India.Arie’s newest album, Songsversation, shows an artist who, for better or for worse, remains defined by the second song from her first album. That song, entitled “Video”, shows Arie’s power and also the potential downside of her artistic approach. It’s a feel-good song about how she can be comfortable with her body: “When I look in the mirror and the only one there is me / Every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be / ...I learned to love myself unconditionally / Because I am a queen.” The words ride a breezy groove, but Arie walks a narrow line between encouraging empowerment and sounding like a teacher in health class. At a certain point, having someone else tell you to be happy with yourself—no matter what—may get annoying, especially if you’re not happy with yourself. On Songversation, Arie is positive (almost relentlessly so), and she’s good at finding silver linings, but the onslaught of positivity—and the clichés she tends to rely on to express those feelings—can be alienating.
India.Arie released her debut, Acoustic Soul, in 2001, not too long after D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mamma’s Gun, and thus near the peak of neo-soul’s success, when artists showing explicit links to the soul and funk of the ‘60s and ‘70s were in high demand. Arie’s album started with an explicit dedication to musical “ancestors”, including Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Donny Hathaway; she also should’ve given an explicit mention to Bill Withers, whose acoustic guitar and breakbeat-driven sound informed the first half of Arie’s album.
Songversation mostly works from the same sonic pallet as Acoustic Soul: low-key, down-tempo soul, with acoustic-sounding guitar picking and piano up front. “Just Do You” has a steady thwack, linking the dance floor with a throw-caution-to-the-wind message: “So what you waiting on? Who you waiting for / If you don’t take a chance you’ll never know what’s in store.” “Just Do You’s” hook evokes Michael Jackson’s 1979 hit “Off the Wall”, while “Thy Will Be Done” mixes it up by touching on reggae.
Arie is pretty upbeat about love on this album, but when describing her feelings, she falls back too much on stock, recycled phrases. “The world can be so cold,” she sings, “but you are always warm.” Later she suggests, “You cannot fly, until you break the shell”, and “I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside / I am light.” When she asks “how far will we go before we have to learn the lesson”, you may wonder about those ancestors of hers; the blues knows that we never learn our lesson until it is too late. At such a point, Arie’s clichés can begin to feel meaninglessness.
Every one is in some sense trapped by the language they are given, but artists are in a unique position to transcend language by linking it with rhythm, melody, and delivery. There is nothing to distinguish an Arie statement like “I am moved by you.” She sings it softly and sweetly—as she sings everything on the record—lest we doubt her, but how is she moved, and in what way? Is he moving her out the door or towards him? She loses specificity, and sometimes, the listener’s interest with it.