"Crush" gave Yuna a hard-fought commercial breakthrough in the U.S. The feathery Usher duet almost topped Billboard's Adult R&B Songs chart and sent Chapters, the singer's second Verve LP, into the Top Ten of the R&B/hip-hop chart. (In her native Malaysia, the single went to number one.) It's probably not coincidental that this follow-up is overloaded with featured appearances, possibly to maximize the potential for sustained crossover appeal. Whereas Usher and Jhené Aiko were harmonious collaborators on Chapters, not one of the six supporting voices on Rouge is as compatible, and the procession has a cumulative muddling effect. The songs with guest verses from Tyler, The Creator, G-Eazy, and Little Simz -- all in the album's front half -- would be effective, among Yuna's most distinct and powerful moments, without the distractions. Singer Masego and guitarist Miyavi are at least more like true support, sensitively assisting in Yuna's struggle to move beyond emotional growing pains and a fractured relationship with a variably cherished and maligned partner. As with the previous album, the primary co-songwriter and producer is Robin Hannibal. His finely layered fusions of post-disco R&B and dazed pop are still well-suited for Yuna's tender, increasingly rich voice and nuanced melodicism. The two are at their best when they let loose a bit, as on "Blank Marquee," a sweetly spiteful number faintly echoing Oliver Cheatham's "Get Down Saturday Night" and Edwin Birdsong's "Rapper Dapper Snapper." A close second is what comes after it, a sheer ballad with subtle twists and turns written with Alexandra Govere (aka Shungudzo). "You're not the love of my life" seems at first like a dismissal, but as Yuna repeats the line over a rhythm that tugs ever so slightly, the matter doesn't sound settled, and by the end she sounds like she's trying to suppress longing and regret. Those whose ears perk up by the MCs' names will hopefully listen intently enough to notice the detail and depth there and elsewhere.
by Andy Kellman