After an eight-year hiatus from R&B, Kelly Price returns with a set that is arguably her best since her 1998 debut, Soul of a Woman. Kelly, Price’s sixth studio album, comes nearly a year after a little nugget of a song called “Tired” began to make its way across the internet and eventually climbed the Billboard chart to become a Top 40 R&B hit and a Grammy nominee for Best R&B Female Vocal. Her Grammy loss to Fantasia for the delectable “Bittersweet” isn’t a surprise to those who understand how the popularity game is played, but Price walks away with a song that may become even more signature than “Friend of Mine” in her repertoire. The instant classic opens a set that finds Kelly Price sounding more empowered and having more fun than we’ve heard in an age.
After an eight-year hiatus from R&B, Kelly Price returns with a set that is arguably her best since her 1998 debut, Soul of a Woman. Kelly, Price’s sixth studio album, comes nearly a year after a little nugget of a song called “Tired” began to make its way across the internet and eventually climbed the Billboard chart to become a Top 40 R&B hit and a Grammy nominee for Best R&B Female Vocal. Her Grammy loss to Fantasia for the delectable “Bittersweet” isn’t a surprise to those who understand how the popularity game is played, but Price walks away with a song that may become even more signature than “Friend of Mine” in her repertoire. The instant classic opens a set that finds Kelly Price sounding more empowered and having more fun than we’ve heard in an age. Not since Mirror, Mirror and One Family: A Christmas Album has Price been heard enjoying her own music this much, even being silly with it again. It is refreshing to hear a 19-year industry vet enjoy herself again.
Price launches Kelly with a big bang of an anthem for which not nearly enough ink can be spilled. “Tired” is the song of our times in much the way Aretha’s and Otis Redding’s “Respect” was for a ‘60s generation. Opening against a backdrop of The Young and The Restless keys and strings as a usual tome of a blues woman sick of a man’s various misbehaviors and deficiencies. Then, without missing a step, the song transforms into something richer, musically building in drums, strings, and electric guitar and dramatically expanding on multiple levels, including its lyrical reach taking us out of sistahfriend complaints to a universal church. By the time the preacher’s kid hits the line of being: “even tired of going to church/tired of paying these bills/tired of keeping it real/tired of crying/tired of smiling,” Price hits on every world-wearing ill plaguing almost every good person struggling against the times, the economy, the politics, the racism, the backbiters, the charlatans, the inter-cultural hatred, just about anything that seems bound to break the spirit of the good. Price, long accused of suppressing the full strength and power of her alto to cater to radio, at last holds nothing back. Her voluminous voice seems to channel several generations of rage and frustration over un-kept promises and broken dreams for every good person struggling to hold on to their good in a world seemingly determined to rob them of it. “I’m tired of being wronged and doing right/tired of keeping peace in time to fight/I’m tired of letting go, then holding on/I’m tired of feeling weak and being strong,” Kelly declares before inviting the legions of tired to join her testimony and unleashing a series of cathartic primal screams of frustration for all who cannot for themselves. “Tired” epitomizes all soul has ever served to be as a people’s medium.
Anything coming after such zeitgeist heights should be a letdown. But, Price immediately transitions from “Tired” into the defiant “And You Don’t Stop,” a jumping Chicago-meets-Baltimore house jam that urges those tired folks to dance out that repressed energy to a melody that is never less than fascinating. It’s a masterful move, keeping the energy high with a cut worthy of Ten City, SalSoul Orchestra, or even early Barry White. Producing partner on much of Kelly, Warren “Baby Dub” Campbell has produced similar jamborees for Mary Mary, holding out hope for a sangin’ sistahs remix.
One usually better on the ballad than the dancefloor, Price repeats these rare uptempo feats of prowess with the retro-soul “Vexed” and “Speechless.” The latter is the kind of percussive 80s roller skating jam that Faith Evans owned in the 90s and Alicia Meyers and Patrice Rushen before her. The fine as wine throwback cut “Vexed,” the mid-tempo sway of “Lil Sumn-Sumn,” and the country soul of “Get Right or Go Left” should give Price a second look for the Aretha Franklin story or at least Gladys Knight’s since any of these songs could have come out of their golden eras vinyls -- and yet Price owns each as her own.
The Stokely and Waddell produced “Not My Daddy,” a single dominating urban AC radio, is more in the mid-range of both Price and duet partner, Stokely of Mint Condition. It’s a catchy, if middling tune in both its more conservative musical approach and topical relationship lyricism (You’re not my daddy/you’re my man…I’m not your mama/I’m your girl/I am the lady in your world/and loving each other’s how we work). Despite a somewhat awkward hook, both singers bring their vocal A-game keeping the cut from devolving to the trite. They are greatly aided by the dynamic live musicianship of the Mint Condition band, which is quietly a third partner in this duet, playing with a seriousness and intricate musicality that is more demanding and interesting than the hit song itself.
Like “Daddy,” another more simplistic song on Kelly will become a fave, particularly among those who view unhealthy love as an addiction. Nonetheless, “Himaholic” is just silly. But, the comedic Price has flirted with silly on previous albums to great fan appreciation, so she’s on firm footing and has plenty of other Himaholic Anonymous members who’ll knowingly sing along to the chorus. The song doesn’t empower these women to escape such lust-driven bondage, as much as co-sign, but Price has always served as more these ladies’ “bestest” friend than counselor. Partly for that reason, “I’m Sorry” is an interesting departure for Price. Musically more gospel than R&B in taste and texture, “I’m Sorry” is a compelling, relatively minimalistic ballad of self-forgiveness for being the person who wrecked a relationship and for not loving herself enough to receive the blessing of a good love.
Continuing her new age counseling trend on the inspirational soul pop “Rain,” Price returns to territory she more capably covered on the classic “It’s Gonna Rain.” Neutered in ways one would expect in a song for a child singer rather than Price, “Rain” would be filler fodder if not for a huge American Idol finish that makes one ignore how much they twiddled their thumbs until after the bridge. There are other relationship themed fillers like “You Don’t Have To Worry”; songs that fail to reveal Price’s obvious growth as a songwriter, each also marking a return to her trademark vocal restraint despite the fullness of her melismic-rich instrument. Mercifully, these songs are few in number and none are unlistenable.
With producers Shep Crawford, Jazz Nixon, and Warren Campbell, songs like “Himaholic,” “Lil Sumn Sumn,” “Speechless,” “Vexed,” “And You Don’t Stop” and the like may vary in intricacy and maturity, but they all demonstrate a liberated woman having a total ball singing and reaching the common women with stories that cannot help but resonate with their lives. That said, occasional Price breakthroughs like “Tired” and “It’s Gonna Rain” show where Price can go as an artist, if she’s willing to dig deeper, go beyond the easier sistahfriend tales, and let loose that enormous gift of an instrument even beyond what us commoners can imagine. There’s an icon in there and this album shows that it’s definitely one slowly but surely coming to the fore. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson