According to Syleena Johnson, she was a mere three-year-old when her parents placed her on a nightclub stool and asked her to sing. Not some rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, instead Johnson broke out into a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “I Have Never Loved a Man”. The song is the title track of the 1967 recording that brought Franklin from the obscurity of her career at Columbia Records, where she recorded some functional pop and jazz tracks, and introduced her to a larger audience that would come to view her as the definitive “soul” voice, hence that term the “Queen of Soul”.
Perhaps such a comparison to Aretha would prove daunting to the 24-year-old Syleena Johnson, though no less daunting than the expectations of those parents that placed her up on that bar stool over 20 years ago. Johnson’s mother was one of the first black female law enforcement officers in the state of Illinois and her father, well her father is none other than the legendary and thoroughly underrated “Soul Man” Syl Johnson. Syleena Johnson’s “official” debut recording — an earlier recording Love Hangover was released independently — Chapter 1: Love, Pain, & Forgiveness chronicles the grownup challenges faced by a young woman with a stunningly grown-up voice.
Chapter 1: Love, Pain, & Forgiveness is a very personal narrative, largely conceived as Johnson recovered from a very damaging romantic relationship — a pathetic voice mail from her former boo is interspersed throughout the recording. In this regard, the recording is reminiscent of Sunshine Anderson’s debut. Unlike Anderson, Johnson openly addresses issues of battering (“Hit on Me”) and bi-sexuality (“He’s Gonna Do You In”). With the exception of the R. Kelly penned lead single, the very fine “I Am Your Woman”, all of the lyrics were written by Johnson.
Much of the production is handled by the veteran Bob Powers, though guitarist JK shares his production talents on the bumpin’ “You Got Me Spinnin'”. The presence of Bob Powers as producer speaks volumes about Jive’s investment in Johnson as a singer/songwriter in that Powers has often been the kind low-key producer and engineer that accompanied strong and distinct debuts such as D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and Badu’s Baduizm.
Though her voice is at times suggestive of jazz vocalist Vanessa Rubin, there is no doubt that Johnson has an affinity for the “deep” soul that was emblematic of the Hi recording label, which produced folks such as Al Green, Ann Peebles (“I Can’t Stand the Rain” still holds up, even with the brilliant Missy Elliot/Timbaland reworking of it on Missy’s debut), and Syl Johnson. This affinity is most apparent on tracks such as “Baby I’m Confused” and “I’d Rather Be Wrong” which puts a contemporary spin on Luther Ingram’s (the original Luther!) “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right)”.
Johnson’s old-school sensibilities — I’m talking about an old-school of Dorothy Moore (the original “Misty Blue”), Latimore (“Let’s Straighten It Out”) and Denise LaSalle — are most powerfully evident on the defiant “Hit on Me” and “He’s Gonna Do You In”, which features Blues legend Buddy Guy. With lyrics like “I made Believe that it really didn’t hurt me / Made believe that I only hurt myself / I believed you every time you said I’m sorry / Was too ashamed to tell someone I needed help” a song like “Hit on Me” delves into the various complexities of (wife) battering. Towards the end of the track, Johnson invokes Alice Walker’s The Color Purple with the line “You know nothing good gonna come to you.”
In the second chorus of “He’s Gonna Do You In”, a song loosely based on the 12-bar blues style, Johnson addresses the issue of bisexuality as she sings “I Knew a boy, his name was Troy / He was a young thing / He wanted inside me, but I wouldn’t give in / But when it was over, when he didn’t win / He found a warm place behind another man.” Though the song can be read as homophobic, it can also be read as a cautionary tale of the ways some women are used by some men to ward off the speculation that they might be homosexual. Examples of this are brilliantly represented in Thomas Glave’s collection of short stories Whose Song? And Other Stories.
Johnson’s updated “Chitlin’ Circuit” soul is not for the queasy and is not to be confused with the neo-soul movement. Chapter 1: Love, Pain, & Forgiveness is some down-home-cum-Chicago-styled soul. With a veritable army of neo-soul wannabes cluttering the market place such as India.Arie (yes, I said it!) and the forthcoming Alicia Keys, Syleena Johnson debut is a refreshing tribute to a time when soul music was molasses thick (Alaga style) and suffocatingly personal.