It’s an age-old battle; natural versus artificial and any other classic cliché you can muster to describe the schism between the organic and inorganic. In the case of modern R&B, the last two decades have seen many flap their jaws about what constitutes “real R&B.”
For a time it was enough to follow the lead of the neo-soul movement that began in the early-to-mid 90’s with Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days in the Life Of…(1992), Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies (1993) and Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe (1994). Without even going into the slew of changes other arenas of black music were going through, the “neo-soul” stock was plentiful throughout the remainder of the 90’s and early 00’s. Eventually, the movement burned out due to oversaturation. Those that had embraced this style shied away from it just as quickly. It had become too limited and taboo. In the space after this diaspora of contemporary rhythm and blues came Chrisette Michele.
I Am (2007) was the requisite “breath of fresh air,” her phrasing evoking past heroines of jazz (Sarah Vaughn) and of-the-moment ladies on the scene (Jill Scott). As pleasant as I Am was, it was also not distinct from the young men and women clawing their way out of the trenches of the neo-soul collapse. With a canny sense of wisdom, Michele cut her second project Epiphany (2009) with modern R&B. It helped her appeal to younger audiences, but she didn’t lose the maturity that won over her record buying adult listeners.
In short, she created her best record. But, fans were split in two camps over Michele’s direction in the end.
2010’s Let Freedom Reign continued to push Michele into her own niche of modern, classy R&B; but the uneven songwriting on the LP fractured the cohesiveness won from Reign’s stronger moments. It also didn’t make much of an impact commercially. What was a girl to do?
Michele decided instead of ditching her approach, she’d whittle her songwriting. It’s that lyricism that powers her fourth album, Better. Despite its uninspired title, the record is Michele doing what she does best, working within the templates of throwback and current soul music. Mentioning throwback, it’s a great thing to hear that Michele has expanded on her old school touchstones. Yes, there are still the 70’s flourishes as heard on her Natalie Cole “Our Love” paean “A Couple of Forever’s”; Michele’s voice is luscious and sung straight ahead here.
Elsewhere, Michele digs into the crates of late 80’s and early 90’s R&B on the summer heat of “Let Me Win.” That sample you’ve heard, in everything from Eric B. & Rakim to P.M. Dawn, is The Soul Searchers cut “Ashley’s Roachclip” from their debut Salt of the Earth (1974). Michele works out the familiar groove with her sassy style and makes it new once more.
Michele’s confidence that was corrupted into cockiness on Let Freedom Reign’s “I’m a Star” and “Number One” is nowhere to be heard on “Snow” and “Visual Love”; both songs have Michele aware of her strengths (and flaws) and she’s empowered by her own journey toward life and love.
There are quirky numbers that gallop around on Better, “Rich Hipster” is jumpy, funky, and frisky in its teasing tone. Even a guess spot from Wale feels right at home on the track. Though she does stumble on the dull “Charades” (with 2 Chainz) and “Supa”; the former tries to ape what Michele accomplished on Reign’s “So In Love” where she tamed Rick Ross for a verse delivery.
Removing those two errors, Better plays as a fluid, consistent piece of R&B that is right at home in 2013 but will age gracefully. The question Michele poses at the conclusion of the record is “can the cool be loved?” That will be up to her fans. This album may not win back her I Am crowd, but if they open up, they may hear someone clearly comfortable in their own cool skin. Ranking: Above Average
[Editor’s Note: Better in stores on 6/11/13, edition of album reviewed was the standard pressing. Deluxe versions available as well. See online and physical retailers for details. For current information on Chrisette Michele, visit her official site.-QH]