Melanie Fiona

The MF Life

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When the forlorn ballad "4 AM" started to gain airplay, in September 2011, it sounded like an answer record to any one of several songs in rotation. Here was the flip side to the boys' unapologetic pillage-and-plunder tales: the voice of a vulnerable, livid woman backed by pinging/pulsing percussion, including a brilliantly anachronistic drum'n'bass tease, with swells of synthesizers, strings, and electric guitar. The insidious effect of "4 AM" translated to a slow, steady rise; by the time The MF Life was released, in March 2012, it had finally slipped into the Top Ten of Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The song served a second purpose, as it was wholly contemporary -- quite possibly a move to airlift Melanie Fiona from the retro box. Mostly unnecessary vocal appearances from J. Cole, Nas, B.o.B, John Legend, and T-Pain suggest a marked effort to make Fiona appeal to a larger crowd, but otherwise, The MF Life has the singer refining the throwback approach of The Bridge with a couple diversions into soul-influenced adult contemporary rock. In addition to "4 AM," there's a six-track stretch, from the elegantly plain-spoken "I Been That Girl" (co-written by onetime bandmate Drake) through the vamping "Bones" (as in "Get all molecular and pass myself through you"), where each song either matches or surpasses the best of The Bridge. While Fiona clearly thrives most in settings that pull from late-'60s and early-'70s soul, she's remarkably versatile when it comes to modes of expression. Somewhere between Jazmine Sullivan and Kelis, her not-quite-husky, not-quite-scratchy voice is easily adaptable to a range of material that zeroes in on desperate longing, resentful rejection, and many points between. The more beneficial mix of songwriting and production collaborators, including Jack Splash, No ID, Rico Love, and Salaam Remi, helps make The MF Life superior to the debut in every way.

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