Chrisette Michele’s debut comes in a recent flush of R&B records, released under the supervision of Def Jam’s mega man CEO, Jay-Z. His inherent proclivity for pairing these artists with a musical accompaniment to suit their voice and image resulted in a seemingly endless stretch of blockbuster singles, most notably fronted by the label’s golden children Rihanna and Ne-Yo. For Rihanna, Jay-Z hired the best writers to work with her limited voice. He based her career on image and catchiness, releasing her three albums in an unbelievably brief three years — a tactic that forced listeners to focus on what was coming next instead of allowing them to dwell on the problems of the present. Like Rihanna, Ne-Yo had a non-distinctive voice with unremarkable production to match. But, paralleling his label mate, his casual good looks and ear-grabbing abilities made it possible for Jay-Z to follow the same business model, encouraging prolificness instead of focusing on the cultivation of talent.
With his discovery of Chrisette Michele, the CEO was most likely faced with his first ultimate dilemma on the job: developing an artist who had an image that did nothing but support her clearly superior voice. Michele has an instrument that channels the gorgeously sour vocal stylings of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, but with enough restraint and thickness to merit comparisons with modern day crooners such as Jaguar Wright and Amy Winehouse. As a hook singer, Michelle worked wonders on Nas’ “Can’t Forget About You” and Jay-Z’s “Lost Ones,” managing to sound like rusty samples on each single. Her versatility and jazz-sprinkled inflections greatly proved to outweigh her physical appearance and, with the direction at which her guest appearances hinted her solo effort would venture, Michele seemed like the next R&B star to earn her big notch on the neo-soul timeline.
Unfortunately, I Am, her debut on the traditionally hip-hop label, diverges from the path her hooks and styles seemed to suggest she would follow. The album plays with a light crispness built on the thin R&B sound of the ‘90s, giving Michele the space to flaunt her deliciously burning voice while moaning about her puffy romances and naive heartbreaks. Her vocals and attitude throughout the record prove that she has already found her own character (facilitating the CEO with his usual quandary), but where I Am fails to pulsate is in its musical groundwork. Michele is capable of shining on almost any song, but after listening to the album, one immediately recognizes that she would sound much more at home blowing with a big brass ensemble or in front of an orchestral wall. Knowing that her voice could have been the rich focal point of thick instruments as it was to the legends whom she echoes, I Am comes off as more of a disappointing achievement than a remarkable debut, leaving the listener wishing for a record that had more of a classic feel and at least attempted to break from typical dullness.
The album begins with “Like a Dream”, an upbeat track so traditional that it teeters on the line between kitschy and cumbersome. Smooth jazz guitars and a corny synthesizer undercut the prettiness of Michele’s voice, forcing her love-at-first-sight tale to leave a bitter aftertaste. But even when she sparkles with a breakdown of three-note chords in the middle of the song, the instruments seep in with such overt blandness that the track loses any possible opportunity it had of maintaining its only beautiful moment. The triteness continues on “If I Have My Way”, featuring that same glossy synthesizer sound used on what seems like every slow R&B jam. Michele loses her sharp edge and vocal character as she flows along the banal instrumentation, acquiescing to the melody as she airs her desire for a man she cannot yet call her own. Later on the album, “Is This the Way Love Feels” falls flat in the same way as the aforementioned, except that it lasts for a painfully long almost seven minute run. The track rarely diverges from its ordinary melodic base, and when Michele drops out at the halfway mark to make way for an electric guitar solo, the song finally seals its own fate.
Although other tracks like the daddy-dedicated “Your Joy” and synth-heavy “Golden” fall victim to the same traps, several numbers on I Am manage to have a wonderful bounce. Perhaps this discrepancy stems from the fact that half are produced by big name knob-twiddlers who have developed an individual sound, while the rest are virtually unknowns who seem content with working on a lower level. Thankfully, the star producers know how to work with her voice, allowing both the instrumentation and the vocal style to coalesce into beautiful concoctions. Will.i.am, who could be blamed for many of the faults in hip-pop as a result of his work with the Black Eyed Peas, surprisingly breathes life into the club banger “Be OK,” on which he is both featured and credited as producer. Michele sounds absolutely stunning as she breezes along the track with self-help inspiration for the broken-hearted, while will.i.am provides tinny horns and big beat drums that recall the majesty of upper-tier Rich Harrison production.
Elsewhere on I Am, will.i.am mans the boards again for “Let’s Rock,” where Michele bops and shines as she commands the dance floor to “Take two steps to the right / Just rock, do the wop” and describes how she was taking notes from “Miss Billie, Miss Ella, Miss Sarah Vaughan and Miss Natalie Cole”. Those learned skills are enacted on the John Legend-produced “Love Is You,” which gets much closer to the orchestral sound that seems best suited for her voice. Salaam Remi, who most recently exercised his chops on tracks with Amy Winehouse and Mutya Buena, provides Michele with the stripped backbone for “In This for You” that echoes with reverb and a subtle cello line. As the drums bump at a distance, Michele details how “He’ll make his money / Keeping me comfy,” inevitably settling on romance over material goods.
But while these tracks have lasting quality, the rest of the record does not. I Am is undoubtedly enjoyable on the upbeat tracks that perfectly mesh with the mature quality of Michele’s voice, but most of the tracks are too tasteless and sound inordinately hackneyed in their resurrection of a sound that has been over-marred for the past decade. While Jay-Z did not have to worry about Michele’s clean image, he should have been focusing on the fact that Michele could have thrived in a musical environment that was truly subsumed in the sounds of the early to mid-1900s. Current successful musicians like Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson have already discovered that this sound works and have re-contextualized it for the modern day masses, but the people behind Michele seem to have missed out on that fact. As a result, I Am shows great failure where the potential for magnanimous success seemed so immense.