Chrisette Michele - Let Freedom Reign (2010)

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    Did you know Chrisette Michele's new album was coming out? Well, neither did we. Of course, this lack of label push on a marquee act only fuels suspicions. With so little marketing push on the third project following a #1 Billboard 200 and #1 Billboard R&B gold album with at least one Top 20 R&B radio hit, one questions whether the project is like a Tyler Perry movie-not being previewed for critic's consideration for cause. Label reluctance to push hard on one of their better bets usually spells a dud in the making-or a label's teachable moment for their artist. So, what is our word on Chrisette Michele's latest release? Well, as Virginia Slims said "You've come a long way, baby." But, is it too far from where she started? This bewildering patchwork project may have more than a couple of folks asking a different catchphrase: "Do you know where you're going to?"

    When we were first introduced to Long Island's Chrisette Michele, she was presented on I Am as a crooning soul chanteuse whose "If I Had My Way" and "Love Is You" offered enough bonafides to draw comparisons to Anita Baker, Phoebe Snow, and even her major influence, Billie Holliday. Though there were the marvelously fun up-tempo tracks for her age demo with "Be Ok," "Good Girl," and the hip-hop driven, "In This For You," they didn't catch on in the marketplace. Well, we suspect the powers that be at Def Jam got nervous about Ms. Michele skewing a little too old for their long-term plans, because the next thing we know her flowing tresses were chopped, she was no longer writing her own songs, and proven hitmakers Ne-Yo and Chuck Harmony was largely producing her sophomore project.

    Her second outing, Epiphany, was more radio-friendly and leaned a bit younger than her debut, but it still was enough there for mature listeners to sink their teeth into, with such emotional explosions as "Fragile" and "Blame It On Me" and mid-tempo smashes "Epiphany" and "What You Do." All had a bit of a youngish, cross-over pop appeal in their rhythmic productions, especially the filler, but the mood was still urban adult contemporary. Gone were the doo-wop harmonies or swaying neo-soul and jazzy soul cuts that introduced her to the world, but Chrisette Michele's soulful instrument rode over a track so sublimely that one hardly noticed the subtle transition. Well, "everything must change," they say, and Michele definitely does on her third outing.

    With Michele snatching back the songwriting reigns from Def Jam, one would hope that the sequel to I Am was in the works. Not so much. Yes, Michele is back in the driver's seat songwriting wise, but Epiphany's Chuck Harmony is also back to produce every track. A fresh hit-maker on a radio-streak, Harmony tends to like his share of ‘80s synthy pop productions like "So Cool" that the 18-29 demo eats up. So, a lot of Michele's new album feels even younger and more commercial radio than anything she's done before. This would be fine, but the results too often feel derivative and half-hearted in  effort. The anemic "I'm A Star" should have given fans a heads up on the new pop-leaning direction. "So In Love" with its nursery rhyme hook and frequent rap collaborator Rick Ross keeps up the need for a blood transfusion and some iron pills. "Goodbye Game" joins an already crowded field of "Purple Rain" drenched Prince power ballads that Ciara, Bilal, Yahzarah, Jennifer Hudson, Jazmine Sullivan, and a bevy of imitators have already exhausted in recent years (Jazmine just this week)-with nearly the exact same atmospherics. There is a lot of bait n' switches for fans looking for the Michele they once knew and loved.

    The title itself is a misnomer that speaks more to Ms. Michele's freedom to write her own destiny again, songwriting-wise anyway. It's a destiny whose future may be more fated than celebrated, if her more "street" songs are any indication. The Talib Kweli and Black Thought collabo aims to give this love-and-relationship heavy project some socio-political consciousness cred, which the rappers dutifully deliver on "Let Freedom Reign." The song, unfortunately, feels woefully out of place on the project and Chrisette Michele sounds like a guest on a cut where her "rap" is buried by the monster talents of her restrained collaborators. She tries to "go hard" again on "Number One," a pure ego cut better delivered by Kanye West than this R&B singer who's start may have been with Jay-Z and Nas, but who's a long, long way from the hard streets of...Long Island?

    The tour de force torch songs "If Nobody Sang Along" and "I Know Nothing" along with the big ballad "Unsaid" are the kind of personal exceptions to the rule that soul heads expected from Chrisette Michele. The catchy "I'm Your Life" has Michele grabbing for another mid-tempo brass ring, though it doesn't quite pack the same punch that the high-rotation singles of Epiphany. Still, Michele's "I'm Your Life" fares far better than another "one of these kids looks like the other one" Epiphany cuts. Like Ne-Yo's "I'm Okay" from her previous album, "I Don't Know Why, But I Do" sounds like it should be a classic, like it should be a song of weight that's got something to say about love. Unfortunately, it isn't much more than pure schmaltz. Worse still, Michele's delivery on it reads insincere and contrived, particularly in the face of the raw, honest emotion of "If Nobody Sang Along."

    Sometimes the label has it right. Sometimes an artist only has one brilliant album worth of original songs in them and someone else should pen the rest thereafter. Sometimes all those other lyrical children in that overgrown notebook, those misunderstood "gems" that the artist is dying to give birth to really are stillborn. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but that's the price of freedom. Sometimes you're free to muck up. Mildly recommended. 

    By L. Michael Gipson