Yahzarah - The Ballad of Purple St. James (2010)

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Since 2001's Hear Me, R&B soul singer and early Badu background vocalist Yahzarah has been bubbling just underneath stardom. With a siren image and a mezzo-soprano that reaches Nirvana, for eight-plus years Yahzarah seemed to be ready- made for "big lights" fame, each year seeming to get closer to her destiny than the last. Throughout, Yahzarah's gone through some exciting visual changes, refining it with the times, chipping away at her early neo-soul imaging from her debut until she became a ‘70s blaxploitation goddess, with cropped outfits, a tiny natural, and plenty of ‘tude. Today, Yahzarah's image is iconographic, every marketing photo, every image captured screams star. It is a well-marketed identity that now has more prominence and immediacy in public recognition than her sound.
To be memorable, a signature sound is every bit as important as a signature look; ask Jill, Tina, Lalah, Erykah, Natalie, Patti, Gladys, Maysa, Chrisette, Anita Baker or even Janelle Monae-you immediately know them when you hear them, regardless of song or producer. Four projects deep, with a different Yahzarah sound appearing on every one, The Ballad of Purple Saint James begs the question for some: who is Yahzarah, the artist? Given just how stunningly strong most of this 13-song set is most newcomers to her music won't care, at least, not yet.

And, maybe they shouldn't. After all, Yahzarah certainly can out sing most female R&B artists today, and when she's comfortably in her zone and not channeling the greats, there isn't another artist who's high, reedy vocals sound like hers. The DC artist's Southern sway is instantly recognizable on Camp Lo's "Regulate," in duet with Raheem DeVaughn on "Come 2 Me" from The Apple Juice Kid's Miles Remixed, and most recently as one of the female leads for The Foreign Exchange's Leave It All Behind. But, there hasn't been a consistent signature sound from Yahzarah that threads her solo work. Usually, her voice bends to fit the songs she's given or writes, but only occasionally do the songs bend to her bidding, become her unforgettable stamp. While a gifted collection, The Ballad of Purple Saint James doesn't entirely change this observation. Yahzarah's latest project isn't a culmination, so much as an introduction of a different artist altogether.

In her career, there have been times when a clear, vivacious Yahzarah identity has unforgettably emerged, one who seems most powerfully at home on certain types of pulsating, rocked-out soul jams like the "Four-Alarm Fire" and the ferocious "U Turn Me On" from 2007's The Prelude or her hole-burning cover of Mother's Finest "Baby Love," where she stunningly out Joyce Kennedy-ed Joyce Kennedy. Because Yahzarah has such an agile, technically flawless instrument, she can channel her feather-voiced icons and be Minnie Ripperton one minute or Deniece Williams the next; she can even be Chaka when the rhythm moves her. Yahzarah proves as much on The Ballad of Purple Saint James, a vocal smorgasbord of different ‘70s vocal motifs gorgeously laid upon updated ‘80s electronic soul tracks with live instrumentation added to warm it all up. What is unclear is whether her new producers and new label at The Foreign Exchange Music are using The Ballad...to finally lay the foundation for a distinctive, clearly definable sound for Yahzarah, ending her history of musical ADD, or showing off their own.

If the very capable FE producers, Phonte and Nicolay, are creating a new sound for her, there is still a balance that sometimes needs to be struck between the duo's amazing, but bombastic productions and Yahzarah's strong, but lighter-than-its-surrounding vocals. This is somewhat apparent on the intro, "Strike Up The Band," and again on the driving lead single "Why Don't You Call Me" whose placement and heavy syllabic lyricism finds even this impressively adept singer occasionally at the edge of her voice (at least at this register, Yaz easily has two more octaves in her). These issues ease as the disc relaxes into a charming duet with Phonte on "Cry Over You" and the notably well-arranged Darien Brockington coupling on "All My Days," cropping up infrequently thereafter, like on "Change Your Mind."

"Come Back As A Flower" and the accapella doo wop ditty "Dedicated To You" find the producers almost completely getting out of the way and just letting Yahzarah's voice take center stage, allowing listeners to hear why so many have been vying for this talent's success. "Come Back As A Flower" feels like a homage to Minnie of the Come To My Garden era and will certainly please fans who haven't ever heard Yahzarah take her time with a ballad this clean, in so many of her voices, both airy and natural.

The would-be dance hit "Lies" comes the closest to the type of fiery Yahzarah cut that personifies the spunky fireball live. It is here that the crackling out-sized production and Yahzarah's voice are comfortably on equal footing on an uptempo groove. From the multi-layered strings, Blade Runner sound effects, and dark keys to Yahzarah's completely assured delivery, this song rocks.

"Lies" aside, ballads seem to be where the producers get into the least amount of ego trouble and Yahzarah is most able to mark these songs as her own. The slowly unfolding "Last To Leave" is the kind of 4X4 soul ballad that made Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill legends to be reckoned with, and an easy pick for Quiet Storm formats across the country. The Zo! produced piano ballad, "Shadow," credibly finds that sweet coo and those warm colors in Yahzarah's alto voice heretofore missed on other tracks. The Isley Bros. guitar opening on "Have A Heart" and the Norman Conners-meets-Prince spectral seduction on "Starship" offer some delicious, if familiar flavors that isn't a slave to their antecedents.  

While "Love, Come Save The Day" may be the hidden gem of the entire project in that it isn't as obvious as some of its predecessors, the simple-appearing album cut is easily among the most deceptively complex in arrangement. Its ability to appear completely casual and unassuming despite a consistent introduction of fresh elements every few bars makes it a masterful piece of musical art.

It took Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire and The Temptations several projects to get their trademark sound just so, and we knew them on every track thereafter. Maybe this generally joyful noise is Yahzarah's line in the sand. After all, when she isn't unintentionally guest-starring on her own album, playing featured artist on a Nicolay and Phonte production, this album is undeniably one of this year's most surprising treasures. If this is the beginning of a new, distinct sound from Yahzarah, hiccups aside, it is one we can definitely grow to love. After all it's not every day that one gets to deliver a highly listenable album from beginning to end.  Sounds like something there might be worth holding on to. Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

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