Chrisette Michele - Epiphany (2009)

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    Sweet, yet street, with jazz-laden undertones and a kiss of the boom-bap and old-school soul---if it sounds impossible to conceptualize in just one artist, then you haven't heard Chrisette Michele yet.  

    The Grammy-Award-winning Long Island, NY. Native -- who was signed on the spot by Island Def Jam's Chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid in 2006 and mentored by none other than its then-label president, Jay-Z -- wasn't content to waste her angelic voice on clichéd R&B joints; she wrote hooks and laced her vocals on tracks from heavy-hitters like Jigga, Nas, The Roots and even Ghostface Killah, earning hit singles along the way from her 2007 debut, I Am ("Love is You," "If I Had My Way," "Be Ok"). More cohesive, but with just as much eloquence and emotional honesty as her debut, Epiphany combines Ms. Michele's talents with writing and production work by Ne-Yo, Chuck Harmony, and Rodney Jerkins (to name a few), adding layers to, rather than detracting from, her growth as an artist and as a woman.

    For fans who are looking for the breathless, adoring ingénue who existed on I Am, they might be a bit taken aback. Her first single, the title track, has a rhythm that mimics teardrops as she lists a litany of lies and misdeeds to her lover and tells him that she's on her way out: "No more wonderin' about whatcha' been doin' or where you've been sleepin,' I'm leavin.'" Then there's the mellow, yet moody "Blame It On Me," where she's willing to be portrayed as the villainess just to be free of a toxic relationship. A man who's mistaken Chrisette for empty-headed arm candy gets read the riot act with "Porcelain Doll," and the deceptively upbeat "Another One" finds her practically telling a man "to the left, to the left" and that she's looking for better prospects elsewhere, thank you very much.

    What's also a newly unveiled strength is Chrisette's apparent willingness to take her heart's destiny into her own hands: "Fragile" is about being incredibly vulnerable to the one she wants and begging not to be refused, and "Playing Our Song" is an up-tempo lamentation of how every note of a once-beloved jam is throwing daggers instead of soothing her soul. The closest she comes to hip-hop here, "Mr. Right," simultaneously acknowledges her thorny edges while proclaiming her star-struck devotion, and her airy duet with Ne-Yo, "What You Do," is an undulating challenge to come correct, or not at all: "I don't want to be mean, but when it comes to this love, saying it just ain't enough."

    Ms. Michele's Epiphany does more than transcend the dreaded ‘sophomore jinx'---the collection returns soulful sophistication to the airwaves and will continue to raise the bar for Chrisette and her peers for years to come.

    By Melody Charles