Lalah Hathaway

Self Portrait

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Had Lalah Hathaway's third and fourth solo albums been separated by a gap in time equal to the one between her second and third, Self Portrait would not have come out until 2014. But it arrived six years earlier, in time for her to connect with the rejuvenated Stax label, home of Angie Stone. The set reunites Hathaway with Rex Rideout, the producer/songwriter who worked with the singer on "Forever, for Always, for Love," the title cut of the Luther Vandross tribute album that appeared in 2004. Rideout is the primary collaborator, with his input on half of the songs, while kindred spirits Rahsaan Patterson and Sandra St. Victor also contribute to a handful of tracks. More mellow and unified than 2004's Outrun the Sky, the album maintains a steady flow, whether the backdrops feature midtempo dance rhythms and horns, deep basslines and finger snaps, or acoustic guitars and glistening keyboards. Nothing is bound to jump out of the speakers and pull you around the room, but there's an unshakable lingering effect with nearly every song. More than anything, the album helps bring back the art of the subtly seductive slow jam, despite the lyrical range, which covers personal issues almost as frequently as relationships. Slowest and most stunning is the closer, "Tragic Inevitability," co-produced with Manuel Hugas, Wiboud Burkens, and Anthony Jeffries; it's a breakup song ("It hurts me so/And I will not be consoled"), but no one will be doing any kind of separating while the song is within earshot. In the liners, check the random jabs at vocalists who, unlike Hathaway herself, require studio enhancements: "Pitch is the new black"; "Auto tune this!" She uses some effects of her own here, but they are used for effect, not as a corrective device. In total control of her voice at all times, she has never been prone to showing off for the sake of it, so it is easy to not fully appreciate just how exceptional she is.

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