Artists sing out during Black History Month and beyond.
by Gregg Shapiro
It’s hard to imagine Alicia Keys as the “tightly closed bud” she refers to in the spoken intro to her new album, The Element of Freedom (MBK/J). Since her 2001 debut disc, Songs in A Minor, she’s been enjoying the spotlight and acclaim. The ’70s soul sensibility of her three previous studio recordings gets an update, with Keys embracing an ’80s attitude. The purple background on the CD cover is no coincidence, by the way, as Keys takes a Prince-ly path on songs such as “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready),” the raw “Love Is My Disease,” the popping “This Bed,” the lovers-dedicated “Distance and Time,” and the gospel-influenced “Wait ’Til You See My Smile.” Keys also recalls ’80s Janet Jackson on the ballad “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” But fear not, Keys still comes through loud and clear on “Love Is Blind” and “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down.”
One of the most eagerly anticipated comebacks of the 21st century, BLACKsummer’s Night (Columbia) by Maxwell arrives more than a dozen years after the neo-soul singer’s popular debut and eight years after his last album. As you might expect after such a time span, there are deeply personal moments here (the Prince-tinted “Pretty Wings” and “Fistful of Tears”), but also a degree of funky liberation (“Bad Habits,” “Help Somebody,” “Love You”) which suits him well.
Rihanna’s R-rated Rated R (Def Jam) finds her declaring that she’s “such a f–kin’ lady” on “Wait Your Turn.” Rihanna’s new hard-edge continues to appear on “Hard,” “Rockstar 101,” and “Rude Boy.” Like Maxwell, Rihanna also takes the opportunity to get personal on songs such as “Stupid in Love,” “Fire Bomb,” and “Cold Case Love.” She also sounds like she’s flirting with bisexuality in “Te Amo.”
After turning his attention to the great American songbook for four albums, Rod Stewart shifted his focus to classic rock for one disc. On Soulbook (J), an album he says he’s been waiting his “whole life to record,” Stewart gets soulful. Stewart, who has been dabbling in soul since his Mercury Records years, devotes an entire disc to the genre and pays tribute to his heroes. The Mary J. Blige duet on The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” fares better than “My Cherie Amour” with Stevie Wonder. The same is true of “Let It Be Me” with Jennifer Hudson, as compared to the dirge-like “Tracks of My Tears” with Smokey Robinson. “Love Train,” the disc’s most energetic track, ranks among the best. Now, one question remains. Could there be a Rod Stewart country-western album lurking in the wings?
For her second disc, Echo (J/Syco), Leona Lewis doesn’t divert from the formula that made her debut album, Spirit, such a success. It’s evident right from the beginning with “Happy,” which could be a kissing cousin to her hit single “Bleeding Love.” And there’s more where that came from, including “I Got You,” “You Don’t Care,” and “Alive.” Lewis also embraces her inner dance diva on tracks such as “Outta My Head,” “Love Letter,” and “Fly Here Now.”
Shamelessly released less than a month after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, The Stripped Mixes (Motown/UMe) is meant to shine a bare bulb on Jackson’s Motown era vocal prowess. Vintage Jackson 5 hits, including “I’ll Be There,” “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” are presented in minimally orchestrated settings in order to shift the focus to Michael. Back when he sang and didn’t hiccup his way through tunes, Jackson was a seemingly unstoppable force—just listen closely to “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Solo career selections, including “Ben” and “Got to Be There,” also reinforce the point.
Priscilla Renea sounds like a cross between Pink and Rihanna, especially on “Dollhouse,” the opening cut on her Jukebox (Capitol) disc. As pissed off as she is perky, you definitely don’t want to cross her, whether she’s singing about female empowerment (“Pretty Girl”), dissing domestic bliss (“Rockabye Baby” and “Mr. Workabee”), or celebrating (“Bacon ’N’ Eggs” and “Fixing My Hair”).
The Poet I & II (ABKCO), a single disc reissue of Bobby Womack’s landmark 1981 and 1984 discs, is poetry to my ears. Although the soul innovator can be heard sounding less than innovative on “So Many Sides of You” (which is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder) and “Just My Imagination” (which blatantly borrows from The Temptations), Womack redeems himself aplenty on “Secrets,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “Surprise, Surprise,” “Tryin’ to Get Over You,” “American Dream,” and the Patti Labelle duets “Love Has Finally Come at Last” and “It Takes a Lot of Strength to Say Goodbye.”
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine and a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of LGBT performers.