Lira - Born Free (2016)

Lira
lira_born_free.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Globally, there’s a promise in the air that the Black creative community is responding to and reflecting in their artistic products. From major label projects like Beyoncé’s appropriately lauded Lemonade with defiant songs like “Freedom,” to underground artists like Navasha Daya’s Lom Nava Lom with its own Baltimore freedom songs, artists are working to inspire, affirm, and offer an activist and community soundtrack to our seemingly more socially aware now. Enter South African singer/songwriter, Lira, and her latest, brassiest, and perhaps most inconsistent project yet, Born Free.

Globally, there’s a promise in the air that the Black creative community is responding to and reflecting in their artistic products. From major label projects like Beyoncé’s appropriately lauded Lemonade with defiant songs like “Freedom,” to underground artists like Navasha Daya’s Lom Nava Lom with its own Baltimore freedom songs, artists are working to inspire, affirm, and offer an activist and community soundtrack to our seemingly more socially aware now. Enter South African singer/songwriter, Lira, and her latest, brassiest, and perhaps most inconsistent project yet, Born Free.

Throughout her sixth studio project, Lira keeps the fuss to a minimal and an unwavering encouragement to listeners high. There’s no judgment or smug self-righteousness to Lira’s consciousness-raising, but there are directives like the divine “Be About It” and “Brave Heart.” While sometimes brash and unflinching as with “Born Free,” there isn’t always certainty, as illustrated by the welcome, self-interrogating questions in “Freedom” (“what is freedom?”). The writing on these enlightenment tunes is consistently clear, even when sometimes internally unsure about the message, and the lyricism simple and direct. Throughout the front half, Lira’s choral hooks are hummable with rootsy melodies anyone can remember, borrowing from both the South African and African American musical traditions.

The productions offer a broad palette from the bare to the more modern and cluttered synth pop anthems, sometimes both, as with the single “Let There Be Light.” While much of Lira’s new age feeling, inspirational self-help cuts of Born Free, like the self-evident “What You Lov,e” feel like something from the songwriting journals of India.Arie, the straight-singing, fellow alto has more limited vocal abilities than Arie with none of the church, and a stronger reliance on contemporary productions and uncomplicated melody lines to carry her equally supportive messages across. This isn’t a diss to the talented, often feel-good Lira. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the strong sonic differences in musical expression of comparable artists whose lyrics here are thematically nearly identical in positive intention and spirit.

When the production and writing isn’t doing the heavy lifting, as with a contemporary panorama like “Return to Me,” Lira shines most with her choral arrangements. On Born Free, Lira boldly reimagines the melody line of Stevie Wonder’s “Joy Inside My Tears” and makes it a layered South African chant where her voice is the star. She does the same with the stacked harmonies of the opening number, “Freedom,” equipped with classic call and response lines and her most impassioned lead vocal. They comprise some of her better project performances.

While Born Free starts decidedly different from Lira’s usual sophisticated urban soundscapes in many respects, some forays into the light disco and jazzy soul are evident on cuts like “Rhythm of Your Heart,” which includes a far too brief danceable break. Singing in her native tongue, she also offers longtime fans something more familiar in “Sekunjalo” and “Vaja,” which are more in line with Lira’s usual urban adult contemporary fare. Unfortunately, these more modern cuts are some of the less inspired, more formulaic tracks on an overstuffed 16-song album that loses its early cohesion.

Overall, the split between minimalist freedom and spirituality songs ready made for Oprah’s OWN with the more forlorn, UAC relationship melodramas is a fairly ill-advised A&R choice, splitting the album’s conceptual direction and intentions. Coupled with a fairly long running time and a sometimes far too restrained Lira on leads and you’re left with an uneven project that starts better than it finished. Or at least that would be true, if the very last song, “Tell Me What It Means,” didn’t bring us right back to the unvarnished truth telling and concerned inquiries that would have made this whole album a force to be reckoned with had they stuck with milieu as the direction. If only Lira and her collaborators had believed in their own bold, brave messages more and gave us just that more streamlined project with all the certainty it deserved. Instead, the project feels as conflicted and unsure as our times. Mildly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
Album of the Month - Juewett Bostick - Shades of Blu
Choice Cut - Kea Michaels - "Not My Friend"
Song of the Month - Bryan Andrew Wilson - "Only You'

Leave a comment!