On her latest album, Where It All Begins, Lalah Hathaway tries her hand at piano ballads, crunching up-tempo tracks, swaggering synthesizer tales of female empowerment and jazzy, spacey numbers. But though she tries her hand at a number of styles, her results are all similarly unimaginative. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where Hathaway goes wrong, but Where It All Begins is uninteresting. At a time when exciting new things are happening on many fronts of R&B, Hathaway offers a dull tour through the overdone and the bland.
Hathaway has a good voice. She sings low and sultry much of the time, but she is easily capable of climbing the scale. However, her low tones sometimes make it seem as if she is hiding, afraid to take a song by the throat and run with it. She’s not half as intriguing or commanding as she could – and should – be. Her lack of a commanding presence is not helped by lyrics that are often boring, filled with stock, insipid phrases. There are several moments on the album when she is singing accompanied only by piano and maybe percussion, but instead of welcoming an opportunity to explore the intricacies of Hathaway’s voice, you wish the instruments would return. Where It All Begins was released by Stax, and I expect a vocalist on Stax to grab me, pull me in and make me feel what he or she is feeling, like the Stax singers of old. Hathaway’s voice fails to establish a connection with the listener.
The instrumentation on Where It All Begins is smooth and accomplished, and everything on the album shares the same sonic gleam. Clear, tinkling piano is especially prominent. But the sounds gleam to the point of lifelessness, and the piano becomes cheesy. “If You Want To” thuds along over a hip-hop crunch and a few synth chords. It has a pulse, you may bob your head for lack of something better to do, but nothing distinguishes it from any other song with a driving beat and a female R&B vocalist. “My Everything” jingles along with simple, metronomic drumming. It is probably the catchiest song on the album, but the hook lacks punch, and a refrain of “you are my everything” crosses from cliché into cloying. “Small Of My Back” tries to funk things up, alternating between slower, airy codas and a disco groove, and fails. And the album is far too long. At 55 minutes, listening to it begins to feel like a chore. Hathaway would be better off shortening her songs, injecting some life into them, taking some risks.
Ray Charles, one of the progenitors of rhythm and blues, once said, “Soul is a way of life—but it’s always the hard way.” Hathaway wants it to be easy. She is clearly an accomplished musician, but she traffics in the toothless, ironing out the crinkles but taking everything else with it. The result is an overlong hodgepodge that can border on soporific. At the very least, she needs to step up and assert herself behind the microphone. Smooth does not have to mean dreary.