Michelle Williams, for the uninitiated, is one third of the on-again/off-again pop powerhouse that was Destiny's Child. The newest member of the group, joining in 2000 to replace LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, Williams has been along for the most commercially successful portion of the band's roller coaster ride to fame. In her short tenure with the band, she has contributed her smooth vocals to such platinum tracks as "Independent Women No 1", "Say My Name", and "Survivor", and has shown herself more than able to keep up with the highly aerobic dance routines that accompany their live performances. But despite the collective success of the group, Williams herself has been outshined thus far by the overwhelmingly diva-licious Beyonce Knowles, whose skyrocketing solo career gets hotter everyday, and Kelly Rowland, whose single "Dilemma" catapulted her firmly into the chart-topping stratosphere. While Knowles and Roland have been regular fixtures on MTV, awards shows, and sports spectaculars, integrating themselves into the hip-hop scene by strutting their stuff with hip-hop icons like Jay-Z and Nelly, Williams has taken a different route, taking to the stage to show off her pipes in Broadway's Aida and touring the country with more adult-contemporary artists like Luther Vandross and Angie Stone. She even recorded a duet with gospel legend Shirley Ceasar, quite an exciting prospect for a girl who made her name singing in churches, but its no "Baby Boy" nonetheless.
If there is a benefit to steering clear of the spotlight, quietly releasing solo records without the glitzy fanfare of her former group-mates, Williams has tapped into it, positioning herself as the only former "Child" who has stayed true to her gospel roots. For while all of the Destiny's Child members enjoyed a career boost from their steadfast gospel fans and their churchgoing brethren, only Williams continues to write and record songs that have a palpably religious center. This trait could win her some long-term cred with more loyal fans should the Beyonce and Kelly fires burn out under the pressure of over-exposure. On the other hand, it could spell a solo career that will never really take root in the mainstream because of the tendency of religious music to alienate secular fans. Judging from her sophomore solo effort, Do You Know, Williams doesn't seem to care either way. Fully embracing her role as the more God-driven, down to earth member of Destiny's Child, Williams has recorded a record that is meant for a different audience than her populist groupmates. Stylistically, it steers more towards easy listening than booty-shaking top-ten territory. While not as overtly religious as her debut record, Heart to Yours, which never got much notice outside of the gospel charts, this new record takes on the issues of success and fame and wrestles with them in a spiritual context. While it is clear that she and her managers have deliberately diluted the religious content of her songs in order to reach a broader audience, the ambiguity actually has the opposite effect, sapping some of the passion out of the songs in favor of a lighter, yet decidedly less interesting, overall package. The tracks that succeed on Do You Know are the ones that are both light and unabashedly catchy -- basically those that defer to the R&B template for their arrangement and structure. The songs that are meant to be an attempt to water down gospel in order to make in more palatable to secular listeners end up falling through the cracks.
The record opens up with the unfortunately titled "Purpose in Your Storm", a spirited and sugary track with a catchy samba beat and slick, hyper-layered production courtesy of Tommy Sims. The pairing of Williams and Bruce Springsteen bassist Sims at first seems like a good idea -- after all, he helped another young vocalist, Kelly Clarkson, to transform herself from a sticky sweet American Idol contestant to a young woman who may stand a chance of sticking around for a solo career. Yet Sims's arrangements seem to work against Williams's overall theme, sacrificing substance for over-produced polish. "Purpose in Your Storm" is a perfect example of this problem. The underlying melody of the song is solid, yet the addition of layer upon layer of slick sounding percussion sounds and annoyingly unison downbeat takes away from this, and the tired inspirational lyrics only add to this watering-down effect. "You can make it, stop complaining / There's a purpose in your life / Mama's been where you goin' / It's gonna be alright". I would take a bold and assured religious message any day over this clichéd fluff.
Luckily, straight-up R&B ballad "Never Be the Same" fares better than the first track, with a bouncy synth bass holding down Williams's sweetly plaintive vocals. Williams singing style is pleasingly slow paced, laying back lazily over the downbeat in a fashion that owes a lot to her pop contemporaries like Ashanti and Janet Jackson. This technique fares well in tight arrangements like "Never Be the Same", but sounds a bit blander when the vocals are used as a rhythmic center, as in the third song, "Love Thang". "Love Thang" relies far too much on repetition for a song with such an unremarkable melody, and by the time the song opens up to a more interesting chorus, listeners with short attention spans will have probably already flipped to the next song. The title track to the record is a no-holds-barred ballad set up as a reminder to a broken hearted friend that God can more important than human love. The piano-led beginning is pretty enough, as she sings, "I hate to see you crying / Seems like your world is torn apart / Just know that God is faithful / Cause he'll heal your wounded heart". But whatever fragility was established in the intro is quickly laid waste by an overzealous chorus that catapults the song quickly into embarrassingly emotional territory with the all the subtlety of an after-hours televangelist.
Like "Never Be the Same", "The Incident" is an R&B tune, complete with over-harmonized backing vocals. This radio-friendly head shaker is a high point on the album, showcasing Williams's syrupy warble to good effect. "15 Minutes" is one of the few ballads on Do You Know that actually works. Perhaps it's because her subject matter, fame, is so compelling coming from a woman who has been so suddenly and completely thrust into the spotlight. The song showcases what sounds like a sincere ambivalence to her success, musing about what might have been, perhaps in an attempt to empathize with former Destiny's Child members LaToya and LaTavia, who were dumped off the roller coaster before the band hit its peak just before she joined in 2000. She muses, "It could have been me left out there / Wandering aimlessly / Running here running there / With no place to be / And I should have been a one-hit wonder / 15 minutes of fame". "No One Like You" is similarly successful, but for altogether different reasons. This is the only song on the record that truly has a gospel feel to it, with its start-stop harmonized vocals and clap-worthy rhythm.
Overall, Do You Know is a decent, yet not spectacular sophomore effort for Michelle Williams. While it might not enough to ensure her a successful career outside of her contributions to Destiny's Child, it isn't without its particular merits and shining moments. One would hope that for her next record, Williams will leave out the filler that leaves many of her songs vacillating between radio friendly R&B and gospel. Although her talent for laid-back R&B vocals is the stronger of the two, gospel seems to be closer to Williams's heart and it is there that she will make her mark if she continues on the same path she has been treading so far.