[14 October 2009]
Chrisette Michele is one of those artists who suffers from the bifurcated way black music is marketed and sold—and consumed. She’s too good a singer to be a pop star. And too young and hip hop-inspired to be relegated to the neo-soul, adult contemporary section of the record store. (Is there even an AC section on Itunes?)
Or so we are told.
Because she is in a not-so-enviable position, her record label tried to position her on her first album, I Am, as a torch singing sentimental by releasing two torchy ballads—“If I Have My Way” and “Best of Me”—leading many people to think that was all that her debut had to offer. Even though I Am was as varied a debut we’ve seen, boasting better than expected production from will.i.am, exceptional work by Salaam Remi, and a rejuvenated Babyface, it seemed that audiences and critics were reacting to Island Def Jam’s marketing of Michele, not the music on her album. By the time “Be Okay” came around and won Michele a Grammy, Island Def Jam was already sending Michele out, new haircut and all, to remind people that she is only 26, likes to have fun, and isn’t just a “singer.”
At first blush, Epiphany, with its executive production by industry darling Ne-Yo, would seem to be Michele’s studio-crafted and approved official coming out party—an apology of sorts for saddling the record-buying public with too much emotion and nuance the last go-round. But Epiphany is not all that different from I Am. In fact, if anything, the sheer force of Michele’s talent, unique vocal phrasing, and personality shines through even more than it did before. It sounds like the songwriters were trying to capture the essence of Michele’s songwriting on her debut, rather than hired writers handing over songs that they could easily have given to other artists.
I expect that Island Def Jam thought that Ne-Yo would give Michele the commercial mojo needed to lift record sales. Instead, Michele completely elevates his work, particularly lead single “Epiphany” and album closer “I’m Okay”. Like Teedra Moses and Usher before her, Michele proves that a Ne-Yo song really only soars when sung by a tried and true dynamite vocalist.
Clearly then, it should come as no surprise that the best songs on the album are the three that Michele wrote – “Blame It on Me”, “Fragile”, and “Mr. Right”. Each one is strikingly different from the others and shows just how versatile a singer Michele can be. “Blame It on Me” is all bluesy cool, effectively showcasing the raspy texture of Michele’s voice. “Mr. Right” is ‘60s girl group R&B with just the right amount of attitude and killer background vocals.
But for as good as those songs are, “Fragile” is better. The song is pure gospel devotion. When Michele sings the hook—“Don’t you leave me / Out on a limb / Can you see me / Here on the edge / Boy, don’t’ tell me no / Don’t tell me no / Oh, my heart is fragile”—well, she might as well be asking for salvation from God. In the grand tradition of great black music, Michele obliterates the line between the secular and the divine. It’s a stunning achievement.
It may be true that these songs aren’t “single-ready”, but they are a much better indication of the kind of artist that Michele is trying to be. For as good as she sounds throughout Epiphany, there is a clear sense of purpose that shines through when she is singing her own stuff. In an industry that is letting every pop artist with a diary write songs, it’s a shame that Michele’s writing contributions were so diminished this go ‘round.
And despite the fact that you know that the album is designed to appeal to a mass audience—whatever that means—it feels more organic and lived-in than the neo-soul/jazz music that the industry is trying to steer Michele away from. It’s a true testament to the sheer force and beauty of Michele’s skills.