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Because I Love ItAmerie - Because I Love It
A pair of Top Ten albums and Top Ten R&B singles to match. You'd think Amerie's path would be without obstacles going forward, but album number three -- this one -- was left unreleased in the States. In other territories, where it was released, it was left to rot. It's a shame; the album is loaded. The amicable and possibly temporary split between Amerie and her primary producer, Rich Harrison, might've been a cause for some concern, but this set of songs is altogether more colorful and varied than both All I Have and Touch. It's almost excessively generous, provided you are able to keep up and absorb a set of songs that, sequentially, is of exceptionally distinct halves. The all-too-brief intro, the Clutch collaboration "Hate 2 Love U," "Make Me Believe," the Cee-Lo co-production "Take Control," and "Gotta Work" are all restlessly upbeat, dishing out prancing horns (sampled and synthetic), tumbling/crashing drum breaks, zipping organs, and other '60s/'70s soul-funk authenticators. Read more >>


I AmChrisette Michele - I Am
Chrisette Michele sometimes seems more eager to please her elders than express herself straight-up. Take, for instance, "I've been studying Miss Billie, Miss Ella, Miss Sarah Vaughan, and Miss Natalie Cole," from "Let's Rock." That's reverence. And then there's "Take me back in the day, when lovin' was pure," from "Golden." She was born in 1982. Above all, there's her voice, a gently scratchy instrument that occasionally plays up the fact that none of its antecedents were born after the 1960s. But that's just her voice, which adapts to each mostly fresh-sounding production on I Am, though there is no denying she is not going to impinge upon the territories staked out by most other R&B artists her age. Following strategically-placed features on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come and Nas' Hip Hop Is Dead -- her roles on "Lost One," "Still Dreaming," and "Can't Forget About You" could've been mistaken for dusty samples -- the album straddles old-but-new/new-but-old rather adeptly, and the ease with which Chrisette shifts from approach to approach is impressive. Read more >>


VeteranMarques Houston - Veteran
At the age of 25, Marques Houston considers himself a veteran. OK: roughly 15 years, from Immature's 1992 debut to Veteran, constitutes longevity in any field. It's also worth noting that Houston is one of very few R&B artists with mainstream appeal who first appeared during the early '90s. Though he has dressed this album as something of a significant occasion, it is not a great progression from 2005's Naked, but it is a progression nonetheless. There's a similar distribution of sexually forward roughneck tracks and heart-on-sleeve testimonies, with plenty of material that falls somewhere between the two extremes, but the overall quality of the songwriting and production work is greater than that of Naked and MH. Read more >>

Ain't Nothin' Like MeJoe - Ain't Nothin' Like Me
Can you think of many R&B artists who first appeared during the new jack swing era and continued to release good, up-to-date albums on a major label throughout the first decade of the 21st century? You probably cannot. If you can, Joe is likely near or at the top of that list. His sixth album -- which went through a number of titles and projected release dates until it landed in April 2007 as Ain't Nothin' Like Me -- is up to the standard of 1997's All That I Am and 2000's My Name Is Joe. Contemporary as ever, Joe seeks production and songwriting assistance from a number of ubiquitous heavyweights and up-and-comers, including the perpetually on-the-rise Tim & Bob (who first worked with Joe on 2000's "So Beautiful"), hot Norwegian team Stargate (Ne-Yo's "So Sick," Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable"), Sean Garrett, Bryan-Michael Cox, Johnta Austin, the Underdogs, and Cool & Dre. Read more >>

As I Am Alicia Keys - As I Am
By now established as a major and talented force in the mainstream music world, Alicia Keys has perhaps earned the right to explore a little, to venture into new genres while still keeping a foot firmly planted in the R&B/neo-soul she grew out of. On her third full-length, As I Am, Keys takes a step closer toward the soul revival popularized by John Legend, with full-band arrangements and bright horn hooks, only occasionally falling back into the piano/melisma combination that drove the singles off her first two albums. Instead, here, as evidenced in "No One" -- which sounds all too ready to take on a "reggae dance mix" -- the guitar-driven "I Need You," "Wreckless Love," or "Where Do We Go from Here," which pays tribute to both Stax and Motown ("All I can do/Is follow the tracks of my tears," she sings, after a sample of Wendy Rene's "After Laughter [Comes Tears]" crackles through the first few bars), this is music that owes as much to pop as it does R&B, highlighted no less by the fact that the queen of radio rock herself, Linda Perry, co-writes three of the songs with Keys, including the straight-from-the-Stripped-sessions "The Thing About Love" and "Superwoman." Read more >>

GoMario - Go
So much for "You should let me love you," then. "You down or what?" is the softest line from the opening title track of Mario's third and many times delayed album, and from there, the track -- a prodding Neptunes production with the requisite synthetic, sticky-sweet coatings -- is an obvious bid to surprise or even shock, with Mario proclaiming, "I ain't trying to meet your mother/I just wanna fuck you like no other" and "If I stop fuckin' you, it'll make your world end." Go is indeed Mario's most aggressive and assertive album, but no other song comes close to out-vulgarizing "Go" itself. There are several sensitive ballads, including "Music for Love," bearing a definite resemblance to J. Holiday's gently rocking and swaying "Bed," and an excellent choice for a cover in Keith Sweat's "Right and a Wrong Way." (Eighties babies will also catch a reference to Zapp's "Computer Love" in the former.) Read more >>

Wines & SpiritsRahsaan Patterson - Wines & Spirits
On his fourth album, his second independent release, Rahsaan Patterson indulges in a few whims that a sales-concerned major label would likely find problematic, but it is never at the listener's expense -- at least as long as the listener is OK with some adventurousness and a couple unexpected turns. At various points, the album is unselfconsciously funky, heart-on-sleeve lovesick, quietly distressed, loudly carefree, poignantly despairing, and guardedly optimistic. While there's really nothing wrong with the relatively straightforward and familiar-sounding songs about the joy and pain of being in love, it's the left-of-center material where Patterson seems most comfortable. One of the bigger surprises is "Pitch Black." When heard at a low volume, the song could be confused for a weary, spiritually conflicted Prince, especially during the chorus; when heard at a high volume, a bassline that sounds like a dead ringer for early Cure -- not very neo-soul of him, is it? -- bubbles up to the surface. Read more >>

Sagala Pattie Blingh & the Akebulan 5 - Sagala
With her third offering in as many years, Georgia Anne Muldrow pulls a Madlib/Yesterday's New Quintet kind of move. Released under the pseudonym of Pattie Blingh and the Akebulan 5, Sagala appears to be a guise for multiple contributors. But just as Madlib's Yesterday's New Quintet is merely an alias for his solo jazz explorations, Pattie Blingh is Muldrow and the Akebulan Five is not her band or her background singers; they are her as well. As with Worthnothings and Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, Sagala finds Muldrow in do-it-yourself mode (even more so with this EP, distributed on her personal label, RAMP Recordings). Save for a verse from her beau and West Coast vet MC Declaime (aka Dudley Perkins), Muldrow writes every word, including the abstract meanderings of "The Clearing." She sings all the vocals, a feat for her songs which are almost always intricately layered in different pitches, octaves, and tones ("Adante"). Read more >>

The Real ThingJill Scott - The Real Thing: Words & Music, Vol. 3
The photos on the cover and within the booklet of The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3 do not match the music. Does Jill Scott really have to hail a cab? Is she really awakened in the middle of the night by the need to write songs with an anguished look on her face? Really? Because these songs sound like they were written as she was fed chocolate-dipped strawberries while sprawled out on a bed cloaked with rose petals. Well, that's not entirely true -- there are some exceptions, like the furious "Hate on Me," and a couple songs involving deep heartache and sharp admonishments. For the most part (and considerably more so than Scott's first two studio albums), however, The Real Thing is for romancing couples. While some of the collaborators -- Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Adam Blackstone -- are all over the singer's past releases, there's a handful of relatively new and significant associates, most notably JR Hutson. Read more >>

We'll Never Turn BackMavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back
When Mavis Staples issued Have a Little Faith in 2004 on the Alligator label, there was no doubt she was back. While the recording was subdued in places, it also showcased her ability to get so far down inside a song that it had to bubble up and be completely reinvented by her voice. It wasn't just a soul and contemporary gospel recording; it also touched on her earliest days with her family singing the blues gospel, and there was a bucket of hope in each track. Several of the songs from the recording were used in television and film. Her 2007 follow-up, We'll Never Turn Back, focuses on another kind of hope: the hope that the men and women who engaged in the civil rights struggles of the early '60s brought to a hostile America and changed its laws -- and some of its attitudes, but not nearly enough -- forever. Staples has enlisted the help of the original vocalists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community, who were called the SNCC Freedom Singers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (no strangers to the struggle for basic human rights) in a couple of places, and Ry Cooder and his roots band to accompany them. Read more >>

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