SZA – Ctrl

SZA Ctrl
Title: Ctrl

Artist: SZA

Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 9, 2017


When RZA, leader of the iconic east coast group Wu-Tang Clan, endorses an upcoming album, rap fans from all directions are bound to take notice. On May 24, SZA found herself in the driver’s seat of anticipation alley when her album announcement date dropped in the form of a voiceover message overlaid onto SZA visuals via Top Dawg #TDE’s Twitter. Fans of the New Jersey singer responded to Ctrl with unbridled respect, resulting in a #3 spot on Billboard 200 Chart a mere 10 days after its June 9th release. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013, Ctrl is SZA’s debut studio album featuring fellow Top Dawg artists Kendrick Lamaar and Isaiah Rashad in addition to The Y’s James Fauntleroy. Classed as an R&B and Neo Soul artist, SZA continues to dominate, garnering to date over 49 million album streams and more than 24 thousand CD purchases.

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Bringing her own style of bluesy vocals to the table, SZA both croons and rasps out her heart-felt regret of long-gone-wrong in almost every song on the album. The collection’s opening track, “Supermodel,” models to the letter the back-and-forth emotions of a recent breakup, alternatively threatening revenge—“I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy”—while pleadingly begging for another chance—“I could be your supermodel if you believe, if you see it in me.”

Travis Scott picks up the story with his opening lines on “Love Galore,” seducing with his mellow “I need, I need” that almost has us believing things will work out as SZA answers with “Long as we got, Love, Love, Love.” But as the track unfolds, the relationship portrayed unravels to a thin, forgotten thread. “Doves in the Wind” showcases SZA’s vocal expertise as she melodically jumps from note to note to effortless ease, finding her own voice of self-empowerment and determination within the “sorry about your luck” lyricism.

While the rest of the album features many moments where SZA’s dreamy voice soothes regardless of the song pockets of regret, two solo tracks—“Drew Barrymore” and “20 Something” —provide a deep, introspective look into the mind of someone who’s not only wondering what went wrong, but also what can still go right. The tempos are winding, the poetics are heart-rending, and the reminiscence lingers long after SZA’s voice drifts off with the final notes.

Ctrl does exactly what RZA promises—drama is cut loose and karma is claimed—resulting in the utmost respect for SZA’s control of what promises to be a long career to come.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Terri Lyne Carrington – The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Terri Lyne Carrington_the Mosaic Project love and soul

Title: The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul

Artist: Terri Lyne Carrington

Label: Concord

Release Date: August 7, 2015

Format: CD, MP3



Drummer, composer, and sometime vocalist Terri Lyne Carrington has had an illustrious career, touring with countless acts in the jazz and pop worlds and developing a strong solo career of her own. A highlight of Carrington’s solo career was the first entry in her Mosaic Project series in 2011. One of the key elements of the first Mosiac release, which is repeated in its second installment, 2015’s The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul, is that Carrington plays with all-star, all-woman bands.  While all-female bands have a history in jazz of being a gimmick for novelty acts, Carrington’s project is no oddity.  Her reason for assembling an all-woman band, as is readily apparent from listening to this release, is that that these women can play.  There are two deviations from this format: the songs included that aren’t original compositions were written by men and actor Billy Dee Williams appears throughout the disc performing spoken word.

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While Carrington is often billed as a jazz drummer, the music on this release tends more toward R&B and neo-soul—she draws quite heavily from the Questlove playbook as drummer, arranger, and producer. The comparison to The Roots drummer and neo-soul leader doesn’t end there—this record captures the true Soulquarian spirit through the album’s collaborative aesthetic. Carrington features a guest vocalist on each cut, from firmly established artists such as Chaka Khan, Valerie Simpson, Nancy Wilson, and the late Natalie Cole to more underground sensations like Jaguar Wright and Lizz Wright.  Even though these guest stars would imply a very diverse record, each track has a both neo-soul bent and is characterized by exquisite attention to detail. Carrington and company arranged and performed each song carefully and treat these tunes with the necessary nuance to effectively evoke the titular love and soul, both of which are in abundance on this album.  The Mosiaic Project: Love and Soul is a strong effort by a group of musicians who are truly pros–these musicians have monster chops and, more importantly, impeccable taste.


Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Let’s Do It Again

Title: Let’s Do It Again

Artist: Leela James

Label: Shanachie

Catalog No.: 5775

Release Date: March 24, 2009

Leela James’ Let’s Do It Again consists of eleven covers of classic songs made popular by timeless artists such as James Brown, Al Green, the Rolling Stones, Angela Bofill, and the Staple Singers. This album arrives some four years after her debut, A Change is Gonna Come, on the Warner Brothers label. Her project seems to be designed to address a question she posed in “Music,” her first single from that album, “what happened to the music?” The answer – It hasn’t gone anywhere. She and her band are fully prepared to provide it and do so with passion on this, her sophomore offering, released on the Shanachie label.

The Los Angeles born vocalist tackles the catalog of some of her idols, channeling the R&B, soul, funk, and even gospel sounds that comprised the soundtrack of her upbringing and which informed her debut album. James brings a contemporary appreciation for the classic sounds of the masters to whom she pays homage here.

The album begins with the familiar guitar licks of “Clean Up Woman,” putting the listener on notice that the things that made the standards great won’t be tampered with here. In fact, unlike so many contemporary artists, James deigns to produce this album using live recording sessions with her instrumentalists, valuing not only the tried and true sounds but the methodology that helped produce the originals. That doesn’t mean that her sound is without innovation. On “I Want To Know What Love Is,” James compliments the soft rock sensibilities of Foreigner’s version with even more gospel influenced vocals and chord progressions than came through on the original recording. Her vocal ad lib on this tune also gives a shout out to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

If James allows her backing vocalists to shoulder some of the heavy lifting on “I Try,” it doesn’t take away from the soulfulness of her vision for the song. Her interpretation of Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You” remains true to the funk slow jam of the original. She concludes her album with the eponymous “Let’s Do It Again,” which captures the celebratory groove of the Staples Singers’ original and makes plain and explicit the mission of the album as a whole.

Following is the video for her cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” which is also featured on the album:

The only drawback to this release is the lack of liner notes, which might have offered insight into James’ conceptualizations of her contribution to the legacies she’s acknowledging in this album. That said, savvy and technologically forward-thinking listeners will avail themselves of her website for more information along these lines.

Overall, this project offers much to music lovers whose sensibilities for soul, funk, R&B, rock, and gospel, and whose appreciation for the seamless interweaving of all of the above, can keep pace with that of Leela James. Definitely worth a first listen and then a second and third to catch the nuances that are likely to have been missed the first times through.

Reviewed by Delia Alexander

Testimony: Vol. 2

Title: Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics

Artist: India.Arie

Label: Universal Republic Records/UMG

Catalog No.:  B0012572-02

Release Date: February 10, 2009

Following 2006’s Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, India.Arie’s new release continues her musical exploration of life, ethics, and philosophy.  Where Vol. 1 emerged out of personal heartbreak and introspection, Vol. 2 finds Arie in a more extroverted frame of mind, examining her own place in the world and her relationships with others (seen through romance, poverty, oppression, and religion.)   Arie’s neo-soul vibe has a more urban, electrified edge on this album, with more touches of blues, funk, and Latin rhythms, as well as the acoustic piano and gospel-tinged vocals that figured prominently on Vol. 1. A diverse range of guest artists, including reggae star Gramps Morgan, Côte d’Ivoirian singer Dobet Gnahoré, and Turkish pop queen Sezen Aksu, adds a breadth of musical influences from other styles and cultures.

As with Arie’s last release, Vol. 2 is punctuated with a short song motif, “Grains,” that occurs multiple times throughout the album as intro, outro, and interludes, organizing the album’s structure and providing a unifying idea through repetition and variation.  A prayer of gratitude and connection to the rest of humanity, it encapsulates Arie’s major theme for this album: “I’m grateful that you created me from the same grains, from the same thing / I’m grateful you never cease to amaze me, the way you love me.”  In a liner notes letter to her listeners, Arie writes about her history, the lessons learned through her career, and what she’s trying to say with Vol. 2. “I am a songwriter who writes about love,” she says; “The bottom line is these are my opinions about different things going on in the world and where I fit into all of it.”

Writing about love comes easy to Arie, and the first quarter of Vol. 2 most clearly displays her skills about love songs.  “Therapy”, featuring soaring backup vocals by Gramps Morgan, is the catchiest song on the album, building on the metaphor of love as a healing force.  The soul groove of “Chocolate High” (with Philly soul singer Musiq Soulchild) echoes old-school soul ballads, but its extended chocoholic imagery unfortunately strays over the line from sexy to just cheesy.  Love doesn’t always end happily, of course, so “The Long Goodbye” paints a picture of an imminent breakup viewed with sadness, sensuality, and the wisdom of experience.

Arie’s approach to politics takes several forms on this album.  Most obviously “political” are the two songs directly confronting poverty and oppression.  In the Latin-tinged “Ghetto”, Arie rails against the continued existence of ghetto conditions in the first and third worlds:  “the ghetto might as well be another country / the barrio might as well be another country / when you look around, you live in another country too.”

“Pearls”, originally by Sade, addresses the oppression of poor women in Africa; Arie’s cover features a mellow Afrobeat accompaniment rather than Sade’s static string accompaniment, as well as Dobet Gnahoré’s vocals, both of which add a musical evocation of Africa.  “The Cure,” a structural and thematic counterpart to “Therapy,” promotes love (romantic, but more importantly, spiritual) as the solution to most of the world’s problems, with Sezen Aksu’s backing vocals in Turkish suggesting a call to prayer and spiritual transcendence.  In this song, Arie also sings a defense of her overwhelmingly positive philosophy:  “It may seem that I’m looking at the world through rose-colored glasses / I believe that it’s so simple that sometimes it looks complicated / God’s love is like the sunshine / it’s there whether or not we recognize it / the most powerful energy in the universe, and all we have to do is use it.”  In this, she sums up both the holistic understanding of self, world, and spirit that she’s reached personally, and to which this album testifies.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

R&B, Soul, Funk and Rock

Tom Morello.  The Fabled City (Red Ink, September 2008)

Morello, best known as a heavy metal guitarist and former member of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine, now has another claim to fame as the “other half-Kenyan Harvard graduate from Illinois.” His latest solo album also reflects another side, which is decidedly folksy, but with a definite political edge. Morello is no stranger to politics- his father was Kenya’s first black delegate to the United Nations and his parents met during Kenya’s struggle for independance. Here, in his alter ego as Nightwatchman, he tackles a number of issues ranging from post-Katrina New Orleans to war.  His distinctive songwriting along with his acoustic vocal-guitar arrangements have already led many to brand him as something of a modern day Dylan.

Richie Havens.  Nobody Left to Crown (Verve Forecast, March 2008)

Noted ’60s folk singer Richie Havens recently released his first studio album in four years, singing covers of Pete Townshend (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), Peter, Paul & Mary (“The Great Mandala-The Wheel of Life”) and Jackson Browne (“Lives in the Balance”).  The majority of the album, however, features new material composed largely by Havens, including the title track which lambasts political leaders and “Fates,” his ode against capitalism.

Estelle. Shine (Atlantic, April 2008)

British R&B songstress Estelle has hit it big with her sophomore release, which has garnered significant attention including placement on many “Best of 2008” lists.  Kanye West, John Legend, and Cee-lo make guest appearances, ensuring success on this side of the pond, while Wyclef Jean and lend a hand on production. A major selling point is the album’s diversity. By incorporating elements of dance-hall, hip hop, R&B, soul and ska, every track offers up something distinctly new and fresh.

Conya Doss.  Still (Conya Doss Songs,April 2008)

Neo-soul singer/songwriter Conya Doss is a native of Cleveland who has been developing a considerable following, especially in Europe, since her debut album was released in 2002. Despite this fact, she still doesn’t have the backing of a major label and continues to self-release her projects, while earning a living as a teacher in the Cleveland public schools. Still features 14 tracks with a predominant focus on love and relationships that never become overly sentimental, and she keeps up the pace by alternating between up-tempo numbers and ballads.

Hil St. Soul.  Black Rose (Shanachie, April 2008)

Hil St. Soul is a duo featuring Zambian-born, London-raised neo-soul singer/songwriter Hilary Mwelwa and Victor Redwood Sawyerr, an instrumentalist and producer, who also shares songwriting credits. Like Doss, Hil St. Soul’s music largely appeals to the over-30 crowd and thus has been ignored by the major labels. Case in point, the song “Sweetest Days” reminisces about the time when “There was no Nintendo or computer games but a natural interaction with your friends.”  But if you fall into this demographic and enjoy original soul with a dose of jazz, R&B, funk, and hip hop, you might want to check out this album.

Raheem DeVaughn.  Love Behind the Melody (Jive, January 2008)

There are any number of young R&B singers we could have added to the list, but we have to give credit to Raheem Devaughn for keeping the soul alive, and keeping it fresh with healthy doses of hip hop. In an effort not to be constrained or classified, Devaughn claims to be a “R&B-hippie-neosoul-rock star.” His music almost achieves this level of diversity.  He frequently references classic R&B, such as when “Friday (Shut the Club Down)” playfully evolves into “My Girl,” and “Butterflies” is somewhat reminiscent of British-invasion era rock. What most impresses, besides his incredible vocal technique, is his ability to reach a wide audience without selling out.

The Way I See It

Title: The Way I See It
Artist: Raphael Saadiq
Label: Columbia Records
Catalog No.: 88697 08585 2
Release date: September 16, 2008

A new Black Star Line sails forth from Columbia records, and his name is Raphael Saadiq. The former Tony! Toni! Toné! member re-emerges on his appropriately named The Way I See It as the ultimate African American singer with a self-conscious sense of sonic history. His vintage swagger on the album cover gives a visual preview of a man who has done his homework on every major soul artist in America’s musical history. Most remarkably, despite his ability to conjure everyone from Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson to Earth, Wind & Fire and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Raphael Saadiq still sounds like Raphael Saadiq.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s got a staff of string arrangers every bit as historically conscious as he is and a drummer who grooves like Stubblefield. Beyond his ability to balance influence and integrity, the production of this record provides ultimate added value. Every cut sounds calculated, like it came directly out of an old-school hit factory like Atlantic, Motown, or Phillies Records. Perfectly placed drum set lead-ins precede handclaps deep in the pocket of a serious groove, bluesy piano riffs punctuate bass lines straight out of the Temptations’ playbook, and the strings give well-placed intermittent swells over the subtle backdrop of tasty percussion tracks. With the exception of an ill-advised Jay-Z remix bonus track, the entire record flows like a compilation of soul hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Obligatory rap-remix aside, the other guests on this record supplement Saadiq’s soul savvy in style. Joss Stone completes his Smokey Robinson and the Miracles act as they trade verses on “Just One Kiss.” CJ Hilton leads a disco verse into a catchy chorus on “Never Give You Up.” Just when you think this record can’t get any better, Saadiq pushes the second verse into a short but well-placed Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. He follows up with a final highlighta slow, beautiful cut called “Sometimes.” Blending melodies and vocal influences from the Sam Cooke classics “You Send Me” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” he pays homage to the late great singer with lyrics that speak volumes about the African American experience.

In the wake of some fantastic British R&B imitators, Raphael Saadiq reminds the world that Soul with a capital “S” lives in Black America. Consistent with offerings from fellow Soulquarians, this record combines the spirit of Soul history with the best technology available to contemporary producers. The result is a record that tips the hat to his musical ancestors without sounding contrived. If any of the tunes on this disc do half as well in the charts as they ought to, it will remind the listening public that there’s a whole new generation of African American artists they’ll still be listening to in fifty years.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing

Lyfe Change

Title: Lyfe Change
Artist: Lyfe Jennings
Label: Sony Urban Music
Catalog No.: 88097 07966 2
Release Date: April 29, 2008
Lyfe Jennings has earned a reputation for putting the “soul” back into contemporary soul music. His gritty, gospel-tinged voice is an alternative to the ultra-high falsetto that most current male R&B singers employ. In addition to his vocal stylings, Jennings is known for interjecting a heavy dose of real life into his lyrics. His third project, Lyfe Change, is no departure from vintage Lyfe.

Jennings has found major success doing what most artists attempt to avoid: dealing with serious issues in their music. On his previous albums, he has confronted his own past as an ex-convict and has addressed infidelity in relationships and growing older. Yet it’s his colorful past, in and out of prison, that seems to provide the sincerity and wisdom that enable him to convincingly present these very serious issues within three minute songs. Jennings also demonstrates the fine art of balanceas soon as the mood becomes somber, he introduces some lightweight songs like “Brand New,” which features T.I.

Lyfe Change is a collection of Jenning’s thoughts on various issues such as the transmission of AIDS on “It’s Real,” and personal maturity on “Never Never Land.” The prominence of these social themes is the glue that holds the album together. The sound of the songs varies from the contemporary R&B feel of “Brand New” to the reggae-tinged “You Think You Got It Bad,” featuring producer Wyclef Jean and “Wild Wild Wild.” Though a little longer than previous efforts (the CD includes 15 tracks), the album doesn’t ever become too preachy or boring. The diversity of production helps to hold the listener’s interest.

If you are a Lyfe Jennings fan, you’ll enjoy Lyfe Change. If you’ve never heard of him, this is a good album to check out to get familiar with his mission. Not to indict any other male R&B singers who sing about the usual pop music tropes like sex, clubs, and enjoying life, but it’s nice to be forced to think about the deeper things in life while enjoying a good beat.

Posted by fredara mareva

Art of Love and War

angie.jpgTitle: The Art of Love and War
Artist: Angie Stone
Label: Stax
Catalog No.: 30146
Date: 2007

In every genre of music there are those artists who never really break through to super stardom, but their consistent presence and artistry makes them a reliable source of good music. Angie Stone is one of those artists. I remember first hearing her sultry, yet definitely church-trained voice as a part of the group Vertical Hold. Although the group was short-lived, their moderate hit “Seems to Much to Busy” introduced R&B fans to Angie’s distinctive and skillful vocal style.

Throughout her career Angie has continued to find success with her solo work as well as through collaboratiions with artists like D’Angelo, Rapahel Saadiq, Lenny Kravitz, Omar, and Joss Stone. If you go back and listen to D’Angelo’s two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, you can hear Angie-esque intricate vocal arrangements throughout both projects. Seemingly always available to work with others, the quality of her music has rarely suffered. She has steadily created music that is reminiscent of an R&B era where the vocals and lyrics were the central appeal of the songs.

Her latest release The Art of Love & War is a collection of fourteen songs that deal with the convoluted emotions that often accompany love and relationships. But generally, Angie sounds pretty upbeat about love and her tone on most of the tracks reflects that type of positivity. Yet some versatility is displayed on the album. Ballads like “Sit Down” and “Pop Pop” show a tender and introspective side of Angie Stone while the song”Baby,” featuring the legendary Betty Wright, is a sassy retrospective of an ended love affair. The album even has a racially uplifting duet, “My People,” featuring James Ingram.

Here’s the “Baby” video featuring Angie Stone & Betty Wright (Courtesy of Stax)

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The thing about an Angie Stone is that if you’ve listened to her before, you’ll always know what you’re getting. That type of consistency is both good and bad because I, as a listener, am rarely disappointed but also rarely surprised. But after listening to The Art of Love and War, I do come away with a seamless listening experience, and the really great vocal and instrumental arrangements remind me of why I own every Angie Stone record. In the end, Angie Stone fans will really like The Art of Love and War, and those who have never checked her out before will hear what they’ve been missing.

Posted by fredara mareva