[18 September 2008]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
It sure would be a shame if the only thing Syleena Johnson was remembered for was being the female voice on Kanye West’s “All Falls Down”. Sure, the track earned both her and West a Grammy nomination back in 2005, but it fails in comparison to most of the solo work Johnson has put in over the past eight years. Her sultry, soulful voice has been strong enough to remain one of the few still standing after the neo-soul revival of the mid-2000s and sincere enough to maintain a fan base that continues to support her no matter what. All things considered, Johnson has quietly established herself as one of the premier female soul singers of the modern day.
So it’s fitting that her latest, I Am Your Woman: The Best Of Syleena Johnson, a collection of tracks taken from her first three efforts, is a low-key release that features a magnificently put-together group of songs that spans the songstress’ first near-decade in the spotlight. Yeah, the predictable is here. “I Am Your Woman,” her duet with porn-less R. Kelly from her first release Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness, still stands tall and reminds us all why we paid attention so early on in her career. And the Busta Rymes collabo from her 2002 release Chapter 2: The Voice, “Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go” is just as infectious as it was six years ago.
But it’s the non-singles that showcase Johnson’s impeccable talent more than anything else. “Everybody Wants Something,” an early, groove-driven jam that she wrote herself, is a perfect fit for a release that is supposed to chronicle an artist’s ongoing career. Her salacious delivery of a pseudo kiss-off to anyone who believes in the “all talk, no work” mantra proves that she was way beyond her years when she reportedly began writing songs at the age of 20.
“If You Play Your Cards Right,” a standout from Chapter 2, is another slowed-down, shoulda-been pop-hit that never got the chance to take off. The song’s acoustic guitar is made for adult-contemporary radio airwaves, and Johnson’s aggressive style clearly sets her apart from other one-hit R&B fakers that are manufactured by suits.
And it’s not like the only good selections come from her earlier work. “Still Open,” a breezy, funky track from Chaper 3: The Flesh, mirrors modern-day sweetheart Jill Scott’s vocal capabilities and soul legend Stevie Wonder’s pop-groovy musical sensibility. Johnson’s delicate, matured voice shines as she asks, “can you see us together?” in a moment that is soaked with two things that made the crooner what she is today: sincerity and beauty.
I Am Your Woman peaks with Chapter 1‘s “I’d Rather Be Wrong”, though. Another track that never made it to radio, “I’d Rather Be Wrong” is everything neo-soul should be. Its feel is covered in brown sugar and its performance displays passion that is unmatched anywhere else on this collection. She’s at her youngest. She’s at her hungriest. And, most importantly, she’s at her best.
Sure, this is supposed to be just a hold-over release, keeping Johnson’s fans busy until her next effort, rumored to be titled Chapter 4: Labor Pains, due in early 2009. But still, I Am Your Woman: The Best of Sylenna Johnson should be more of a reminder of an excellent career-so-far than a simple compilation of tracks. And yes, maybe some spots are missing (Chapter 2‘s “The Voice/Intro” should have been considered, regardless of it being insultingly labeled as a simple intro), but more than anything, this collection is worth a listen. Because after all, as this release proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, it sure would be a shame if all Johnson was remembered for was a Kanye West hook.