By Gregg Shapiro
When Janet Jackson says “Hello, it’s been a while…I’m glad you’re still here” on the title track to Unbreakable (Rhythm Nation/BMG), her first studio album in seven (!) years, she sounds like she means it. Separated into two “sides,” Unbreakable, on which Jackson once again teams up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is one of the great comebacks of 2015. The hot and suitably titled “Burnitup,” featuring Jackson’s close personal friend Missy Elliott, is a scorcher. “Great Forever” is a sweet pop tune, and “Shoulda Known Better” updates Jackson’s sound with ease. The back-to-back dance joy of “Broken Hearts Heal” and “Night” will keep us moving through the winter months and beyond. The ’80s echo of “Take Me Away” is a pleasing reminder of when Jackson first crossed our paths, while “After You Fall” is among the best ballads she has ever recorded. Jackson, who has demonstrated her admiration for Joni Mitchell in the past, includes a pair of tunes, “Lessons Learned” and “Well Traveled,” that hint at Mitchell’s influence. The Sly & The Family Stone-esque album closer “Gon’ B Alright” is so effective that you have no choice but to take her word for it.
Cheers to the Fall (WB/Buskin), the stellar debut by Andra Day, couldn’t have come out at a better time. With the gap left by Amy Winehouse remaining unfilled, and Adele taking her sweet time releasing her third studio album (which was finally released to great acclaim and record-breaking sales tallies in November 2015), Day has arrived to, well, save the day. Aside from a fabulous look and style (drag queens, take note), here’s what Day has going for her: a voice that not only conjures the best qualities of Adele and Winehouse, but also influential predecessors such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Day, who co-wrote all 13 songs on the disc, has a firm grasp on the concept of drama—as she demonstrates on “Not Today,” “Red Flag,” and “City Burns.” Day is also a good fit for the retro revival via such knockout numbers as “Gin & Juice (Let Go My Hand),” “Gold,” “Only Love,” “Forever Mine,” and “Honey or Fire.” Let the cheering for Andra Day commence.
Almost 20 years ago, Tamar Braxton (and sisters Trina and Tawanda) debuted as the R&B trio The Braxtons, attempting to follow in older sister Toni’s footsteps. Since that time, Tamar has appeared in the WE network “reality” series Braxton Family Values, co-hosted the syndicated daytime talk show The Real, and launched a solo career. On the deluxe version of her new disc Calling All Lovers (Streamline/Epic), which includes two bonus tracks, Braxton (who co-wrote all of the songs) sounds strong on the single “Catfish,” which might be the most exciting and interesting song on the disc. Other tunes calling out to be heard include the updated vintage soul of “Simple Things” and “Circles,” the retro disco of “Must Be Good to You,” and the power ballad “King.”
One of the first things that queer listeners might notice about Freedom & Surrender (Concord), the new album by Lizz Wright, is that it opens with “Freedom” (written by legendary lesbian singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon) and closes with “Surrender” (a song co-written by Wright and Reagon). In addition to making for a good album title, the songs beautifully bracket the 11 songs between them. Wright originals such as the uplifting “The New Game” (co-written with producer Larry Klein and David Batteau), the lovely Gregory Porter duet “Right Where You Are” (co-written with Klein and J.D. Souther), and the gorgeous “Real Life Painting” (co-written with lesbian singer/songwriter Maia Sharp), as well as the covers of Nick Drake’s “River Man” and the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” make this a disc to which listeners will willingly surrender.
As in the case of Janet Jackson, Teedra Moses took a number of years (11 to be exact) between albums. Cognac & Conversation (Shanachie) is a welcome return, featuring duets with Anthony Hamilton and Rick Ross. Kenya brings Chicago soul with her on the musical journey of her disc My Own Skin (Kenyamj Music). On Blues People (kimnalley.com), Kim Nalley performs originals and then adds her own hue to traditionals and standards by Gershwin, Dylan, Bessie Smith, and others.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.