Too Smooth, Baby, Too Smooth
Illuminate has all the qualities you’d expect from a veteran artist making her solo debut with an equally distinguished team of veteran producers and musicians—maybe too much of what you’d expect. It’s smooth, clean, and professional to the point of being nearly flawless. But it’s missing something… character, warmth, maybe just good old consistent songwriting. Put it this way: Illuminate is a great top-down summer driving album, but you may not be inclined to pop it out of the car stereo and bring it inside to your home hi-fi.
San Fransiscan Latrice Barnett has previously fronted soul act Five Point Plan and funk outfit Galactic. She’s toured as a bassist with Handsome Boy Modeling School, among others. And she’s lent her voice to soulful house tracks by a variety of big-names. She’s enlisted two of the biggest and hottest, Jay-J (Jason Hernandez) and Kaskade (Ryan Raddon), to co-produce Illuminate. And the textures are as lush and the basslines as deep as you’d expect from this team. So why is the overall package underwhelming?
In short, there are just too many breezy, yet interchangeable, uptempo house tracks. Those lush, twinkling keyboards and deep basslines start to become liabilities when you hear them in song after song. There are some highlights, like the sublimely groovy “Celebrate” and the seductive “Take It from Here”, which is the kind of thing Janet Jackson could be doing if she still were interested in making progressive music. But Latrice is usually all-too-happy to let the pleasant production do the talking where strong choruses and melodies should. The problem is exacerbated by a bloated 15-track, hour-plus runtime.
In an interesting twist, Illuminate‘s true high points come when Latrice strays away from the script and ventures beyond soul-house territory. The title track, for example, is a guitar-strumming, shimmering pop treat. “Lessons Learned” is an excellent ballad, complete with jazzy arrangement and some cracking live drums. Spoken-word electro psyche-out “déjà vu” isn’t a total winner, but it’s engaging. “Bless This House” is one of the best dance tracks for Latrice’s spiritual conviction and openness; she’s singing about God, but when she says, “Guide us through these long nights”, the subject could just as well be house music itself. Finally, “Alive” is another example of strong, jazzed-up R&B.
You can imagine that Latrice and her team wanted to keep up the energy with a slate of consecutive house tracks, or maybe they didn’t want to throw off her core house music audience. But burying these more varied moments in the album’s second half was a mistake. Another pitfall is the producers’ over-reliance on multi-tracking Latrice’s voice. It’s a sweet, warm voice, but also slight. The layering adds heft and works on some tracks, but on the dance tracks especially it only serves to squash out character. There are plenty of over-processed female vocalists out there in the dance/pop world already.
All this might be making Illuminate out to be a “bad” album. Frustratingly, it’s not. Equally frustratingly, it falls far short of the potential hinted at by its best songs. It’s too bad that the eclectic, inviting tracks on Illuminate have to serve as exceptions that prove the rule.