One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.
The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.
Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.
Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.
It’s a daunting task that musicians face as they age in the music industry: how to maintain relevancy without deviating too far away from their winning musical formula. Mary J. Blige, now 40, has cemented her legacy as one of the finest and revered vocalists in contemporary R&B, assuring her position as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul with her 1994 opus, My Life. That album, rife with wrenchingly emotional cuts like “Be Happy”, “You Gotta Believe”, “I’m The Only Woman”, has remained a favorite among her legion of fans, justifiably ranking as one of Blige’s best musical works. That record documented the essence of a young female in the midst of deep romantic longing, a struggle for comfort and a journey toward spiritual growth – a foundation she would expound on her subsequent albums. Its sequel, My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1), released on November 21, 2011 on Geffen/Matriarch is a perfection of the vintage sound one comes to expect from Blige. With production supplied by Rico Love, Danja, Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins and Jerry Wonda, among others, the record is split into two parts – bass heavy hip-hop and shimmering R&B ballads – both of which have become Blige’s signature.
After a brief intro featuring her former mentor Diddy, Blige quickly glides into “Feel Inside” and “Midnight Drive”, featuring the reprise of her rapper alter-ego, Brook-Lynn. Blige sounds assured, upbeat and most importantly, optimistic, even as she injects her classic style upon the tension and excitement in the lyrics to the respective tracks. “25/8”, weaved wonderfully around a Gamble & Huff sample, finds the siren exuberant, spirited and brimming with the confidence that new love can bring. The same buoyancy can be found on the Chaka Khan cover, “Ain’t Nobody”, a pulsing and synth-driven workout that will likely find great success in dance clubs and European markets.
Many R&B albums of late have featured guest appearances from other artists, resulting in a mixed bag of collaborations. Predictably, My Life II… continues that trend. While Nas adds his clever edge to the aforementioned “Feel Inside”, a Drake verse comes off as a forgettable and phoned-in addition to the album’s second single, “Mr. Wrong”. One of the strongest collaborations, however, is the heartfelt “Love a Woman”, where Beyoncé joins Mary to list instructions for male suitors to properly romance and treat their ladies on a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 90’s throwback playlist.
As the album is a collection of nostalgic moments with many of its roots stemming from the 90s, Blige reaches deep to produce some of her most impressive ballads she has fronted in years. “Empty Prayers” is a devastating slow number, regretting her hopeful naiveté for believing in an uncaring lover. “Need Someone”, resembling that of an understated country ballad with its hushed acoustics, is a hug to the younger and troubled Blige from 1994, examining the recurring theme in her string of dysfunctional relationships.
My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) stretches Mary J. Blige artistically the way her last few albums promised and failed. Blige has made peace with her yesterdays and applied her learned lessons to good use.
Björk has always been an eagerly forward-thinking artist, consistently challenging the conventional definition of “pop” music. Each of her iconic musical moments since the mid-90s has contained a specific sonic identity. Microbeats and music boxes, vocal babbles and manipulations, 1950s Sci-Fi brass accompaniments – her mission statement to explore everything possible manifests itself to be more and more high-concept on every album in her catalog. Partially recorded on an iPad, she fuses her past sounds with new flavors and discovers the human’s relationship with the universe on 2011’s ambitious Biophilia. Interestingly, this isn’t just an album – it is a multimedia exploration album in collaboration with Apple, with each of the ten tracks featured as its own singular app designed specifically for Apple operating systems.
Björk embraces her love for nature and technology, connecting her compositions to a much larger scale as the songs reaching high extremes and low subtleties. Biophilia explores sounds and instruments, such as the “tesla coil” featured as a bassline on the mesmerizingly brooding “Thunderbolt”, the creation of “gameleste” on “Crystalline” and a pendulum harp on “Solstice”, compiled to create patterns with the Earth’s movements to evoke the sound of a harp on a handful of other tracks.
On “Crystalline”, the album’s first single, Björk revels in the “sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety” against a wall of punchy synthetics and glassy rhythms before erupting into a frenetic Aphex Twin-like breakbeat. The centerpiece “Cosmogony” finds Björk quietly contemplating creation over a slow-building brass section and harmonious choir. The gargantuan “Mutual Core”, a metaphor for attachments in human relationships, pairs her unique vocal phrasing to a somber organ before rumbling, menacing beats (courtesy of British production group, 16bit) and swooping choir vocals erupt together.
Some Björk’s past few albums have included experimental songs that may be perceived as unlistenable or too peculiar. Biophilia continues this trend, thus bringing down the ceiling of one of her most audacious and fearless moments in her musical career. “Dark Matter” seeks to “connect breath, the human soul and the cosmos” with gibberish improvisations over beat-less electronic drones and swirls. The aforementioned “Solstice”, one of a few songs written with longtime collaborator and poet Sjón, is so eerily intimate and intricate that it is almost without discernible melody to be even remembered. Contrarily, the adventurous “Hollow” and the stunning “Virus” both return individually with breathtaking results. Biophilia becomes her most expertly varied set of songs since the 90s, proving what is so compelling about Björk: her willingness to outdo herself time and time again.