[4 April 2006]
The problem that plagues Heather Headley is the same problem that has plagued many an R&B singer over time. She’s only as good as her material lets her be. Vocally, she’s a definite powerhouse. The former star of Broadway’s Aida is definitely in full command of her voice. It’s a towering, supple instrument that’s mature beyond her 20-something years. Of course, having a voice like that (as well as her regal presence, typical of West Indian women like the Trinidad-born Headley) means she won’t be wearing a tank top and daisy dukes and dropping it like it’s hot in the manner of Beyonce. If you could compare her thick voice to anything, it would be molasses…
…Or syrup, which unfortunately can also be used to describe much of her music. Much as he has done with soul divas ranging from Angela Bofill and Phyllis Hyman to Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, RCA label head Clive Davis gives Heather a bunch of tracks that, while well performed, are a bit sappy and unexciting. The first couple of times I listened to this album, it came across as one big hour-long blur. You have to give her sophomore album, In My Mind, repeated spins before really being able to distinguish any of the songs from one another.
In My Mind is essentially a carbon copy of Headley’s 2002 debut This Is Who I Am, a solid effort that earned her near-platinum sales and a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. One thing I can say in its favor is that the record has great stylistic continuity, with predominately mid-tempos and ballads offset by the occasional island-flavored track designed to show off Headley’s “roots”. I have to give props to any R&B album that doesn’t resort to lazy sampling or showcases for the guest rapper(s) of the moment. The continuity is quite surprising, especially when you consider that almost each of the 12 tracks on the album is produced by someone different.
A sore point on this record is that there’s no vocal, lyrical or production powerhouse to set it apart from everything else that’s out there. On her previous album, there were tracks like the gospel-flavored “He Is” and the dramatic ballad “I Wish I Wasn’t” that lifted the album above average. Here, even the good songs aren’t good enough to elevate the album being bland and mediocre. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produce another big ballad in the vein of the aforementioned “Wasn’t” with “What’s Not Being Said”, and despite Jam and Lewis’ obvious endurance and talent, it just feels like a retread.
Your ears will only perk up when they sense something other than the traditional R&B ballad, which is why the two up tempo tracks are so refreshing. “How Many Ways” and “Rain” both dip a pinky toe into the contemporary dancehall reggae scene, and even a regrettable cameo from Shaggy (boy, where’d his career go?) on “Rain” can’t stop these two songs from being the most delightful, upbeat, fun ones on the album. The album’s other high points include “I Didn’t Mean To” and “Back When It Was”. The former is a lush piano ballad co-written and produced by rising star Ne-Yo. It tells a heartbreaking cheating story and is artistically superior to anything on Ne-Yo’s debut. The fact that a vocal sample from Helen Reddy (of all people) is deftly woven into the song speaks volumes about the production skills utilized here. The latter song has a playful doo-wop vibe that will remind some of a slower number from Grease (there goes the Broadway musical connection again). Music heads will either get a chuckle or a loud “WHAAAT???” out of the fact that this song was produced by noted doo-wop enthusiast Lil’ Jon.
Ultimately, the disappointment with the album has very little to do with Headley herself. The woman has some pipes, and she injects these songs with a sense of drama and believability that will draw comparisons to fellow diva/Broadway star Toni Braxton. However, unlike Toni, who had Babyface in the early going to inject her songs with some spunk and personality, the producers of In My Mind make Heather out to be nothing more than a cipher with a pristine voice. Hearing love song after cheating song after being cheated on song (with the token gospel cut to close the album) makes In My Mind the textbook definition of a generic “adult” R&B diva album.