Lyrically speaking, Monica Blaire slams brothers on their sh*t as much as she demands their love and attention, but only delivered exactly how Ms. Blaire likes it. Blaire is a student of retro. No, not of the 70's nostalgia of bleary-eyed neo-soul or the 80s new wave that is dominating contemporary music but of the late 90's swaggering New York hip-hop scene (can you believe Bad Boys' peak was 10 years ago? Where's my Geritol?). Snappy hand-claps emerge from a vortex of sound on "Around the World." A kittenish dominatrix provides instructive cheerleading on the snarling "Work That," a banger that strangely feels every bit Puffy and Kim, but edgier. Bachelor parties may never be the same once a stripper gets a hold of the vaguely stalker-esque "Obsessed," a jam that could've easily come out for the Full Force playbook for Britney Spears. The percussive and synth heavy groove of "Music" finds Monica a willing slave to the rhythm, but there is nothing submissive in her ode to getting her dance on.
By the fifth club jam, two themes become crystal clear about Ms. Blaire: One, Mama loves to dance-or something closely akin-and two, Madame Blaire is use to being in control, no permission asked. Though she sugarcoats her demands in "Breathe", Monica maintains her theme of requiring everything her man has to give until submission is as natural and automatic as breathing. Think of Teddy Pendergrass doing seductive hip-hop anthems and you'll completely "get" our dear Ms. Blaire. And should you not give in to her demands or fall short of her lofty expectations? Well, she has a dance tune giving you instructions for that too, "Get Back."
Monica isn't all sexual pomp and circumstances. On the conscious "Hey Hoe," Ms. Blaire puts on her schoolmarm glasses to educate the bubble gum-poppers and the crotch-grabbers on the alternatives to claiming Hoochieville. "What I Want" is a funky declaration wrapped in a story about not settling, even if settling affords you the American Dream. The opening number's "wah wah wah" sound effects (ala Charlie Brown's parents) provide a certain irony to this tale regarding the gibberish ranting of the socially-influenced. While Monica's finger is poking her lover in his forehead in "Not Ready", one simultaneously hears a knowing smirk during her "calling him out session" and an apparent longing that he will prove her wrong.
I gotta change the subject a sec here and say that Maestro's keys work on "Not Ready" is a completely bananas blend of real live playing and sampling that is simply sublime. There are moments and transitions in all of the songs that speak to Maestro and Monica's supreme musicianship and rare ability to compose almost unconscious fluidity between each tracks organic and electronic mix of instrumentation. Together Maestro and Monica establish themselves as A-list talent in front of and behind the boards.
Since Ms. Blaire is a classically trained musician who was turned out by a love of hip-hop, many more rap artists claim guest spots on Portraits of Me than one typically sees in indie soul. From artists Guilty Simpson to Mr. Porter, each rapper brings the pre-requisite gruffness to these boastful proceedings but you get the idea that these are more conscious rappers with a street edge than those counting bullet wounds for profit. Interestingly Portraits of Me is only enhanced by their Timbs sportin' sensibility and occasionally humorous turns of phrase.
Okay, now you may be asking yourself, beyond all the female braggadocio and clubbing, can this chile sing? Well, we get tastes of Monica's raspy singing abilities on the stacked harmonies on almost all of the up-tempo cuts and she coos beautifully on "Breathe." There is also a skilled forcefulness to her belting in tune over so many killer bass lines, but nothing prepares you for Monica's really lovely alto on the ballad "Special." At least "Special" starts as a piano ballad, but eventually the high-hat keeping tempo, backing electric guitar screaming siren cries and some seamless drum transitions expertly carry this sweet chord progression into an exotic mid-tempo groove that elegantly drapes Monica's jazzy phrasing. It is a masterful tune that will have listeners hitting repeat many times over. As much as Special honors its title it is just the beginning of things to come.
After making sure that you have felt-up her muscles, Monica decides to trust you. On "Special" she has begun to lift the veil. By the reflective "Ever After," Monica has revealed a hopeful woman who wants love and to be as vulnerable as the rest of us mere mortals. Instead of diminishing her, the revelation enhances the vibrant persona Ms. Blaire shares with listeners.
Don't sleep just yet; Monica still has an ace up her sleeve. Just when you think you've got this soul sister all figured out, she throws you a final curveball. A pure toe-tapper, "Call" is the kind of modern take on roots music that you imagine Nina Simone would be creating today if she were still alive. An energetic call and response romp, "Call" is gospel, secular, blues and funk stirred into an intoxicating hip-hop soul dance. Monica's best vocal performance on this most handsome of portraits has the artist growling, shouting and hopping on the good foot in a tune whose lyric is unabashedly sentimental. Kitschy church organ ending and all, it is a song of genius. But what else can expect from an artist who in her first outing has proven something of a genius too.
--L. Michael Gipson
Critic's Note: For listeners used to less illicit language on SoulTrack recommendations, please note that Portraits of Me has plenty of profanity and other potentially offensive language. This is not one for the language police.