With the release of her self-titled second album, there should be no doubt that Fantasia Barrino is one of the best R&B vocalists of her generation. While most soul-singin’ chicks in their early-mid 20s offer a modern take on the Janet-esque sensual coo, Fantasia’s voice is already a full-bodied shout that has drawn comparisons to legends like Mary J. and Queen Aretha. And unlike current R&B princess Beyoncé, hard-living, single mom Fantasia has the life experience needed to give her hoarse belting a personal touch. When she cuts loose, unlike the somewhat affected Beyoncé, you can always feel the grit and soul, even when the music and/or lyrics aren’t up to snuff. She’s thoroughly modern and a throwback to soul singers like Ike-era Tina Turner. One listen to this album and you can tell that ‘Tasia doesn’t ever do nothin’ nice and easy.
While Fantasia showed significant promise on her debut effort, Free Yourself, this sophomore effort is a whole lot freer, a lot more soulful and a bit less generic. On that first record, Fantasia made a couple of songs to satisfy the Middle American audience that presumably voted her to her American Idol championship, but on this album, she mainly leaves the maudlin ballads behind. She shakes the glossy production and mannered, tame vocals off for this often raucous set of songs.
Many tracks here have a vintage quality to them, with elements of both Southern soul and Motown. While most folks look back on the golden era of soul as a time when live instruments and “real singing” reigned supreme, Fantasia harkens back to the days when singers like Otis Redding and James Brown (R.I.P.) had an untamable edge to their records. While lead single “Hood Boy” is an almost-tired set of cliches about street credibility (“wife beaters and jeans”) in line with songs ranging from MC Lyte’s “Ruffneck” to Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier”, the song gets by on Fantasia’s feverish vocal and a swinging Supremes sample. She repeats this formula several times, most notably on the tracks “Ineligible” and “Bore Me (Yawn)”. On both tracks, she flips an interesting, speed-singing style. These confrontational songs sound like the musical equivalent of being told off. They’re performed in such a fresh, vivid manner that you can almost see Fantasia’s finger snapping and neck swiveling.
One big surprise about this album is that several of urban music’s most inconsistent producers turn up here with their “A” games. The album’s best ballad cut is the stirring “Two Weeks Notice”, which was co-written and produced by Missy Elliott. Portraying a fed-up girlfriend who decides it’s finally time to go, this swaying slow jam takes you right back to the soul glory days of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Meanwhile, the usually bare-bones Swizz Beatz climbs on board for the throwback jam “Surround U”. While those folks keep it relatively mellow, the album’s tightest cut is the unhinged party track “Baby Makin’ Hips”, on which Fantasia shows Beyoncé and Amerie how songs like “Crazy in Love” and “1 Thing” were supposed to come out sounding.
While a couple of Fantasia’s cuts are pleasantly generic, the album’s one stumble comes with the Babyface-produced/Diane Warren-penned power ballad “I Feel Beautiful”. This track feels like a “just in case” kinda cut, like it’s the song that’s supposed to save the album at pop or adult contemporary radio if the album is deemed too “urban” and consequently, doesn’t sell as well. While Fantasia gives 100% effort vocally, the fact is that both ‘Face and Warren are about a decade past their glory years as music makers. “Beautiful” just sounds like a retread of songs that they’ve had success with in the past.
However, that song’s merely a slight blemish on one of the most solid R&B albums to come across the pike in a long time, and ultimately it all comes down to the voice. Much like her cousin, Jodeci’s frequently unhinged K-Ci Hailey, Fantasia has a voice capable of moving boulders, and even when she’s singing sweet, you can feel the “church” pouring out of her. Although she could probably use an upgrade in the lyrics department (let’s face it, damn near all 20-ish R&B singers do), Fantasia is a solid second effort, made above average by that gem of a voice.