Leela James' small frame packs a punch as big as her hair, and her potential is palpable. Despite aiming at the old stars, though, she remains frustratingly stuck in today's well-worn orbits.
"All the soul is gone. All the music's gone. Let's take it back."
-- from "Music"
In a recently published collections of interviews, Bono sums up the energies catalysing the birth of rock 'n' roll along these lines: you have the negative energy of the blues, the positive energy of gospel, and in the middle you place Elvis, whose dancing bore more than a passing resemblance to electrocution. Regardless of your personal feelings for the man living the political Fly life with enervating single-mindedness, I think you'll agree it's a brilliantly potent metaphor. Disagreements as to the veritable opposition of these proposed polarities notwithstanding, the image is also an effective illustration of how conflicting forces within ourselves are at the root of our drives, of action, of change.
Here's another kind of equation, which I'll call Rota & Bling until something more piquant comes to mind: take one attractive female in her late teenage years or early 20s with reasonable control of her reasonably pure voice, add a strike team of stylists, photographers, fashion label A&Rs, an in-demand hip-hop producer, several talented songwriters whose own-name albums never break the mainstream, and a few suitably gully 'n' gruff gangstas dropping langurous 16s. Take the result and store in a major label studio until it can be multiplied over Clear Channel air waves, allowing Billboard and cash tills everywhere to do the math. Remove giggling, drooling industry leaches from knees, where they have clamped themselves at the first sign of success. Rejoice. Repeat.
Note: post-Beyonce, every singer must be credited with co-producing her lead vocals. Can you imagine what would happen if this spread to rappers? "TURN ME UP, FOOL" "Luda, I swear to God the equipment doesn't go past 11" *Bang*
Now, Leela James appears ready to mess with the numbers game a little. "We can't go back to yesterday/ But can't we just put the thongs away/ And fall back in love with music," goes flagship single "Music", and "Nostalgia! Passion! Neo-soul!" ring off the the bells in the marketing man's head. I should probably be agreeing unequivocally with Leela -- she of the tiny frame, lusty voice and direct singing approach -- yet I am uneasy, even as the purchasers of Brooke Valentine/Ciara albums nod their heads. This uneasiness isn't based in the patness of that phrase, which seems a little like a lure, nor with the fact that the only problems I have with thongs is their purported unhealthiness for the wearer, and an ardent wish never to see Arethra Franklin or Chaka Khan in one.
No, rather I'm edgy because an album that contains an accomplished cover of Sam Cooke's teetering-on-the-edge-collapse classic (that title is supposedly out of respect, see, not lack of imagination) also contains the track succeeding "Music", "Good Time" -- OK, it's lack of imagination -- which includes the lines "Forget your worries/ Just leave them behind/ 'Cos life's too short/ You need to find a good time," amongst frothy inanities and "Funky Sensation" samples. We also have two tracks produced and (co-)written by Raphael Saadiq, two by overrated genius Kanye West, one by Wyclef Jean and one by the potentially monstrous combo of James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix (the actual result's alright, but a let-down). Things getting a little too predictable? Have a cover of "Don't Speak". Yes, by No Doubt.
Let it not be said that there's anything wrong with singing other peoples' songs, though -- have you heard James Carr, Terry Callier, or for that matter Jeff Buckley? Granted, you could lay the blame for an occasional lack of lyrical punch on either James' slightly green songwriting or the often less than intuitive "singer does words/producer does music" school of song creation. Without denying either of these allegations, I'd still plead that, post-R. Kelly, we've simply been exposed to too many songs covering too little emotional subject matter from far too similar angles, with the result that we just can't take another face-value address of the same issues too seriously. If both the singer and her opposition fail to spark either her imagination or our interest, how is an emotional charge going to be transmitted? It's alright, I loved you and you mistreated me but I'm still worth it? Rufus Wainwright hang-gliding naked through a rose plantation for a L'Oreal ad... enough already, change the channel.
See, much as I want to believe in Ms. James as the forthright, heartfelt antidote to impersonal plasticity piped over crunk beats, her debut just doesn't serve up anything coherent or intimate enough to provide us with what the scene's really missing, namely personality. She has the voice and the delivery, no doubt about that -- even on Jean's "Ghetto", which is basically a musical retread of that fun-but-pointless track he did with Missy Elliott, undulating hoover bassline and all, she manages to shimmy in some genuine shimmer. "You can save those high notes for the opera," she casts scornfully at a love rival, and I cheer as, in my mind, she catches Mariah Carey with a right hook to the porky chops. Then you have Saadiq's "Soul Food", which manages to brilliantly bridge the gap between Philly soul and Dr Dre stomp like the best of Instant Vintage, and allows James to purr with the understated heat of a total fox. It's also difficult to find fault with Kanye's contributions, even if one is a subtler, more musical jack of the track employed by Ant for Atmosphere's classic "Travel", whereupon shall Slug ever tearfully voice his gratitude at knowing what's right, and the other is mystifyingly underwritten by a typewriter and an annoying electro-bleep coda (as also sighted on his new single... let's hope this isn't a trend).
And yet, and yet... for all the delicacy of the vocal arrangements and the carefully adjusted warmth of the album's sound as a whole (there are even some rustic little harmonica and banjo-style interludes, to prove her realness), far too often the songs and their sentiments just aren't tight or memorably expressed enough to hold your attention over more than about three minutes of remorselessly looped beats, emotional and melodic drives dissipating into the rhythms instead of riding them. This is amply demonstrated by "Music" itself, but also on "Don't Speak". I'd be the first to admit that this is an appallingly difficult song to cover well, and when she goes for it towards the end she rips some great singing out of them there notes, but the transposition into the flat mode of contemporary R&B's song structure leaves us here, as too often elsewhere, with tracks that continue predictably rather than flowing or... changing. You can sing and embroider all you want over the top; underneath, it's sub-Portishead plod as usual.
I can't fight the feeling that I'm being a little harsh, even if that's only because I had such high hopes for this album. It is good, probably the best debut I've heard in this genre since McKay's or Jaguar Wright's -- which is to say it pisses all over the Alicia Keys' of this world -- and sonically the recording marks a genuinely new approach, albeit one still imperfectly balanced. Yet, even if we sidestep the uninspired lyrics and the ways in which the album submits to the Rota & Bling formula instead of striking off on its own, we're still left with confusion in the gaps where a solution ought to be. Attacking the superficiality of music video culture is all very well, but thongs hug booty as the voice wraps the soul, and without inspiration and integrity all you've left within is a big fat nothing, attractive or no. For the moment what we have of Leela James is a petite silhouette with some fantastic hair, the sound of some mighty lungs and an impression of formidable but still obscured potential. A change must surely come, but she's not it, not yet, not whilst she can summon the mood but is uncertain what moves to make with it. Make it personal, would be my plea.