derülo’s new album (Talk Dirty) ups the ante sexually, with the singer trying to add an extra edge to his image. Sure, “That’s My Shhh” was the first hint of this (Future History) while “Talk Dirty” confirmed it, but other joints like “Wiggling” and “Bubblegum” are nothing short of sinful, leaving little to the imagination. Similarly, SoMo, a newbie by way of YouTube throws sex throughout his official self-titled debut. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some naturally sexy moments, but the emotional component of the genre is being sold way short.
Ultimately, I question if R&B artists are overdoing it… no pun intended. I mean, when Teddy Pendergrass wooed with “Turn Off The Lights”, his idea of risqué was “Let’s take a shower, shower together…rub me down in some hot oils baby.” Marvin Gaye did make a bold statement with as he sang “let’s get it on, sugar”, but today “get it on” has been supplanted with let’s… you catch the drift. These are different times and innocence has been stripped from every angle, but with the value of the emotional aspects of love and specifically the dying of the dedicated relationship in the songs, how far can empty songs about meaningless hook-ups really go? Yes ‘booty’ is very much part of the genre – most genres for that matter – but does the subtler approach ultimately pay more dividends? Definitely, this should be food for thought for R&B artists and fans alike.
R&B newbie August Alsina shows tremendous potential on full-length debut Testimony
August Alsina • Testimony • Def Jam • US Release Date: April 15, 2014
The moment has finally arrived for up and coming New Orleans contemporary R&B singer August Alsina to take center stage. Sure, the 21-year old represents the new generation who prefer boldness to subtlety, but ultimately the brasher style suits the hardships he’s enduring in his personal life. “Through the pain”, Alsina seems to find the positives, even if it seems overcome with pessimism on full-length debut Testimony. A true testimony the LP ends up being, Alsina builds off the momentum of 2013 EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, upping the ante.
“Testify” sets the tone for Testimony exceptionally, with August Alsina portraying a snapshot into his life. While “Testify” isn’t necessarily the best track from the LP, it is a vital one because of how it fits into the concept. Calling it relatable might be a stretch as the only one who has experience what ‘August Alsina’ has experienced is August Alsina, but it does allow for the audience to connect. “Make It Home”, featuring Jeezy, definitely extends upon “Testify”. “I don’t always do what I should, but I do what I gotta do,” sings Alsina on his first verse, later adding “See I done dodged a couple shots, served a couple blocks / hit a couple corners tryna shake a couple cops.” Knowing the potential repercussions of his risky actions, Alsina adds “If I don’t make it home tonight / tell my mama that I lover her…take some money to my sister.” As realistic and dark as it is, “Make It Home” is a great showing; there’s something alluring about the no BS approach.
“Right There” has a difficult act to follow, but continues to convey a painful, candid narrative. The repetition of the chorus is gimmicky, which takes a smidgen or so away from the cut. Still, Alsina shows off his nuanced pipes and makes you happy how he has ‘came up’ from the bottom. “You Deserve” makes brilliant use of an L.T.D. sample (“Love Ballad”). Alsina states on the intro “This is for the girl down the hall / misused and abused…pick your head up love, smile / this is for you.” Even though “You Deserve” is another song with pain behind it, Alsina spins the message positively: “But I’m just saying / you deserve better, I’m saying, you deserve better.” Women who have been battered and bruised should truly embrace the prudence that Alsina shares here.
“No Love” is actually a fascinating ‘anti-love’ song. It is actually semi-romantic, but because of August Alsina’s reservations towards relationships (“Believe we had a great night but I ain’t the type to tell you that I miss you, sh*t”), there truly is “no love” in the relationship sense. Alsina’s ideas of love lacks refinement in many eyes: “So just wrap a couple of bands with a n***a like me / Loving ain’t the same with a n***a like me / you use to them but ain’t no loving me / I hear what you would say and girl it’s clear to see.” Companion and follow-up “Porn Star” definitely asserts and confirms Alsina’s physical contributions, avoiding love. Face it, “She ride me like a porn star” is definitely nowhere near the definition of chivalry. But you can’t knock A.A., he already made it clear it’s all about hooking up, not steady and certainly not marriage.
After riding like a “Porn Star”, things return to an even darker mood on “FML”. Pusha T kicks off this notion with his opening verse: “Wake up feeling like f*ck my life / life’s a b*tch, she better f*ck me right…” Alsina plays off of it, proclaiming “Let me tell you ‘bout myself, I’m not scared to die / Been through so much sh*t, sometimes I wanna be in the sky.” As much a negative noodle as Alsina is, he ‘testifies’ on the chorus: “I never thought I would be here, I never thought I would get this far / If they say life’s like a beach chair, why am I sitting in the dark.” Generally, those who employ the overused acronym use it too loosely with little support to back it up; Alsina seems to have a case.
“Grind & Pray / Get Ya Money” continues to champion both the street and the power of prayer. Alsina appears to be spiritually driven, but he also seems heavily invested in the streets as well. The “Get Ya Money” portion exemplifies this where Alsina doesn’t fault ‘her’ for being on her grind, despite how many others will judge her: “You work hard for it, it’s yours / work that body baby it’s yours / I ain’t judging you, go and get your money.” Fabolous further chips in, “My little mama hustle harder than a lot of these n***as.” Yep, that definitely nothing to do with the church – at least the one with pews, and altar, and a pulpit…
On “Ghetto”, Alsina shows a sense of pride that his girl is from the ‘ghetto’. While the singer may over-glorify the ghetto – at least to those clueless about the ghetto – there’s plenty of redeeming qualities and takeaways from “Ghetto”. With his own rough and tumble life, perhaps Alsina respects the same street savvy in his own relationship, hence loving that his boo epitomizes the ghetto – they relate to one another. After all, he does sing “Ain’t afraid to let it show / baby, go on let them know / you out the ghetto / better let them know, you from the ghetto…” On the version included here, Yo Gotti assists, setting up “Ghetto” (“She got a Bugatti body, yeah she a beast in the streets”).
“Kissing On My Tattoos” gives Testimony a slow jam that possesses more substance than its title might suggest. While tattoos have become much more socially acceptable, there is still the sentiment that they represent edginess. Even though “Kissing On My Tattoos” goes softer than the majority of Testimony, Alsina still wants everyone to understand he keeps it hood. Rather than merely having her ‘kiss on my chest’, he has her ‘kiss on my tattoos’, a symbol of being a bit of a bad boy – or bad dude. Keeping love and sex on the mind, “Ah Yeah” finds Alsina going even softer – no tattoos to cling onto this time! Dedication seems to be a dominant factor on his mind as he sings to his girl: “You shine with picture perfect beauty, show it off.” “Ah Yeah” is no new concept, but it is great to hear AA concede some of his edge.
“Mama” definitely shows Alsina has some substance to back up Testimony. On the verses, the singer lists the teachings his mother instilled within him: “Mama said stay out of trouble / Mama said don’t be a fool / Mama said stay in somebody’s church / Mama said boy stay in school.” While “Mama” isn’t the most electrifying track from Testimony, it is hard to deny how meaningful and touching it is, particular the chorus in which Alsina sings, “Mama I made it… I ain’t gonna stop now cause Mama I made it / and I hope I made you proud.”
“Benediction” proves to be even stronger and equally touching. Throughout the narrative, the audience is given an account of the hardships that Alsina has endured. If one was to question Alsina’s edginess, “Benediction” gives and understanding as to one Although the hook is from a dark place, it’s nothing short of addictive: “Started off in the streets / we would take collection from the fiends / People dyin’ all around me / So I gave you my testimony…” Rick Ross provides a sound assist, spitting superbly over the soulful, churchy production work. Sure its not all from the ‘good book’, but it is what it is (“Pray for benediction, pretty women on my premise / Condo out in Cabo… Gold around my neck I’m ballin’ for these final minutes.” Amen… I think.
Although “I Luv This Sh*t” previously graced Alsina’s EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, the monster single featuring Trinidad James (“All Gold Everything”) never grows old. Sure, we could’ve cut the molly-loving MC, but his guest verse suits the vibe. Alsina continues his foul mouthed-ness (is that even a word), but the real talk mixed with the slower, horn-accentuated production is a match made in heaven, albeit quite blasphemous (“God dammit I love it, I love it… So I’mma keep on smoking cause I love this sh*t / I’mma keep on grinding cause I love this sh*t / she tell me keep f*cking cause I love this sh*t and I love it…”) “Numb” concludes the standard edition of Testimony – club style. Alsina trades Trinidad James for B.o.B and Yo Gotti. While the cut is slickly produced, it is a bit more ‘swag’ than substance.
Ultimately, Testimony showcases the great amount of potential that August Alsina has to offer as an artist. Vocally, Alsina easily has the pipes to succeed. Additionally, he has the backstory to truly fuel the fire. Sure, Testimony isn’t a perfectly crafted album, but it’s better more often than not. There are plenty of notable songs – filled with pain as well as the triumph of resolve. Maybe it’s not beautifully poetic, but isn’t grittiness a different take on beauty (or something like that)?
“Make It Home” ft. Jeezy; “FML” ft. Pusha T; “Ghetto” ft. Yo Gotti; “Benediction” ft. Rick Ross; “I Luv This Sh*t” ft. Trinidad James
Jason Derülo • Talk Dirty • Warner Bros • US Release Date: April 15, 2014
It has been a minute since “Whatcha Say” had this music enthusiast excited about new pop/R&B artist Jason Derülo. Nah, I wasn’t a ‘fan girl’ as any number of YouTube personalities might put it, but I did think ole boy had something fresh about him. Judging by the uniqueness of that number one hit, it seemed he was well on his way to conquering the music industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for a number of reasons. Sure, Jason Derülo hasn’t exactly set the Billboard 200 on fire (understatement), but nor has his music since his debut truly stacked up either (no shade – or at least not that much shade, I promise). Future History, Derülo’s second album (first full-length technically), was the first sign of an artist with a connections problem. The album just didn’t have the personality or substance to make much noise. Here on his latest effort, Talk Dirty, Derülo is in much better shape; he has a big hit on his side. Even so, Derülo’s over-reliance on sex and swagger holds the album back at times.
“Talk Dirty” kicks off the album alluringly with its sinful brilliance. Calling the joint heavenly is blasphemous considering its suggestive lyrics and equally ‘dirty’ production. By the way, “Talk Dirty” owes a ton to Balkan Beat Box’s “Hermetico” – like the majority of the production! Face it, that seductive sax comes off as nasty as Derülo’s opening lyrics from verse one: “I’m that flight that you get on, international / first class seat on my lap, girl, riding comfortable”. Nope, Jason D. is not really talking about a plane! If Derülo is a bit subtler regarding sexual endeavors, 2 Chainz is more explicit, holding little back about the ‘pleasure’. Even if you’re the type waving the finger at the shallowness Derülo and 2 Chainz exhibit, the addictiveness of the chorus section is undeniable: “Been around the world, don’t speak the language / but your booty don’t need explaining / all I really need to understand is when you / talk dirty to me”.
“Wiggle” doesn’t add any greater sophistication to Talk Dirty, as Derülo uses the song to talk about booty (“You know what to do with that big fat butt…wiggle, wiggle, wiggle”). Matching the slinky nature of “Talk Dirty”, “Wiggle” is another track concentrated on getting down without ever citing genuine, authentic emotion. With Snoop Dogg assisting, confirmation is provided that it’s gotten “Hot” and X-rated. With fantasies being Derülo’s bread and butter, on “Trumpets” he sings “Every time that you get undressed / I hear symphonies in my head…yet the drums swing low / and the trumpets they go…” Right on cue, the trumpets enter, in all their brilliance. While “Trumpets” is catchy, ludicrous lines like “Is it weird that I hear / angels every time that you moan” are questionable, near – if not – deal breakers.
“Bubblegum” brings in the king of sexed-up, minimalist rap these days, Tyga. “Bubblegum” of course couldn’t possibly retain any sense of innocence – even it becomes a naughty, raunchy reference. “She just wanna pop, pop, pop, pop, pop that bubblegum.” Yeah, what kind of bubblegum Jason? SMH. “Vertigo” arrives in the nick of time to deliver Talk Dirty from being completely overexerted. Duet-ing with boo Jordin Sparks, “Vertigo” has something the opening quartet of the LP lacked – substance. Sure, no one expects total ‘abstinence’ from Derülo or R&B in general, but “Vertigo” balances physical and emotional without just piling on, well the three-letter word. But of course, “Kama Sutra”, featuring Kid Ink, returns Talk Dirty from whence it came… no pun intended. Even though it is Kid Ink rapping here, the listener could totally picture Tyga on this track. Like the other risqué songs, it is what you make of it.
Personally, “Zipper” is a turn-off, specifically thanks to Derülo’s opening lyrics: “I’mma mark my territory / shawty I’m an animal, slowly digging into your / spread you like a bad story…” If that’s not enough to raise an eyebrow, the stupid hook accomplishes the task: “up and down like a zipper”. Even if Derülo were solely referencing his fly, “Zipper” would be nasty. “The Other Side” provides atonement, finally toning things down a might. “The Other Sides” straddles (Ha “straddles”) modern pop and contemporary R&B. Derülo shines on the big-time chorus: “Tonight, take me to the other side / sparks fly like the Fourth of July / just take me to the other side / I see that sexy look in your eyes…” Don’t call it the ‘second coming’, but it is easily among the cream of the crop of Talk Dirty.
Unfortunately for “With the Lights On”, the momentum fades as the song has only occurred “x” amount of times in the past. Honestly, look no further than this album itself – everything is about “the do”. “Stupid Love” at least sports more of an air of being refined, but that doesn’t make it truly notable by any means. “Marry Me” closes the standard edition of Dirty Talk trading the hook up for matrimony – quite a 360 huh? The thing is, contextually don’t “Stupid Love” and “Marry Me” both feel like departures among the clubbier cuts that ignore the emotional aspects of a relationship? Still, if you need a kinder, gentler cut, “Marry Me” is it.
Ultimately, Talk Dirty is average at best. It has its moments, but it also seems to put its eggs too much into one basket – specifically booty. Much like Derülo’s Future History, Talk Dirty seems to lack cohesion; it’s missing something. There is nothing wrong with Jason’s voice – he can sing – but his music just doesn’t lend itself to making a genuine connection as a listener. That said, nothing eclipses “Talk Dirty”.
“Talk Dirty”; “Vertigo”; “The Other Side”; “Marry Me”
SoMo’s major label debut leaves the listener underwhelmed
SoMo • SoMo • Republic • US Release Date: April 8, 2014
YouTube has become the ‘it’ means of being discovered as an artist these days. Honestly, the art of self-promotion is truly savvy, aggressive gameplay personally. Where so many talented artists don’t have the confidence or the moxie to put them self out there, those that use a platform like YouTube deserve success. Even so, that doesn’t mean that what they have to offer is necessarily exceptional or laden with swag. SoMo, a burgeoning R&B/pop artist, takes his stab at fame with his major label debut, SoMo. Being signed to Republic is definitely a come-up from YouTube uploads. While SoMo shows the potential SoMo has to offer, it doesn’t prove to be fully cooked. Much of the cons with SoMo is the lack of an identity for its singer. SoMo doesn’t do enough vocally to necessarily impress on his official debut. No, that doesn’t mean he can’t sing – he can – but he also doesn’t come off as a superstar persona in the least.
“TMWYKAL”, which stands for “Tell me what you know about love”, initiates SoMo. If there had been more development, “TMWYKAL” could have actually been an enjoyable, full-length song. Instead, it’s merely the minute-long intro that precedes “I Do It All For You” with some solid vocal production. “I Do It All For You” unsurprisingly plays off of “TMWYKAL”, with SoMo doing whatever he has to please his baby. SoMo has a nice voice, but both song and vocalist leave more to be desired. In other words, there is a lack of distinction. “Show Off” isn’t bad – pleasant by all means – but it also is plays upon tired clichés. Many times, listeners have been subjected to the sexual reference of teacher/student (“I’mma be your teacher, you gon’ learn the details / then I’m on a test, you’ll just follow the leader”). Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, or “love hits like rocket ships from outer space”, but it also doesn’t give SoMo an artistic edge.
“We Can Make Love” opts for the overt approach, which delivers questionable results for the singer. “We can make love / or we can just f*ck…” doesn’t necessarily scream ‘romantic’, as SoMo references. Sure, every male R&B artist these days thinks it cool to supplant ‘sex’ with the f-bomb, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily should. Here, SoMo sounds more desperate than anything. “Head first, chest hurts / never thought it get worst” opens “Crash” embracing the modern R&B sound. Drenched in a drunken, druggy vibe, the coolness of “Crash” appeals yet doesn’t exactly send chills or thrill; there’s just something extra missing. Distinct lyrics “Her fingers are coiled on my skin / what is this whole that I’m in / taking my clothes off again / feeling her warmth, but it ain’t warm,” catches the ear on “Blind”. Like “TMWYKAL”, “Blind” is a teaser, serving as only a minute-long interlude.
“Back To The Start” is a rhythmic slow jam, focused on sex – shocker. Like everything else, it is pleasant and works, but doesn’t scream “wow” by any means. Even if SoMo lives “for the rush” he sings about on “Back To The Start”, the audience doesn’t get the same effect – aka the climax is anticlimactic. “Fire” may only inform the listener that SoMo’s girl “got that fire, fire, fire”, but it is actually one of the better cuts from the album. SoMo’s interpretation of a club cut isn’t exactly the ‘banger of the year’ (it still feels incredibly generic), but it does provide a slight spark. It’s the little things – the tiny victories.
“Hush” lifts from “Hush Little Baby” cornily within its chorus, but it is what it is. At least it has a nice contemporary soul groove working for it. Still, there is an air of generic. Maybe it’s the over repetition of “hush now, hush now”. Penultimate cut “Ride” is filled with innuendo – yet another shocker. “Naughty, let’s get naughty / Girl, it’s only on or two,” SoMo sings towards the end of the first verse, “fever’s f**king running / feel the heat between us two.” Of course SoMo provides details, including how he’s gonna “Kiss your body from the tip top / all the way down to your feet.” ‘Course, when a song opens with moaning (“Whoa”), what do you expect? For a sex song, it’s not bad but again, it’s also not revolutionary. “Red Lighter” closes the album solidly. A bit more developed compared to many of the other cuts, “Red Lighter” has more depth and potential.
Ultimately, SoMo lacks an emotional connection. Sure, SoMo sings of very relatable topics in love and sex, but something about the delivery as well as the material leaves the listener feeling empty. The cupboard isn’t completely bare on this album, but it’s definitely nowhere near full. Next round, SoMo will need to step up his game to make a truly thrilling, distinctive artistic statement. Here, he settles for trendy urban music that leaves its audience with a sentiment of “so what”. Now, it is time for the YouTube star to develop into his own.
“Show Off”; “Fire”; “Ride”; “Red Lighter”
Ah new release Tuesday, where dreams come true and are broken for many artists who hope their album will sell these days. This Tuesday, April 8, 2014, the releases aren’t exactly star-studded – that would be an understatement. That said, there are some possibilities to choose from, whether you’re looking to go vintage, be spiritually uplifted, or want to stomach an immature pop star’s life…
Ronstadt doesn’t release new music anymore, but the vocalist has released more than enough classic material to solidify her veteran musician status. Duets is a compilation featuring some of Ronstadt’s most notable collaborations with others including “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville and “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram.
Catacombs of The Black Vatican
Black Label Society
The title should be enough to allure the potential listener – or drive them away (whichever comes first). Catacombs of the Black Vatican is the heavy metal band Black Label Society’s fourth release for mega indie label Entertainment One and their tenth studio album overall.
Welcome To The New
Fair Trade/ Columbia
Jesus freaks everywhere should be rejoicing as one of the preeminent contemporary Christian bands releases their follow-up to 2012 LP The Hurt & The Healer. And yes, I do realize “Jesus Freak” was the title of a dc Talk album and song, not MercyMe – LOL.
Martina McBride’s latest album definitely isn’t your standard country album. McBride covers soul classics including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”. On a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” she brings Gavin DeGraw along for the ride while she gets the assist from Kelly Clarkson on “In the Basement”. If there were a country artist to pull it off, McBride would certainly be the one to do it.
Love & Hate
Entertainment One adds yet another album to the April 8th release date with Joan Osborne’s latest album, Love & Hate. Love & Hate marks the Kentucky-born artist’s eighth studio album. The album follows up 2012 LP Bring It On Home.
Justin Bieber’s Believe
My advice would be to proceed with caution here…really.
The former American Idol contestant drops his sophomore album Celebrate, albeit with little fanfare. Celebrate follows up 2011 debut, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster.
After releasing My Life digitally in 2013, burgeoning R&B artist (another YouTube discovery), release his ‘official’ self-titled debut via Republic.
Aloe Blacc • Lift Your Spirit • Interscope • US Release Date: March 11, 2014
R&B singer Aloe Blacc is not in his first rodeo; he had an outstanding single out in 2010 entitled “I Need A Dollar” that should have foreshadowed what was to come. Still, things only break for an artist when it’s the right time, and 2013-14 has proven to be the 35-year old singer’s time. Two gargantuan singles have truly given Blacc ‘wings to fly’ on his third album, Lift Your Spirit: “Wake Me Up” (Aviici) and “The Man”.
The momentum that is on his side – specifically crossover success into pop from urban music – carries over into this overall fine ‘introduction’. Sure, the singer, who has been associated with the Stones Throw label, has previously release two albums, but for many, this is their first impression of Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III. That impression is a favorable one ultimately.
“The Man” is nothing short of enthusiastic and proves to be a sensational opening cut. “Girl you can tell everybody…I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man,” Blacc sings passionately on the pre-chorus, before proclaiming “I got all the answers to your questions / I’ll be the teacher you could be the lesson…” on the chorus. The throwback vibe hearkening back to R&B’s prime just makes “The Man” that much greater. Throw in the lifted “Your Song” sample (Elton John) and soulful vocals from Blacc and “Everything is Sound” (Jason Mraz song reference FYI). The Pharrell Williams produced “Love Is The Answer” keeps things moving exceptionally well, again relying on the inspiration of the past. Sure Williams’ typical production cues are in play, but he doesn’t mess with the soulful script. In fact, “Love Is The Answer” sounds quite comparable to Williams’ own retro savvy on his own album G I R L. The chivalrous nature of “Love Is The Answer” is nothing short of admirable (“Just look around the whole wide world / so many beautiful things to see / take my hand and come along spread love with me.”).
“Wake Me Up (Acoustic)” is well placed given the popularity of the original Aviici single from True. Still, the argument against what essentially is a reprisal is that “Wake Me Up” has experienced its peak already, so why feature it once more? There is nothing wrong with the acoustic version – it’s a quality recording – but moving forward beyond the track also wouldn’t have hurt Blacc in the least. “Here Today” may not be among the best, but what is notable about it is that here specifically, Blacc truly channels the sound of Bill Withers. Whether it is intentional influence or not, “Here Today” shows the beauty of Blacc’s pipes. Additionally, much like the incredibly popular “The Man”, “Here Today” can pass off as an R&B or pop single. On “Can You Do This”, the sound is likened to Bruno Mars’s soulful throwback joint “Runaway”. They are clearly two different songs by different artists, but the sound is a modern day capture of retro-soul. Halfway through, things still remain ‘all good’ overall.
“Chasing” sports another funky groove and contrasts “Can You Do This” with a slower tempo. The use of horns adds another dimension, truly accentuating the song. The refrain is a ‘feel good’ one with Blacc singing of “girls chasing the boys” and so on. One specific highlighting moment is when the groove switches briefly to reggae, which is a sound contrast to the rest. “Chasing” isn’t revolutionary (nothing is on this album), but it is definitely one of the singer’s best songs. “The Hand Is Quicker” doesn’t lose a bit of momentum, with a hard, stomping groove and magnificent use of electric guitar, horns, and organ. Retro-soul is written all over this cut, with the backing vocals truly sealing the deal. “You know the hand / is quicker than the eye,” sings Blacc on the refrain, “Sometimes the truth / ain’t no better than a lie.” The sweetest spot of Blacc’s voice – when he ascends into his upper register.
“Ticking Bomb” is a treat; it contrasts its contemporaries on Lift Your Spirit and possesses certain intensity about it. Soulful, clear, and nuanced vocals by Blacc continue to be the story of the LP; he’s a man on fire. What’s equally remarkable is the fact that Blacc never over sings, giving just the right amount to draw the desired effect. “Red Velvet Seal” truly buys into vintage soul with its six-eight groove, a common cue of classic soul. Though the two songs are unrelated by all means, “Red Velvet Seal” hearkens back to Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You” given its over sound and feel. “Red Velvet Seal” is a strong penultimate track, even if it just misses the glory and notability of the top echelon. “Owe It All” provides the album’s obligatory spiritual cut, with Blacc thanking God for everything. An appropriate closer, the enjoyable “Owe It All” caps off a soundly conceived R&B album.
Ultimately, Lift Your Spirit does just that – it makes you feel happy. There are no deal breaking moments to be found, with consistency characterizing the album overall. Calling Lift Your Spirit an innovative affair would be an overstatement, but praising it for its solidness wouldn’t be in the least. Vocally, Aloe Blacc is a balanced singer who knows when to pull back and when to flash, which helps to make Lift Your Spirit so appealing throughout. It is the sensible R&B album that is ‘pop’ enough to crossover – just look at “The Man” for proof of that.
“The Man”; “Love Is The Answer”; “Chasing”; “Ticking Bomb”
The long and oft-delayed BraveHeart is a much better album than expected…
Ashanti • BraveHeart • eOne/Written Entertainment • US Release Date: March 3, 2014
R&B Ashanti’s career began much more promising than it has been as of late. Two number one albums, a Grammy win for best contemporary R&B album (now best urban contemporary album), and some notable hits. While third album Concrete Rose would yield another platinum-certified album, its number seven debut signaled the first notion of Ashanti’s former commercial success taking a hit. This hit was more pronounced on The Declaration (2008), which debuted a slot higher at number six, but sold considerably less copies. Ultimately, The Declaration would fail to go gold and her fifth studio album, BraveHeart, would only materialize after numerous delays, which would total just shy of six years. Six years is an eternity, particularly given the fragility that has become Ashanti’s once fruitful career. Regardless of the setbacks, BraveHeart ends up being a much better than expected album, particularly from an artist who has received plenty of criticism vocally. It’s neither the best album of the year, nor the best R&B album either, but Ashanti gets many things right on BraveHeart.
“Intro – Braveheart” is more than just an interlude; it also includes the album’s title track, an actual full-length song. The intro rightfully exhibits ‘strength’, which establishes the tone and exemplifies the album title. The attached full-length continues to showcase the aforementioned strength, relating the idea of possessing a “BraveHeart” to love (“I’m so lucky to have you by my side / I know it ain’t easy baby”, from verse two), later confirming it on the refrain (“…We both gotta have a BraveHeart”). “Nowhere” follows up nearly perfectly, confirming strength once more through a rock solid commitment: “I ain’t going nowhere, you ain’t gotta worry / ain’t nobody perfect, but what we got is worth it.” Ashanti still isn’t what you’d characterize as a powerhouse vocalist, but unflashy as she may be, she sings “Nowhere” soundly. On the bridge and towards the end, the singer shows a bit more grit and nuance vocally. The message and song don’t feel new by any means, but definitely tried and true.
“Runaway” continues the consistency, delivering a commanding, incredibly enjoyable number. Like the opening “Intro – Braveheart”, “Runaway” is set in a minor key, with a darker sound suiting the hard, old school hip-hop soul beat perfectly. “I try to make it work,” sings Ashanti on the catchy, emotional chorus. “I try to make it work, but I just end up hurt / I tell you it’s okay cause I don’t wanna leave / but you make it so hard for me to stay so I run away.” More so than “Nowhere”, Ashanti ‘lets it rip’ a bit more vocally. “Count” has a more modern R&B edge, with its thumping 808s and gimmicky chorus (“Baby don’t make me / count, count…count”). “Count” is by no means ‘the second coming’ of anything, but it definitely possesses the swagger of a solid club joint. Don’t call it a masterpiece (it ain’t), but it’s not too bad. On “Early in the Morning”, Ashanti taps French Montana for the assist. Again, Ashanti thinks contemporarily and about love. Ultimately, “Early in the Morning” is thoughtful, but lacks lyrical depth.
If nothing else, “3 Words” benefits from its exceptional production work. Still, aside from the production itself, it has its thoughtful lyrical moments. Certainly deeper than either “Count” or “Early in the Morning”, “3 Words” has more momentum working in its favor. “There’s only so many words I could use to tell you whatchu do / to me physically, sexually penetrating my immunity,” sings Ashanti, later going on to say “I just can’t explain it / Picasso couldn’t paint it / but these three words say it all / I love you.” On “Love Games”, Ashanti gets another assist, this time from Jeremih (known for hits “Birthday Sex” and “Down On Me”). Given Jeremih’s sensually driven past musically, he matches up well with Ashanti on this ‘sex’ joint. While calling “Love Games” tasteful would be an overstatement, it certainly isn’t as raw as some contemporary cuts that come time mind. Ultimately, it works out well for Ashanti.
Still, “Scars” works out even better, with its hip drum programming, slick synths (and production in general), and overall attitude. Sure, there is still a cool energy about Ashanti vocally, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change. Perhaps she lacks the same bite that a Mary J. Blige or Fantasia might deliver on this cut, but Ashanti still ends up with the desired effect (“You could have kept the pain / my heart is slain / nothin’ remains, no more / but scars”). The outro at the end of “Scars” is definitely a thoughtful way of ending the standout by all means, even if the cut ends up clocking in just shy of six minutes in duration.
“Never Should Have” gets the incredibly difficult task of following a juggernaut. The cut contrasts “Scars” sporting a more enthusiastic, and pop-driven R&B sound. Think bright, adult contemporary-oriented R&B that ends up being just as effective as “Scars”, centered in a major key. Still, Ashanti shows her reservations despite the optimism in sound: “You never should have loved me / you never should have touched me / you never should have / never should have told me you loved me and you would never leave me / ‘cause everything that you would do / it made me fall in love with you…” “Never Should Have” is easily another #winning moment for Ashanti – a sister’s in it to win it.
“She Can’t” is filled with attitude, evidenced by lines like “You gotta let him know what he got on his hands / and if he tend to forget, betta remind his a$$…” (Verse one) or “Long as you keep me on a pedestal / and nobody ever made you feel like I make you feel” (verse two). Is Ashanti overconfident on “She Can’t”? Nope! She’s just a strong woman with a “Brave Heart” – did you expect something different? On “Don’t Tell Me No”, Ashanti’s confidence continues to factor in, as she knows he still want her: “I still look in your eyes and / I can tell that you want it / Baby, don’t tell me no / give me what I’m lookin’ for…” There it is! Oh and by the way, if Ashanti is turning the table when she puts the ‘desire’ all on the man’s plate, she sort of takes a back step when she states “Baby, I just want that old thing back.”
“I Got It” brings in Rick Ross, who unsurprisingly drops a line about money (ever heard that Gucci Mane track that Ross guests on, “All About The Money”?). Staying in character, on his guest verse (verse two), Ross brags about all the lavish things he can give his girl as well as plugging his latest album, Mastermind (“Mastermind coming, still running from the fed”). That’s promotion. Don’t call “I Got It” a tour de force, but like the majority of BraveHeart, it’s definitely enjoyable and worthwhile. And ultimately, as Ashanti alludes to, “if you got it, flaunt it”. “First Real Love”, featuring Beenie Man, closes the standard edition of BraveHeart with a mix of reggae and R&B in mind. It is manic, but much like the album as a whole, it ends up being much better than anticipated. The iTunes deluxe edition of BraveHeart features two bonus cuts, “Perfect So Far” and “Never Too Far Away”.
Ultimately, BraveHeart ends up being a surprising affair. It’s by no means perfection realized, but its also nowhere near being a train wreck of any sorts. BraveHeart is a solid and enjoyable R&B album with truly little pressure on it. Honestly, what did Ashanti have to lose after a six-year hiatus? Nothing. BraveHeart won’t reignite her career commercially, but critically, it finds the singer in a much better spot than she was before. Perhaps the biggest flaw of BraveHeart is the lack of ‘selling it’ – better promotion certainly brings better awareness. It is what it is though.
“Nowhere”; “Runaway”; “Scars”; “Never Should Have”; “I Got It”
After much delay, Candice Glover finally delivers her debut album
Candice Glover • Music Speaks • 19 • US Release Date: February 18, 2014
Honestly, it seemed like an urban-sounding artist might never win American Idol again, let alone a female contestant after a string of victorious males. Candice Glover became the first female victor since Jordin Sparks, though bad timing kind of killed her vibe. Glover was brilliant throughout a season where everything seemed dead WRONG. The judges’ panel lacked chemistry (and sometimes tact) while many of the contestants seemed, um, blasé. The ratings were down and despite a set summer 2013 release for Glover’s debut, it was pushed back to the Fall. After being pushed back to the Fall, well, the album again was pushed back… until 2014. Finally, Glover delivers Music Speaks to her fans. Unfortunately, what little buzz surrounded her or the show seems nearly mute, and winning single “I Am Beautiful” doesn’t even make the album cut. Still as Lupe Fiasco would say, “The Show Goes On” and Glover definitely shows she has considerable talent throughout Music Speaks.
Promo single “Cried” opens Music Speaks incredibly. A well-written, heart-wrenching track (co-written by R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan), “Cried” showcases the power, finesse, and nuance of Glover’s voice. As far as being a single that truly elevates Glover to stardom or commercial aspirations, “Cried” is likely not the answer. Another minor rub against the notable cut is its specific placement within the track list; perhaps it could’ve been even more effective elsewhere besides the opener. Regardless, Glover gives her all on the incredibly underrated single.
“Die Without You” isn’t a shabby follow-up in the least, sporting a “cool, calm, and collected” sensibility about it. “Die Without You” succeeds at being both modern yet old school. “Die Without You” has enough swagger that it falls in line with the tenets of adult contemporary R&B, but also has that ‘grown folks’ sexiness (“I’d die without you”). If there is one nitpick, it is that Glover could have even freed her voice more on the ad-libs. Still, that falsetto towards the end is pretty sweet. Two tracks in, Glover is on the right track.
“Same Kinda Man” benefits from its retro-soul production, which proves to be a perfect fit for Glover. Glover feels as if she’s found her niche here; it doesn’t seem far-fetched that she’s an old soul. Something about the ambience of horns and a compelling, powerhouse voice makes “Same Kinda Man” extremely appealing. “Damn” is equally captivating, even if the full production of “Same Kinda Man” is traded for a more stripped, piano-driven backdrop. Regardless of less instrumentation, Glover truly sells the “I love another woman’s man” narrative. Sure, the concept is ‘tried-and-true’, if not completely cliché, but even if Glover doesn’t seem to be the type to experience what she sings of, it’s still a treat. “Damn, damn, damn / I fell in love with someone else’s man,” she sings on the simplistic, but addictive chorus. So far, so good for Candice Glover.
“Passenger” from a first listen comes off a bit of a bore; its length certainly doesn’t help either. After a couple of spins though, the adult contemporary track has some magic about it, specifically the chorus (“I’ll be your passenger / I’ll go where you want me too / I’ll let you navigate / just let me ride with you”). By the end, Glover’s rousing ad-libs certainly atone for any miscues. Perhaps it isn’t quite as ‘elite’ as the opening quartet; “Passenger” is another solid, love joint. “Forever That Man” and “Kiss Me” also lack the same fire/intensity of the opening tracks. Both are solid listens ultimately, but they don’t necessarily separate Glover from other artists in the same vein. “Forever That Man” gives Glover a pop-oriented ballad, which does at least open the door for crossover appeal. Even so, it isn’t quite a perfect match. “Kiss Me” lacks a bit of excitement, though Glover certainly performs it well.
“In The Middle” is a surprise once it begins playing, particularly following somewhat more conservative cuts like the trio preceding it. The interpolation of “Ting A Ling” is obvious, but it definitely works contextually. If anything, compared to the previous three cuts, “In The Middle” has more sass and personality. Worth noting is that former American Idol champ Fantasia serves as a co-writer. The personality of “In The Middle” also translates onto “Coulda Been Me”, a six-eight cut using some chopped-n-screwed vocals for flavor. Don’t worry folks; Glover’s talented pipes remain intact and flawless.
Penultimate cut “Thank You” has a vintage nature about it, given its main idea and production, but it shows Glover truly in her ‘zone’. Like “Cried”, “Thank You” may not be the lift to propel Glover to commercial success, but it is definitely enjoyable and inspiring. “Love Song”, Glover’s ‘ace in the hole’ on American Idol, concludes the brief 11 track affair. The performance is solid, but similar to Fantasia’s cover of “Summertime” is a performance that just can’t be perfectly replicated in the studio setting. Still, “Love Song” caps off Music Speaks sincerely and appropriately.
Ultimately how does Glover’s Music Speaks stack up comparatively to former Idol debut albums? It’s respectable, though not classic. There is enough solid material and magnificent vocals from Glover to make the album sound and enjoyable, but there is nothing that makes it a contemporary masterpiece. The greatest pro in regards to Music Speaks is its potential; that potential is certainly grand.
“Cried”; “Die Without You”; “Same Kinda Man”; “Damn”; Thank You”
Daley • Days & Nights • Republic • US Release Date: February 11, 2014
Call 2014 the year of British soul. The U.S. has been blessed by the gifts of John Newman (Tribute), Sam Smith (Nirvana EP), and now one Daley Gareth with his full-length debut, Days & Nights. Daley first made some noise in R&B circles in the U.S. with his EP, Alone Together, which featured a killer collaboration with Jessie J (“Remember Me”) as well as a cover of Amy Winehouse’s soulful “Love Is A Losing Game”. Two songs from the excellent prelude to Days & Night are reprised – “Blame The World” and “Alone Together”. At 12 tracks and shy of 50 minutes, Days & Nights shows that Daley has plenty to offer the R&B world. Perhaps its not an innovative album per se, but Days & Nights is certainly well conceived.
“Time Travel” initiates Days & Nights mysteriously with a modern R&B vibe written all over it as far as songwriting and production work. After a more restrained production approach on the first verse, the second verse sports the full production, with Daley delivering more robust vocals to match. Ultimately, “Time Travel” is a great start for Days & Nights, with Daley vocally impressing with the pureness and jubilance of his tenor. Follow-up “Look Up” isn’t too shabby, shifting from modern R&B to more classic, neo-soul quality. Chivalrous, Daley sings: “I wish that we could face / the things that hold us back / before we fade to black / instead we choose to chase things we know won’t last…” Deep, philosophical talk Daley – deep. Again, the Brit’s higher-pitched vocals shine like a beacon, never fighting with the production work. Strings lift the bridge and Daley matches the more excited, emotional intensity generated as well. A solid opening duo gets Days & Nights started upright.
“Blame the World” is a dramatic, soulful, and moving track, originating on Daley’s Alone Together EP from 2012. “Betrayed your one and only / the tears fell now you’re lonely / now you wanna blame the world,” Daley sings passionately on the memorable chorus. The intensity of the standout is elevated by its soul styled production including synthesized strings, piano, swirls of organ, and horns. A marching snare aids in differentiating the bridge from the other sections of the song. This eliminates predictability and keeps things interesting.
While “Good News” has a tough act to follow, it’s another solid showing ultimately. The tone of “Good News” is one of more hope for ‘good news’ rather than actually spreading it. A number of instances, Daley looks for the positives, though he’s planted in the negative. “I want to take a leap of faith escape it all, but it / seems like there’s no relief whichever way I fall,” he sings on the first verse, only later to follow it up with “We all want the same / love without the pain / truth without the blame / but we’re stuck inside of the storm…” On highlight “Love And Affection”, Daley seems to transcend anything casual: “Thank you / you took me dancing / cross the floor cheek to cheek / but with a love I can really move, really move / I can really dance, really dance.” Daley isn’t being literal about the ‘dancing’, but rather he wants things to get truly serious – he’s not in it for playing around!
“Be” again finds Daley taken by the girl, this time asking her “Will you sleep tonight / or will you lie awake like me / pillow to pillow back to back / pulling the sheets and all of that / waiting for eyes to meet…” Sigh Daley, that’s so romantic. “Alone Together” is even better, pairing Daley with fellow British R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius (formerly of Floetry notoriety as well as being a solo artist). Vocal chemistry is top-notch, particularly upon and proceeding the bridge. “You’re the desert sand, I’ll be your water and you’re the perfect plan I never thought of…” Can you say ‘power duet’ – I think so. “Pass It On” and single “Broken” are both highlights as well, showcasing the best of Daley. On “Pass It On”, Daley rivals Ne-Yo’s contemporary R&B work (patterned after Michael Jackson). “Broken”, on the other hand, shows off Daley’s tremendous vocal skill. The chorus is definitely an attraction: “That’s why I’m never gonna love this way again / I’m never gonna give my heart again/ cause every time I try, I end up broken.”
Days & Nights closes out strongly with the trio of “She Fades”, “Love Somebody”, and of course “Days & Nights” the title track. Still, none of the three are the best of the effort necessarily. “She Fades” benefits from Daley’s continual thoughtfulness in both vocal performance and songwriting. “Love Somebody” details the emotional pull of being truly infatuated (“I’m feeling restless in the morning / composure screwed up on the floor / I’m such a mess when you ignore me / you only leave me needing more”). Similarly, “Days & Nights” is invested in a broken relationship of the past: “Days and nights, spent alone, thinking of no one / the factory of you and me diminished long ago …” Modern production characterizes the concluding title track.
All in all, Days & Nights is an exceptional full-length debut from Daley. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t more buzz surrounding the Brit R&B standout. With such mad pipes, Daley deserves much more recognition. Regardless of his commercial lot, Daley has it going on strongly on Days & Nights.
“Time Travel”; “Blame The World”; “Love And Affection”; “Alone Together” featuring Marsha Ambrosius; “Pass It On”; “Broken”