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Album Review: “P R E S S U R E” by Rochelle Jordan

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Released independently as a free download in 2011, Toronto songstress Rochelle Jordan released her debut EP, R O J O – an adventurous, multi-layered joyride showcasing promise and an equal footing in the R&B of the 90s and the future. She makes a clear step forward with her second EP, P R E S S U R E, released digitally in August 2012.

As implied by the title, P R E S S U R E underscores conflict and tension, specifically in romantic relationships. Written entirely by Jordan and intricately produced by PROTOSTAR producer KLSH, the record closes in on a specific vibe, both sonically and vocally. Her influences are obvious – the fluttery coos of Aaliyah and the slick vocal layering of Amerie’s heyday, among others. Yet, Jordan manages to fuse them into a singular style and sound that is uniquely hers throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Meanwhile, KLSH’s minimalist and atmospheric productions are approached completely with swirling synths, pulsing bass lines and menacing, snare-driven drums. This provides ample room for Jordan to explore textures and rhythmic patterns of her detailed and impassioned lyrics.

The first e-single, “Losing”, is a downbeat lament to the sacrifices made in the name of a strained relationship. Equally alluring as it is chilling, it is a tender and deeply intimate moment that very few unsigned artists are willing to display in their early musical offerings. Elsewhere, Jordan aims to please her lover on the frenetic up-tempo title track, reminisces on a past love on “Could’ve Been” and is haunted by that same former love in a new setting on “Somebody”. Elsewhere, her frustrations with insecure and dismissive men are laid out with serious bite and sass on “You Ain’t My Man” and “Too Long”. However, it is on the spare “Shotgun” where Jordan wallows in the beautiful anguish of the end of a relationship, brilliantly winding up with what is the record’s best vocal performance.

Hailing from Toronto, home of fellow artists like Drake and The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan is a welcome addition to those following independent R&B music and is sure to delight fans with her distinct sound.

Album Review: “My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1)” by Mary J. Blige

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.

Review: “The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1” by Jill Scott

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Typically, a compilation release of unreleased material features unremarkable outtakes and half-finished demos with varied quality compared to that of an official studio record. The opposite proves to be true with The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 by Jill Scott, the first (of hopefully, several) contractual fulfillment albums following her quiet departure from Hidden Beach Recordings and subsequent signing to Warner Bros. Records. Impressively, the tracks are unfailing and on par with every release in her revered catalog, likely due to her involvement in the song selection process. Unlike her uneven 2011 release The Light of the Sun which featured some formless and even half-baked compositions, The Original Jill Scott… is consistent, with some of the material being recorded as far back as the conception of her first album.

After a brief introduction, Jill flirts coyly on the bombastic and shuffling “I Don’t Know (Gotta Have You)” produced by Carvin & Ivan. In contrast, “Wondering Why (You Don’t Talk to Me)” finds Jill cooing with distress from miscommunication amid a mid-tempo track, complete with a gooey live bass line and background vocals by Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men for some additional color. The funky bounce of “The Light” (produced by Dre & Vidal, who also supply a “piano mix” of the track) and the Southern soul of “Wake Up Baby” both play off of Jill’s impeccable strengths as a versatile lyricist,while the breezy “I’m Prettier” and “Comes to the Light (Everything)” highlight her multi-textured vocals.

Two of the most exciting inclusions are found with “Running Away (Suite)”, a twelve-minute, seemingly free-styled studio jam is complete with adlibs, giggles and hollers from Jill and members of her band, all of whom perform to pleasurable perfection. The other, “Holding On”, is a slow burning torch masterpiece in which Jill mournfully envelops her voice around each instrument as she reminisces about her lover during the wee hours of an early morning.

The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 may not get the attention it properly deserves from audiences but those who have followed Jill will have their perception of her musicianship and perfectionism enhanced by each of this compilation’s songs and their varying moods.

Review: “Lionhearted – Young Hustla Vol III” by Teedra Moses

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The best thing about a secret is that few people know about it. You never know what is bubbling underneath the surface, so when you finally stumble upon it, its like a fresh breath of air. And that’s exactly what singer-songwriter Teedra Moses is – a veritable R&B secret.

Complex Simplicity, quietly released in 2004, is a near-classic record. Hip-hop meets neo-soul. Everything from the glossy and shimmering beats supplied by Poli Paul (including a stunning duet with Raphael Saadiq) to the simple melodies and straight-forward lyrics about love, loss and heartache – every aspect of that record is luminescent and pure. There’s a magic in her tracks that is nothing short of authentic or mesmerizing.

Her follow up, The Young Lioness, while praised by those who have heard the tracks, has been marginalized by numerous setbacks and a subsequent label folding. Understanding her commitment to her fans, Moses started from scratch. She hit the road, continuing to write for other artists (Trina, Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige, among others) and releasing mixtapes of unreleased tracks and collaborations.

Released to fans first after a lively show in Pasadena, California, the third installment in the Young Hustla mixtape series is Lionhearted, a 13-track pre-cursor to serve as a taste of what’s to come next for her eager fans. Teedra works largely with up-and-coming producers (partner Poli Paul receives only one inclusion on the album). Stylistically and sonically, her collaborators manage to place Teedra between the mid-80s and 90s while keeping a current modern footing in its lyrics and themes. Producer 9th Wonder brings a bright and summery groove to “Love Devine”, a close cousin to Erykah Badu’s “Honey”. The sparse “I Told You” and brisk “Say Lil’ Mama” (with its hollow Paisley Park drum programming) exude a brimming personality and confidence to match the charming lyrics. But it’s the face-paced, Flashdance-inspired “So Kool” where Teedra breaks it down for a former lover that crossed the line for the last time.

The mixtape is an excellent and welcome addition to those eager waiting for more pieces of Teedra Moses. It’s thoroughly consistent and should satisfy listeners until her next release.

(written in Fall 2008 for Stoic Audacity Magazine)

Review: “808s & Heartbreak” by Kanye West

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Gone are the usual high walls of sped-up R&B-soul samples and melodically clobbering beats. In their place, Mr. West favors sweeping strings, sparse programming, auto-tuned vocals, quirky keyboarding and, yes…808-assisted drums for his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Lyrically, he abandons his ego-stroking socially-conscious leanings in an effort to deliver the unloading of emotional baggage accrued from a the loss of his mother and a broken engagement over the past year (thus, explaining the absence of the mascot ‘Dropout Bear’ in support of the expressionless promotional pictures of Mr. West and a deflated heart-shaped balloon on the album cover).

Recorded over three weeks in Hawaii, the 12-track opus provides ample ground to convey his late-night introspection, confusion, loss and heartache. “Love Lockdown”, the album’s first single signaled a new chapter in Kanye’s musical career, puzzled fans and critics with its troubled lyrics, rumbling tribal drums and washes of shuffling keys, among other sonic effects. With this dramatic shift from popular hip-hop towards downtempo, 80s-tinged electronica, the album is somber (the dragging and indulgent opener “Say You Will”) and at times difficult to take all in one sitting (the lazy “Amazing” featuring Young Jeezy and percussive “Bad News”).

Nevertheless, West is focused in his lauded inventiveness to challenge his listeners and contemporaries to expand their musical capabilities. Case in point – the highlight “RoboCop” takes an arresting, machinery-sounding track awash with swirling strings to make humorous yet striking jabs at his now ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer, (“You’re just an L.A. girl/You need to stop it now/Oh, you’re kidding me/Oh! You must be joking/Oh! You are smoking.” he ad-libs with a smoldering tone). “See You In My Nightmares” (featuring a guest spot by Lil’ Wayne) meets an annoyed Kanye snarling over a rumbling electronic beat with pulsing synth blips. But the most affecting moment comes from the final track, “Pinocchio Story”, freestyled and recorded live in Singapore with a mellow acoustic accompaniment (reportedly added at the last minute after Beyonce’s request). It is here that he delivers his most touching lines. “There is no clothes that I could buy that could bring back the time/There is no vacation spot I could fly that could bring back a real piece of real life/Real life, what does it feel like?” It is here that Mr. West strips down the ego that buoyed most of his past three albums and showcases an inherent insecurity that fame brings to the fore. It has been reported that he has begun recording his 5th studio album, tentatively titled A Good Ass Job for release in 2009. Apparently, he has already accomplished the feat.

(written in Fall 2008 for Stoic Audacity Magazine)

Review: “Black Friday” by Lil’ Kim

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Beef and hip-hop have always been synonymous with each other, often going hand in hand. But when beef is handled by femcees (female emcees), it is paid with great attention, causes controversy and sparks heated debate, resulting in sales in today’s musical climate.

Before Nicki Minaj, hip-hop’s newest (and seemingly, only) “it” girl, Lil’ Kim was seen as the Queen of female rap, without question. She was able to hold her own with colorful wigs and outfits, salacious lyrics and an ego as big as her male counterparts. The last bit of good music from Lil’ Kim stemmed back to 2005′s critically acclaimed The Naked Truth album. During that time, Lil’ Kim served time in jail for perjury and it seemed like her music would take a backseat as she would become fodder for reality television, tabloids and gossip columns. Since then, Lil’ Kim has struggled to stay relevant. Nicki Minaj’s meteoric rise to the forefront had fans, critics and the music industry watching closely in a time where few (if, any) femcees were able to do the same. On the surface, Lil’ Kim’s newest release Black Friday seems to packs a fierce wallop and keeps her aim directly on Minaj. But those who have rocked with the “Queen Bee” since her ferocious debut in the mid-90s might find themselves scratching their heads a little with this unfocused set of tunes.

The absurdity begins with the unnecessary intro before it segues into “Pissin On ‘Em”, a bland and languid version of Minaj’s “Did It On ‘Em”. Her quips are clever, but the lack of originality and edge is painfully evident. On the flip-side, her guns are locked and loaded on the mixtape’s title track. Set to the instrumental of Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says”, Kim spits seamlessly for almost five minutes with a focus she hasn’t had on wax in years. ”Black and yellow will pull up in your ghetto/Giuseppe’s when I step out, posted up in stilettos/Pussy so pink like my kitty saying ‘hello’/If I whistle, they’ll pistol-whip you in all five boroughs”. It is the strongest performance on the mix, and is probably the sole track that saves it from being a total dud.

The most interesting aspect of Black Friday is that there are NO original songs. Yes, it may be somewhat of a standard fare for mixtapes to have recycled instrumentals and samples, but not for a rapper of Kim’s caliber. For an artist who seems almost paranoid to keep her title and saving her career from a near flat-line, you would think that there would be more spark in her releases. In essence, Black Friday is a collection of dreadful parodies of better tracks. That aside , very few performances match her glory days. The raunchy lyrics are still intact (“Gimme Brain”) as well as the roughshod gangstress persona (“IRS Freestyle” set to the instrumental of Kanye’s downtempo “So Appalled”). But the spark and charisma that once hooked fans is simply not here. Her voice, presumably that of her alter ego ‘Kimmy Blanco’ which appears on many of the twenty tracks, sounds thin and nasal-y, adding more of a comical effect from someone who wants badly to be taken seriously. Another angle is the fact that instead of giving the mixtape away for free (through the internet or otherwise), charged her fans $9.99 for the lackluster collection, shipping it a month later after a slew of “delays”. If her claims are correct, it sold more than 113,000 copies in 28 hours on PayPal. This is a step up from The Naked Truth, which sold 109,000 in a week.

It is yet to be seen where the Nicki Minaj/Lil’ Kim feud will go. Will it die down? Will it lead to more subliminals and shots over more tracks and releases? Who knows? Beef is likely never to go away in hip-hop. With consistency, Kim can rise back to the forefront. Before the controversy and the gossip, it was a nice beat and her Brooklyn flow that helped Kim gain notoriety. Black Friday is proof that she needs to do better to protect the crown that she seems almost desperate to keep.

(written in April 2011 for The Arrowhead at San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino, California)

The British Female Invasion: A Review of Marsha Ambrosius and Adele

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

While Amy Winehouse preps for a long-awaited release (hopefully within the year, Duffy on a hiatus and Lily Allen all but retiring from music, two established females from England return to the fore to produce some of 2011’s best moments in R&B and Soul music.

When Marsha Ambrosius (from Liverpool, England) embarked in a solo career in 2007, she began building her foundation as a songwriter/producer through her lauded mixtapes (save for the horrid Neo Soul is Dead) that expanded on the initial sound she captured with Floetry. She landed a production deal with Dr. Dre and his Aftermath Entertainment imprint and wrote/produced and sometimes appeared on tracks for major artists like Jamie Foxx, Fabolous and Alicia Keys. Her solo debut album, Late Nights and Early Mornings, is an intimate, silky, honest set of songs that explore different angles in romantic relationships. The buzz single “Hope She Cheats (On You With a Basketball Player)” is a brash kiss-off to a man her bruised her ego after a bitter break-up.

Ambrosius shows her versatility, self-penning and producing more than half of the album on her own – the best being “I Want You to Stay”, the second written track intended to be recorded by the late Michael Jackson. The other highlight is the unexpected cover of the downtempo gem “Sour Times” by trip-hop group Portishead. Production is also supplied by Just Blaze (the first official single, “Far Away”, accompanied by a a video in response to the recent string of suicides within the gay community), Dre&Vidal (the tearfully bare “Your Hands”) and up-and-coming producer Canei Finch (a swelling cover of the Lauryn Hill cover “Lose Myself”).

With the buzz that preceded the album and it’s numerous pushbacks, the expectation was fulfilled with the album debuting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart.

But while Marsha Ambrosius is exploring the joys of make-up sex with her lover on her debut album, singer-songwriter Adele dives deep into another crippling break-up while absorbing some of the responsibility on her sophomore album.

Adele Adkins (from Tottenham, London, England) was signed to XL Records after her three-song demo was lauded and circulated all over MySpace. In 2008, her first record (titled after the relationship/break-up she experienced at that age) was a contemporary set of songs that fused jazz, soul and folk into a blend that complimented her already personal songs and brassy vocals. The album was an unexpected success in many markets, most surprisingly in the United States.

But her second album goes a step further. While the recurring theme on 19 was pointing the finger in the aftermath of a breakup, 21 explores the progression of accepting responsibility and coming to terms with another broken relationship.

She explodes on the foot-stomping “Rolling in the Deep”, a heavy -knocking blues/gospel/rock hybrid which finds her barreling and growling at an errant ex-lover, as if she were provoked for the final time. She raises an eyebrow while channeling rock-and-roll/soul singers more than twice her age on the equally thumping “Rumour Has It”. But when the tempos descend, Adele truly shines. “Turning Tables” and “Someone Like You” are the most affecting and stirring tracks on the album – capturing the feeling of helplessness from heartbreak and remembering a lover who has moved on to another on both tracks, respectively. Almost every track on the album encapsulates the natural emotions during a break-up – pain, regret, sadness, anger and betrayal, all with a sense of finesse, class and strength.

The progression of the album’s production and composition (sometimes rich and high-gloss and other times, acoustic and stripped) could be credited to Adele’s willingness to open up to her collaborators. On this stronger set of songs, she co-writes her material with the likes of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Briish producer Fraser T. Smith, musician Dan Wilson and the legendary knob-twiddler Rick Rubin, among a few others. Rick Rubin’s contributions, like always, are proved to be the most significant, especially on the tender bossa-nova rendition of The Cure’s “Lovesong”. Using an arrangement that was intended for Barbra Streisand, the track is most likely to be a mainstay at wedding receptions, coffee shops and everything in between.

While 19 was bogged down by too many of the same colors blending together over the course of the record (folky guitars, similar tempos and lyrical circles), Adele has pilled on the dramatic production on 21, toughened her Dusty Springfield-esque tone and lyrical flourishes to produce an essential soundtrack for the heartbroken.

(written in March 2011 for The Arrowhead at San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino, California)