Featured Artists: Wale; 2 Chainz; Bilal; Dunson
Executive produced by Chrisette Michele & Linette Payne; Co-Executive Producer: Doug Ellison
When a classy artist comes to mind in modern times, R&B chanteuse Chrisette Michele sits among the top of the list. Fusing elements of soul, gospel, and jazz, vocally, Michele possesses the complete package. Rivaling the crossover appeal that ‘hipster’ Erykah Badu flaunted years ago, Michele’s eclecticism is revered in a ‘new school’ of R&B. Too often, ‘nu-R&B’ seems to have ‘lost its way’ commercially, sometimes critically, and many times experiences identity crises. Better, Michele’s fourth album and first for Motown brilliantly captures all the attributes that make her one of R&B’s must illuminant stars and eschews suffering the pitfalls of a cooling genre. Oscillating between contemporary, adult, and even some alternative R&B styles, Better ultimately feels both well balanced and well conceived.
“Just a couple of forevers / a couple of forevers / I’m the only one, you’re the only one / together till never / I’m talking my forever / just a couple of forevers / I’m the only one, you’re the only one / together till never” (Refrain from “A Couple Of Forevers”)
“Be in Love” opens, giving Michele a more modern, R&B sound, something of a ‘different look’. Its relationship-oriented theme sets the tone, while the songwriting remains true to the script. “Be in love / yeah I’m gonna do it…yeah I wanna be love,” Michele sings positively and jubilantly on the chorus. Ole faithful promo single “A Couple of Forevers” reinstates Michele to familiar territory, laden with soul crafted by a thoughtful sample of The O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven”. Here, the relaxed, lush production work allows for the diva to spoil the audience with her vocal ‘goodness’ (and it is ‘good’ y’all). Anchored by a top-notch chorus, Chrisette truly has you right in the ‘palm of her hand.’ Honestly, she makes me want a ‘couple of forevers’ with her, sigh. Heartfelt and sincere, “A Couple of Forevers” is a cut you’ll desire to spin for, like ‘forever’!
“Let Me Win” may have lacked the same ‘tug at heartstrings’ sensibility that “A Couple of Forevers” possessed, but contextually on Better it is a fine follow-up to a juggernaut. Quicker with Michele employing those signature vocal cracks, one can continue to relate to the theme of allowing their heart to be ‘toyed’ with (“This game is like a gamble / here’s my heart you handle / need you to be gentle / you should let me win…”). “Rich Hipster” is unlike anything else Michele has released, truly delivering a cut with lots of personality and a ‘cultured’ sense. The closest cut with similarities? Arguably “Let Freedom Reign”, and their still quite different from one another. “Spend a lot of money at the tattoo shop on the weekends,” she sings on the first verse “…spend a lot of dividends on indie concert tickets.” Wale ends up being a perfect match as a rap collaborator, riding the electric piano-prominent production well. Capping of a sound opening quintet, “Love Won’t Leave Me Out” finds Michele amongst her raspiest. Like “Be in Love”, her ‘good thoughts’ about the future of her love life give the single and the love-scorned hope everywhere.
“Better” has an old-school adult contemporary R&B sound and is set in six-eight. Perhaps not the most elite number of the album, it is representative of an artist who remains ‘on autopilot’. If nothing else, Michele’s ad libs are drenched in emotion and nicely arranged supporting vocals accentuate splendidly. Cold she may be on “Snow”, she continues to impress, even if the dusty-soulful drums aren’t enough to make it among the album’s most compelling. The duo of “Visual Love” and “Charades” (featuring 2 Chainz) do help build the top echelon, both showing Michele’s artistry. “Visual Love” benefits from unique, modern production, executing more effectively than “Be in Love”. “Charades”, on the other hand, finds Michele matching her fellow female R&B colleagues’ cool, contemporary R&B vibe. Gimmickry seems a completely different world than what would normally be associated with the refined, proper Michele, but it suits her well here, on the titular lyric.
“You Mean That Much To Me” reminds me of Alicia Keys’ 2007 hit single “Like You’ll Never See Me Again.” Sure, perhaps life/death ‘separation’ from a lover isn’t the central theme, but there are several production and sound parallels, even if “You Mean That Much To Me” opts for six-eight as opposed to straight four-four. The biggest rub is length. “Supa” is pretty sweet, with a bit of a darker timbre about it. Perhaps it’s not ‘cream of the crop’ good, but it’s pretty close to being super, particularly with Michele’s jazz noodling vocally. Upset about ‘sleeping alone’, Ms. Michele just tries to “Get Through the Night.” Perhaps it’s a bit bumpier than when she pined for ‘a couple of forevers’ or just wished to ‘win’, but it’s ‘chill’ if nothing more. She brings along Bilal and Dunson on a nice closer in “Can the Cool Be Loved?” It’s not perfect, but the play on the sports terms of ‘defense’ and ‘offense’ verses the everyday application will please most – and any wordsmiths (yes I’m referring to myself).
Deluxe Edition: The Deluxe edition features four more cuts to join the 16 standard cuts. “Ten Foot Stilettos” and “I’m Still Fly” both arrive courtesy of production by Musiq Soulchild. Separating the two is the last of four interludes, all related to relationship issues. “Love in the Afternoon” closes, featuring Nello Luchi. None match the best of the standard edition, but do provide a strong extra helping of CM.
Overall, Better is a ‘better’ album than 2010’s Let Freedom Ring. Well rounded with something for everybody, there are few if any objectionable moments to be found. The sentiment is that Michele connects more with the material she performs and hence the listener who has experienced love issues can relate to Michele’s experiences. Perhaps most impressive is that “A Couple Forevers” while still the best cut isn’t the sole triumph, which speaks to Michele’s artistry.
Favorites: “A Couple of Forevers”; “Let Me Win”; “Love Won’t Leave Me Out” ; “Visual Love”; “Charades”