Syleena Johnson - Acoustic Soul Sessions
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Syleena Johnson - Acoustic Soul Sessions (LIVE)
She’s been underrated by the masses since her 1999 independent solo debut, Love Hangover. The daughter of legendary blues and soul man, Syl Johnson, and the first black woman police commissioner in the United States, Brenda Thompson, Syleena Johnson has been embraced by critics and a devoted following since day one. Yet, despite consistent critical celebration and several hit singles, including “All Falls Down” (with Kanye West), “I Am Your Woman,” “Guess What,” and “Hypnotic” (feat. Fabolous and R. Kelly)," Johnson has never known platinum or Top 40 success as a soloist.
Her lack of commercial success has certainly not been Johnson’s fault, having delivered at least three major label studio albums (Chapters 1-3) whose song and production quality was undeniably premium and vocals the envy of many lesser talents in R&B. Her label, Jive, consistently dropped the ball. The latter independently released albums since her exit from Jive have been solid, if occasionally campy (“Shoo Fly” and “Maury Povich” being standout examples), but have fared even less well in the overall declining music marketplace. A career boost has recently come in the form of a reality TV show, R&B Divas, where Johnson’s strong personality and spot-on impromptu vocal performances have exposed millions to a voice they criminally may have never heard before. Assisting in Johnson’s climb from relative anonymity is the release of a corresponding R&B Divas charity album and this little live EP that could; together they may finally help Johnson achieve the commercial respect that has eluded but certainly been due.
There is no place to hide in a live acoustic set. Every bum note, stray run, cracked riff, missed musical cue is captured for prosperity and judgment; just ask Lauryn Hill. So the fact that Syleena Johnson can walk away from this recording beaming with well-deserved pride over how capably and effortlessly she kills on this intimate taping is a testament to her talent. When Johnson complains about being unsung and underrated, that’s not ego. She proves on the emotionally volcanic “I Cut My Hair” and rock standard “Wild Horses” (the project’s sole cover) that her talent is worthy. Raspy, lived, and trembling with sinewy vibrato, her signature alto reads instantly sincere, soulful and just bordering on tears. No one sounds like Syleena Johnson. No one.
More than a vocalist, Johnson also demonstrates that she knows her way around a well conceived lyric. “Like Thorns” and “Stonewall,” both from Johnson’s 2011 Underrated project, illustrate a cleverness that is rare outside of rap and the blues. “You used to be like roses, but now you’re just like thorns,” Johnson says of an insecure lover whose jealousy is destroying their relationship. Like Eric Roberson’s “Obstacles,” Johnson’s “Stonewall” lyrically transcends the story it tells to become a universal gospel call for the survivors of the world. Johnson’s philosophical heart is on display on “Angry Girl;” about women with unchecked anger issues, the song oozes compassion for these women who are ruining their chances at happiness, but it also quietly rebukes and counsels them about how their actions ruin other women’s opportunities for love. Stripped of heavy production, these songs live and die by their own merits; luckily, the lyrics largely only serve to further illuminate their creator’s ample gifts.
There are bumps, but they aren’t many. The difficult musical transitions in the middle of the duet, “Little Things (featuring Malone),” don’t always come off without great—and obvious—exertion and the cut has moments of plodding, despite superb vocals by Johnson’s co-star on the duet. The current arrangement just wasn’t meant for an acoustic set. On other ballads, the emotion overtakes Johnson and some off keys slide into the mix, but they are few and overall tend to add to the authenticity of this concert experience. The background singers here are solid but could definitely use another voice to add some fullness to their thin supportive blend and a better engineer for the mix of their voices in relation to Johnson’s. The most challenging aspect of the project for some may be Johnson’s open call for “A Boss;” in up-tempo verse after verse Johnson dismisses any man who isn’t “a CEO trying to own the company.” In stepping out there, Johnson makes a noteworthy contribution to the long-running cultural dialogue of professional women closing themselves off to all romantic options not equally yoked, financially speaking. Indeed, for Johnson, “he can get it, he can get it, if he’s a boss.” We won’t speculate on the “it” that can be so easily attained exclusively by men of means, but it will be curious to see how this anthem plays for those male fans who haven’t quite attained CEO status but are still making meaningful civic and financial contributions to their communities. In her defense, Johnson is nothing if not always Millie Jackson “real” in her art and this is what it means to be unplugged.
Overall, this six-song project serves as a welcome introduction to the best of Johnson’s latter day works, since none of her early hits make this acoustic set. The songs demonstrate that Johnson is a talent to be reckoned with and one whose devotion to her craft will one day receive the kind of late life rewards that other long-time unsung artists like Bettye LaVette and Jimmy Scott finally achieved. One just hopes it won’t take the public quite that long to catch up. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson