A most anemic season of American Idol has gratefully come to a close, but surprised me by finding a new and most deserving voice, David Cook. His haunting rock cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" made me a fan, but it was Cook's phenomenally dynamic cover of the Beatle's "Eleanor Rigby" that, for me, sealed the deal (the studio versions for both are available on iTunes). Television talent show winners like David Cook, Fantasia (I'm gonna forgive you that last album, girl) and even Reuben Studdard (when he's not singing hip-hop disguised as soul) may offer proof that good music can be culled from televised talent shows. Still, it's the losers who often end up delivering more timeless music.
The original run of Star Search had a long list of losing competitors that today reads like a combined series of Billboard Charts and Broadway Playbills, including Aaliyah, Rahsaan Patterson, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera. It is not alone. The short-lived BBC talent show, Fame Academy, also produced a finalist loser that only keeps topping himself in his musical evolution, the UK soul star Lemar Obika. If ever there was an example that losers can be winners too, it's Lemar, one of the most iridescent young male vocalists in soul music today.
Lemar's raspy, cognac voice is one seasoned by a long road of faith and near stardom. A north London born soul child of conservative Nigerian parents, Lemar became exposed to soul late in life after stumbling on to his parent's record collection of classic soul and R&B. It wasn't long before Lemar was hooked on soul and making the fateful decision to turn down his acceptance into pharmacy school to pursue his new found love of soul music. A quick study, the hazel-eyed, honeyed chocolate vocalist soon found himself in demand as a background singer on various major artists' UK club dates, including Usher and Destiny's Child. Outside of grinding at open mikes, talent shows and showcases, Lemar's solo voice as a singer/songwriter had yet to find an audience until BMG signed him in 2001, only to drop him after the release of one single "Got Me Saying Ooh." Dispirited, Lemar took up a regular 9-to-5, before placement on Fame Academy changed his life.
On the thinly veiled copy cat Pop Idol show, Lemar impressed legends like Lionel Richie and UK pop star Beverley Knight with his smooth soul delivery of classic soul material like Richie's "Easy" and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Lemar's been impressing fans and critics ever since. Losing the show after making it into the top three, Lemar had the last laugh by signing a £1 million record deal with Sony. Multi-platinum sales, UK chart-toppers, and a slew BRIT and Mojo awards followed the release of his first two soul pop albums, Dedicated (2003) and Time To Grow (2004), making Sony the real winner in this talent show sweepstakes. Initially, fans were rewarded for their loyalty to the loser with highly melodic, sometimes too slick and smooth soul, pop and dance ditties that populated his first two albums. I appreciated both albums for Lemar's liquid soul voice and catchy, entertaining material. Dedicated, particularly has some incredibly fun Chic-influenced dance jams. Still, I knew he could do better, I knew from my first introduction to his artistry that he had more to give.
I stumbled upon the singer on the De-Lovely soundtrack, where his sensitive cover of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" moved me to search in vain for two years for more Lemar. Finally, once I realized that one could access the UK sites for Amazon and iTunes (though with iTunes you'll have to use an iTunes gift card to get around their ridiculous jurisdictional restrictions) I was rewarded with a bevy of Lemar material. As much as I enjoyed the first two albums, it wasn't until Lemar's last and highest charting album (UK #3), The Truth About Love (2006) that my faith in Lemar truly paid off.
On The Truth About Love, Lemar's rich voice simultaneously evokes Seal, Martin Luther and Sam Cooke with a timbre whose weight seems to duck and dodge most male whiners singers of this 28 year-old's generation. Produced by Brian Rowling (Mica Paris, Tina Turner) with all-live instrumentation, The Truth About Love finally provides Lemar's instrument a proper setting that moves from African hymns, rock and soul to adult contemporary slow jams with the grace and nimbleness of a featherweight champion. The opening cut "Love Me Or Leave Me" is Stax soul man meets Phil Spector. "It's Not That Easy" could have easily fit into the early Temptations catalog. "Beauty Queen" finds Lemar moving into Prince territory and succeeding, his natural to falsetto transition are sublime. Contemporary cuts, such as the gloriously arranged "Be Faithful," the aching "When A Heart Is Broken" and the must-have Mica Paris duet "Can't You See" featuring Styles P ensures that the project isn't all throwback drenched material. Lemar even makes Joss Stone sound good on their duet, "Anniversary." This album is a necessity for any soul connoisseur.
This year Lemar will drop his yet to be titled fourth studio album. A first song, "All I Wanna Do," has already been leaked on the internet, whetting my appetite for more. We can only hope that Lemar decides to continue on this growth path of better and better music, instead of switching up his unique signature style for more commercial appeal (the platinum spoiled John Legend, anyone?). We can only hope that an artist gifted with the vocal and songwriting talent to craft, The Truth About Love, will continue to prove that losers can make the most satisfying winners of all.
-L. Michael Gipson