Leela James wants you to know that she’s paid her dues. Fair enough; My Soul is her third album and her first for Stax, and despite moderate success and some awards in the past, fame along the lines of Erykah Badu’s or Macy Gray’s has eluded her. Her new record might go some distance toward correcting this, but if it does, it will be due to James’ strong presence and voice, not because of the songs or arrangements.
Firat things first; “I Ain’t New to This” kicks off the proceedings with grit and attitude. James’ voice is poised midway between outrage and strangulation, demonstrating a power that, sadly, is glimpsed only infrequently throughout the rest of the album. “So Mean” is, despite its title, a love song directed at the titular very mean person, in which the singer’s voice trades sass and rage for trembling vulnerability. Synth-strings make a decidedly unwelcome appearance in the woefully un-funky “The Fact Is”, an example of by-the-numbers R&B that threatens to bury the record under a heavy blanket of mediocrity. Happily, funkier elements prevail in the lurching “I Want it All”. Against a nervous beat and sweetly harmonized backing vocals, James reels off a litany of grievances both societal and personal: “I want A-1 credit / I want a platinum record / I want equality / and your apology.” James’ voice conveys a convincing universe of torment, raising the emotional ante in what has thus far been a fairly typical set of songs.
How sad, then, that typicality returns for much of the rest of the record, in the form of slick arrangements that James must fight against in order to assert her uniqueness. The synths and smooth harmonies do little to help her stand out from the crowd; rather the opposite, as they sand down her rough edges when it is those very edges that make her interesting. “Mr Incredible – Ms Unforgettable” is the most egregious example of this, but “Tell Me You Love Me” is pretty awful too, especially when the eyeroll-inducing spoken-word section kicks in.
The news isn’t all bad. “Let it Roll” picks up the pace with a nice little groove and some soaring vocals. “Supa Lova” flirts with ordinariness before rising above it, thanks to atmospheric vocals and a moody underpinning of keyboards and bass. Similarly, album closer “It’s Over” is a midtempo track built upon layers of keyboards, synths, vocals and percussion. Again, James’ powerful singing manages to overcome tired production that’s doing its damnedest to make her sound ordinary.
At her best, James is a powerful singer and engaging performer. At her worst, she’s the kind of singer whose songs all remind you of somebody else. Often it isn’t her fault, but that of the orchestration surrounding her songs. Although, for the most part, her lyrics are uninspiring as well. She remains a singer with massive potential who must find a way to prevent the producers and engineers from undermining her strong, gutsy gift.