Posts Tagged ‘whisper’

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Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (album review).

December 6, 2009

Alicia Keys’ new album The Element Of Freedom comes after her biggest success so far, As I Am, in a career which hasn’t had any troughs or lows to date.  Every album she’s released, from Songs In A Minor to the present has explored depth and soul, has combined traditional elements of R&B with current, up to date production and lyrical exploration of love, loss and self-esteem in a genuinely mature fashion that is beyond Keys’ years.  She’s consistently walked the fine line between critical and commercial success, effectively having her cake and eating it since 2002.  Alicia Keys plays the piano like a professional, but is not an entertainer who hides behind her instrument – she takes risks, sings and dances on stage, and has always commanded respect with an element of political and social awareness to boot.  So what does her new album bring to the table?

Like Rihanna’s Rated R, The Element Of Freedom is impossible to divorce from the singer’s personal life context. Keys has suffered some backlash for her love affair with separated-but-not-divorced super-producer Swizz Beatz.  Fans have turned away from Keys’ maturity and moral standpoints expressed in her material to date, saying that she was phony, that she was no better than the singers who dressed and acted like hos, and the lackluster success (i.e. it didn’t shoot straight to #1 as people presumed it would) of first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is perhaps because of this.  Despite a simple yet effective video which sticks to the album concept of being free of material things and going beyond all boundaries, the song was solid but seemed like a softer retread of her previous hit “No One”.  Nevertheless, especially since I’m certainly not in a position to judge Keys’ being in love with a man who is attached, the music is far from bad, and second single “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” as well as her collaborations with Jay-Z, “Empire State Of Mind (Parts 1 & 2)” seem to be coming closer to replicating her usual success.

Here’s to hoping that The Element Of Freedom continues Keys’ string of successes.  Alicia said of the album that “”The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You’re definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you’re going to be shocked, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey.”  Some of this I agree with, some of it I don’t hear myself.  “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” both build to exhilarating climaxes, not because the music is especially bombastic (it’s anything but, though “Broken Heart” has a compelling drum loop that comes closer to bringing Kanye West’s 808 fascination into the 21st century than he himself seems to be able to manage).  Standout tracks “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease”, “Distance And Time” and closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II)” all employ soaring melodies that propel the listener to think and to ride their own emotions; Keys’ production and piano backing compliment each song without ever taking centre stage (as happened on occasion in her first two albums).  Its undeniable that Alicia Keys knows how to write a song, knows how to sing a song and knows how to express a song even with a voice that sometimes is limited – she wrings the emotion out of every syllable be it with a whisper (“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”) or a throaty, heartfelt plea (“Love Is My Disease”).

So the album is solid – but is it really that different?  As I Am saw Keys taking risks and incorporating traditional pop and even rock elements into her smoky R&B soul with stellar results (as well as a couple of lackluster songs), and that sound continues here, but in places incorporating 80s drums and synths – this sound is definitely in vogue (I still struggle to understand why), but at least Alicia Keys sounds less like she is pandering to fashion than most artists – again, this is tribute to her genuine musicianship.  I find it hard to say that I am “shocked” by anything on this album – ok, for the first time her intro is a spoken-word explanation of the album title and concept rather than a pianist showcase.  Her collaboration with Beyoncé, “Put It In A Love Song”, is fun and the closest Keys has ever come to club-ready, and Beyoncé’s voice and swagger doesn’t dominate the song as I might have feared – the two artists compliment each other perfectly and adeptly ride the compelling bassline. But here is where the surprises end – opening track “Love Is Blind” performs the same function as previous opening tracks “Go Ahead”, “Karma” and “Girlfriend”, in that they are uptempo, loop-driven productions that display the singer’s confidence before she delves into her vulnerability later in the album.  “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” sounds almost too similar to The Diary Of Alicia Keys‘ “Slow Down”, and while “This Bed” provides an interesting diversion on Freedom, its The-Dream-esque synths and piano are really echoing Prince (which is 80% of what The-Dream does anyway) – and Alicia Keys already covered Prince at the start of her career (“How Come U Don’t Call Me”).  The album ends on a legitimate high with “How It Feels To Fly” and “Empire State Of Mind” exploring her ideals of freedom, exhilaration and expressing her love for New York – but she’s even played those cards before, at the end of As I Am (“Sure Looks Good To Me”) and The Diary (“Streets Of New York”).

As stated earlier, the most interesting aspect of the album, lyrically speaking, is matching the songs to Alicia Keys’ newly revealed love for Swizz Beatz, never mind his marriage.  Her feelings about it resonate through the titles – “Love Is Blind”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease” and particularly “Unthinkable”.  Lyrics such as “Some people might call me crazy for falling in love with you” (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and “I’m wondering maybe could I make you my baby / If we do the unthinkable, would it make us go crazy? / If you ask me, I’m ready” (“Unthinkable”) speak for themselves.  Obviously, as members of the public there’s only so much we know about the situation, and only a certain percentage of that is remotely true – but the artists put their souls on a record and we can’t help but speculate, at the same time as we feel the songs and apply them to our own lives and emotions.

So The Element Of Freedom is, generally, more of the same from Alicia Keys.  It’s not nearly as risky as Keys herself might proclaim, and it’s not the best album of 2009, but it does provide some moments of genuine exhilaration, and there are plenty of strong tracks to make the weaker ones (“Like The Sea”, “Wait Til You See My Smile”) nothing to gripe about.  What’s more, Keys has found some freedom in being brave enough to write about her love and experiences in a new way – and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three months, it’s that love is stronger than anything and I can feel most of what she’s singing about.  Her piano playing compliments the songs without ever becoming a gimmick.  And anyway, after all, if Alicia Keys is providing more of the same, she’s still doing a damn sight better than your average R&B chick.  The lyrics are still simple but deep, the music is still soulful yet current, the songs are still well-written and hooky.  I believe Keys has a better album in her yet (The Diary Of Alicia Keys is still my personal favourite), but I thoroughly commend her for not dipping in quality throughout the past 7 years.

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Mariah Carey – Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel review.

September 27, 2009

Finally, it’s here (unless, like me you live in the UK in which case you are expected to wait until NOVEMBER 16TH!!!!  I will be buying the import collector’s version on Amazon, which drops on Tuesday.) – Mariah Carey’s new album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel.  Preceded by the lead single “Obsessed”, which has done very well but not shot to number one (leading certain people to brand it a ‘flop’ all the same), several questions were being asked of this CD: “Is Mariah’s voice really shot?” (No.) “Is it better than Whitney’s album?” (Yes.) “Does the fact that The-Dream and Tricky Stewart produced the whole album make it a bit monotonous?” (No… not really.  A couple of the songs are somewhat repetitive and reminiscent of other The-Dream tracks, but Mariah’s input and The-Dream’s variety are pleasantly surprising.) “Why did Mariah push her CD back? Was she running scared?” (No; she was making a cohesive R&B album and taking the time to make it perfect.)  Listening to the finished product makes this clear – where The Emancipation of Mimi (Mariah’s “comeback” “classic” album, which is possibly her least cohesive effort and contains some fantastic tracks surrounded by the most filler in any of her albums this decade) and E=MC² were literally a collection of songs, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel takes you on a unified journey the way that Mariah’s best 90s efforts, the seminal Butterfly and Rainbow, and yes, even 2002’s Charmbracelet did.

Mariah’s vocals are stronger now than they were on Charmbracelet, though she often employs her whisper voice in place of full belting.  As it did on Butterfly, this gives the songs an intimate feel which brings out the intricate emotions inherent in her lyrics.  Standout “H.A.T.E.U.”, which means “Having A Typical Emotional Upset”, at first sounds like an angry-woman-scorned missive thematically similar to other songs on the album, but it is emotionally vulnerable as Mariah finds herself in a place where she misses her lover, but doesn’t know what to do with herself other than “change her number” and “move away” in an attempt to get over him and begin to move on.  The emotional limbo echoes in the production, which employs a hard-hitting slow beat and a baby’s cries along with Mariah’s whistle register.  Her high-pitched wails are a massive feature of this album, and are present on many of the songs – according to various tweets, Mariah wanted to explore using her upper range as a texture in homage to Minnie Riperton.  Just as on Rainbow‘s “Bliss”, on tracks such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “Ribbon” and “Angel (Prelude)”, Mariah’s stratospheric notes come across less as an opportunity to showboat than as a genuine part of the song’s instrumentation and setting the mood.  At the album’s climax, a tasteful cover of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, Mariah lets loose with gospel melisma and ecstatic squeaking to emphasise her joy and rapture in finally finding true love and encountering happiness after the ups and downs and broken relationships explored throughout the course of the album.  The only criticism of this song is that it ends far too quickly, robbing the listener of the climax – as soon as the vocal and musical apex is reached, the track is fading out!!! Here’s hoping that a longer edit of the song will surface.  But the point is that Mariah Carey is using all the ranges of her impressive voice for legitimate reasons – to serve the song and its mood, musical instrumentation, lyrical punctuation and emotional expression.  If there is any proof required that Mariah has grown as a singer, this album is it – even if she doesn’t belt as happily as she used to, her voice serves the songs more.

Having said that, Mariah also embraces radio trends on some of the more uptempo numbers.  Lead single “Obsessed” is one of a few tracks to use auto-tune.  Another question: “Why does someone with Mariah Carey’s voice need to use auto-tune?”  This is a somewhat valid question, but I think that Mariah is just trying to stay current and have fun.  Although some of the album’s slower material is more weighty and emotionally deep, songs like “Obsessed”, “Up Out My Face” and “More Than Just Friends” (which contains some fantastic lyrics such as “Secretly I know you wanna hit it like the lotto / And after that we can ketchup like tomato / We can make love in Italy in the grotto / Fresh off the jet at the Met they screamin’ bravo”) are designed to keep the BPMs up, keep things light and moving briskly, and create songs which have sharper lyrics and fun, bouncy melodies.  The marching band “reprise” of “Up Out My Face” is a fantastic, creative interlude that really knocks, and would have been great as an extended song – it harks back to one of Mariah’s performances of “Shake It Off” (perhaps the Thanksgiving Parade performance? I don’t remember… if anyone knows, feel free to comment!).  “Standing O” is another hard-hitting uptempo track that gathers its intensity as Mariah applauds an ex-lover for breaking her heart – “All you did was pound on it”.  The beats accumulate towards the end of the song, as Mariah’s voice gets more insistent and an almost operatic soprano punctuates her despair.  Although it had to grow on me somewhat, I am really enjoying the track.

There are a couple of tracks where I differ from what I understand to be the general consensus, according to other forum and blog comments, as well as video reviews of the album I’ve seen on Youtube.  “Ribbon” has been garnering comments such as being ‘overproduced’ with its distorted hooks forming part of the music, and more of a crunk beat than other tracks, really hitting hard.  From what I understand, people are saying the track is a bit overcooked and Mariah gets lost in it – I disagree! I love the song, its music is dark and percussive, but Mariah’s syrupy vocals and lyrics “Wrapped up, wrapped up, ribbon with a bow on it” sit on top of all that like the icing on a cake.  It’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the album, and although it is a typical The-Dream track that could have easily fit on his Love vs. Money album, I don’t think that it suffers for that – there’s not another track like it on the album, so it stands out.

Whereas my only weak track, which other people seem to love, is “It’s A Wrap”.  Mariah pours wine at the beginning of the track, so I guess we are supposed to relax into it, but the doo-wop beat and sparse piano forces the song to melt away and become unmemorable.  The lyrics are somewhat lackluster compared to the zingers on other songs such as “Up Out My Face” (“If we were two Lego blocks, even the Harvard University Graduating Class of 2010 couldn’t put us back together again” !!!!!!) and “More Than Just Friends”, or to the emotional heft of ballads such as “H.A.T.E.U.”, “The Impossible” and “Angels Cry”.  The only line that “It’s A Wrap” has going for it, IMO, is “It’s going down like a denominator” – and you have to wait for the end of the song to get to that bit.  Just a bit lackluster for me – but other people love it, so you may love it too and we’ll agree to disagree.

Earlier I compared Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel to classic Mariah albums Butterfly and Rainbow.  This becomes apparent during the album’s closing stretch – though on “Candy Bling” and “Inseparable” Mariah offers a relaxed yet absorbing throwback vibe (to former Mariah tracks “Yours” and “We Belong Together”, respectively), and on opening ‘prologue’ “Betcha Gon’ Know” Mariah masterfully weaves an absorbing tale of heartbreak and infidelity just as she wrote spellbinding descriptive lyrics on classic “The Roof” – it’s not until “The Impossible” that we really seem to penetrate into Mariah’s heart.  The sexy R&B feel gives nods to Jodeci and provides a classic texture that once more exemplifies just how much is missing from 2009-typical R&B. Hopefully this is a sign that older R&B values are coming back around – although Mariah popularised the trend of female singers working with rappers, Memoirs does not boast a single collaboration and is all the better for it.  “Angels Cry” is a heartfelt ode to love lost that sounds like classic Mariah, and of course there is the closer “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  These last two tracks really ratchet up the emotional impact of Mariah’s album, where other tracks are lighter and more fun, or restrained slower material – and make sure that it goes out on a high.

Okay, so I am a big Mariah Carey fan, and I am bound to say that I love the album.  For me, it’s a real album that flows (hence the various reprises and little flourishes that help the songs segue together sonically as well as thematically) rather than just a collection of songs.  The lyrics and vocals work together to compliment each song’s mood, content and impact.  And apart from “It’s A Wrap”, I really enjoy every track on the album.  So for me, taking the songs individually, they are winners, but the album as a whole is elevated beyond the sum of its parts to something quite special.  In my opinion, this is why it stands head and shoulders above Whitney Houston’s I Look To You (certainly not an album which has a cohesive feel, and I only like half of the songs anyway) as well as nearly every other album I’ve heard released in 2009.  This is where Mariah Carey is not only a gifted singer and vocalist, but an artist who keeps working at and developing her craft as a writer, producer and someone who envisions how her project should sound from start to finish.  Check the credits: Mariah Carey is Executive Producer, Album Producer, and a producer and writer on every single song (apart from the cover version).  As a singer, a songwriter and an artist, she is what I aspire to be, and Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel is, like Butterfly and Rainbow, an example of her at her very best.

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break the ice.

September 21, 2009

So today was my first day of my Careers Guidance course at uni!  It went well, there was a lot of information to take in and my head is still spinning a tiny bit, but it was good, everyone seems nice and I made a couple of friends already!  It seems a bit daunting and also a very fast-moving course, but I am ready for the challenge (I think!) and I know that it’s only natural to be nervous and I am capable of it.  I can do this.  Let’s go!

So as it was our first day in the classroom, and we only knew a couple of people (whom we’d gone to interview with) very barely, so it was natural that we had to do some icebreaker games.  I had feared this, but I had expected this too.  We had to each write down something “unusual” about ourselves, and although thinking about it now, I could have written that when I was 18, I met Janet Jackson at an album release party for Damita Jo (I won a radio competition with Star FM) and talked to her very briefly.  I could have also written some other stuff that I can’t recall right now, but in the end, I came out with the fact that I sing, write and produce my own music, and I promote it here online (on this blog, on myspace and on youtube, as well as through my twitter account).

There were several people who had done musical things, like me, and it was very interesting.  However, everyone seemed to take an interest in me to the point that I almost felt a little embarrassed about mentioning it, because although I am very proud of my material (and listening to some of the songs from Quiet Storm again last night, I really did some bangers on this album!!!! I can’t wait for y’all to hear it 😀 ), it was strange for people to be so interested in it.  Especially for people who a) didn’t know me from Adam, and b) people who have done their own music things (with varying degrees of success but some certainly more successful than me) in a variety of genres and settings.  I was touched that they took such an interest and gave me respect, but I did feel the glare of attention on me and I wished I had chosen something else to reveal about myself.

Especially because out of the 22 of us, only me and one other guy (Mike) smokes.  Though it seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind yet, I am anticipating someone’s eventual question “why do you smoke if you sing?” I know that I shouldn’t, but luckily up until now I have gotten away with it with barely a scratch on my vocals, so to speak.  I can still sing, I can still belt, I can still whisper, I can still whistle (sort of… I can do a pretty good whistle for a guy).  I am learning to belt less and to sing powerfully with my head voice more, which sounds less straining and also allows me to control myself more and emote slightly more.  So my technique is changing, but improving; not declining.  My father said the other night that although I am apparently “still too loud”, I “sing more and howl less”.  It was supposed to be a compliment and I took it as such – although I don’t deny that I am loud when I sing at home against the stereo (poor neighbours), I was touched that my dad can hear the improvement in my technique.  Power is important, but also I value transmitting the emotion when I sing and trying to carry the impact of the tune and the lyrics and the emotions all at once.  That’s what I feel is the true task and true skill of a singer – to really feel the story / mood that a song tells, and to transmit that to your audience so that the song becomes special / significant to them and they feel a little bit of what you feel.  Singing may be a technical thing, but it’s also a primal and emotional thing.

I guess it did break the ice, and I guess I do feel more comfortable within the group.  I certainly don’t dread tomorrow!  But I hope that the music thing becomes a footnote in my year on the course, unless I decide to make it otherwise.  I want to have the control and power over what I sing and when I do it.  That’s what I’ve always enjoyed up to now, and that’s something I hope to maintain throughout my life. 🙂