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New Releases (8)

Promoted with three singles that, spread across an uncommonly long period, were her biggest Billboard Adult R&B hits, Fall for You quietly became one of Leela James' most successful albums. The upswing continues with the grit-and-grace singer's sixth full-length. Just prior to the release of Did It for Love, "Don't Want You Back" had already surpassed "Set Me Free" as James' highest placement on the Adult R&B chart, which is determined by airplay. An elegant and forthright composite of late-'70s Rufus & Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire with a little contemporary rhythmic sweetening, "Don't Want You Back" does sound best when heard on the radio, in a car with the windows down. That might be especially true for a driver or passenger on the rebound; "He's doin' what he's supposed to do, ooh, it could've been you" is an ego-deflating line executed to smooth perfection. It's one of the album's nine songs James wrote with Rex Rideout, an all-purpose studio and A&R veteran whose work has supported dozens including Will Downing, Ledisi, and BJ the Chicago Kid. The two, joined by several additional associates, are well-matched, evidently capable of covering a lot of emotional range and tying it all together. Dismissal, wistfulness, and contentment (including the fine Dave Hollister duet "Good to Love You") are among the many romantic conditions they soundtrack here, and they manage to do it with a perspective that is steeped in soul tradition but fresh for 2017. The two songs made without Rideout -- the lightly stomping "There 4 U" and dustier, hard-hitting title track, the finale -- are up to the same high standard. Fans of James' earlier output might balk at perceived impurities, like snaking/rattling trap-style drums that undergird some of the tracks, but they're secondary, utilized with finesse, like a natural evolution of what the likes of Kashif and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did with machines during the early '80s. The song shines through each time.

 

 Review by Andy Kellman                   

 

Charlie Wilson breaks his streak of album titles featuring his first name -- why not Charlie 8? -- but the material on In It to Win It mostly sticks to an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach that has brought the singer commercial and Grammy-nominated success for well over a decade. Wilson continues to offer traditional, uplifting R&B that sounds modern and mature without pandering to younger or older audiences. He simply stocks the album with affectionate, gracious love songs and breaks them up with the occasional upbeat funk track or contemporary gospel number -- nothing fancy. This features more guest vocalists than any of Wilson's previous albums. Unsurprisingly, the duets with the fellow singers -- "Smile for Me," featuring Robin Thicke, and "Made for Love," with Lalah Hathaway -- win out. The songs containing appearances from T.I., Pitbull, and Wiz Khalifa wouldn't be less substantive with Wilson as the lone voice.

Review by Andy Kellman

On Strength of a Woman, Mary J. Blige covers a lot of lyrical ground familiar to anyone who has heard her 11 previous studio albums. A significant fraction of this set's sentiments are clichéd. There are self-help platitudes such as "You gotta love yourself before you love someone else," along with timeworn redemptive declarations like "I was lost but now I'm found" and "Now I'm finally free to be me." In fairness, the stock phrases are delivered with conviction, understandably weighed with a sense of "Not this bull again." The alleged extramarital antics that dragged Blige back into this darkness, after all, are as clichéd as it gets. Clearly the time wasn't right for Blige to record a bunch of feel-good jams, but in the listener's favor, the anguish has also inspired the singer and her co-writers and producers -- Brandon Hodge, Darhyl Camper, Jr., Prince Charlez, and Jazmine Sullivan, along with many others -- to illustrate these ballads of confrontation and perseverance with enough specifics to distinguish them from the past work. Take "Set Me Free," where a swanky, winding backdrop supports stinging "hmph" lines like "You musta lost it -- n*gga, you won't get a dime," followed by "There's a special place in hell for you" in dismissive high register. A clinking Kaytranada collaboration ("Telling the Truth"), a back-stabbed weeper that bares Sullivan's unmistakable touch ("Thank You"), and a machine-soul ballad worthy of an extended 12" mix ("U + Me [Love Lesson]") likewise could not have been made at any other point in Blige's career. A few songs do depart from expressing pain and the documentation of recovery. Brightest of all is "Find the Love," pure early-'80s boogie throwback. Just beneath that is the title track, a theatrical empowerment anthem that would likely close just about any other album. Instead, extra punctuation is provided by "Hello Father," another gem. It contains one of the hour's best grooves, provided by Hit-Boy, and is all devotional finesse

 

Review by Andy Kellman                   

 

 

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