The issue isn't that Algebra can't sing. She can.
The issue isn't that Algebra can't sing. She can. The fact that she can is part of what makes her so frustrating. Sounding slightly like Conya Doss, Algebra introduces a tune pleasantly enough, except maybe on that deadening aural, "how-many-times-are-we-doing-this-take?" opener on "Tug of War." Algebra's vocal approach is understated to a fault. Never deigning to bust a sweat on her own album, Algebra coasts through Purpose as if her tone was rich enough to pull off this conceit, and it just isn't. Algebra has a smooth, clean tone, polished diction and a rapidly annoying penchant for rolling notes a la Lauryn Hill in the middle of phrases-which isn't enough to dismiss her. But her voice has almost no height, modest power, and doesn't take the time to excavate a present lower range that might have made her more interesting (this still wouldn't be enough to totally dismiss her).
What is enough to dismiss Algebra as an R&B chick masquerading as a soul singer is that she doesn't try to compensate for these shortcomings on tunes that too often demand a more dynamic or bolder voice. Mind you these are tunes that Algebra most often wrote or co-wrote, so I'm left wondering whether these were once intended to be demos for better equipped voices. Repeatedly, Algebra shows herself to be a much better session-singer than a soloist by often showing her own solos up with killer backing harmonies, easily eclipsing her leads in both dynamism and lushness. Her unwillingness to give more, to push harder and think outside the box on her melody lines creates an album of near misses, track after exasperating track.
Purpose is an album of pretensions or self-delusion. Everyone involved seems to be operating under the pretense that Algebra is the real thing. This means everyone on Purpose, from the producers (Ivan Baria, Carvin "Ransum" Haggins, Donnie Scantz) and musicians to the arrangers and engineers, offers this would-be soul star their very best. More than not, these tracks sing, though the devices sometimes employed are considered commonplace on the more overly self-conscious neo-soul tracks (read=hip-hop influenced jazz tracks, lots of various organ accents, bell trees, spaciousness, etc.). Despite its occasional sameness, the music is well-executed, particularly on the project's guitar (Craig Love, Jimmy Killings), horn (Curtis Jones, James King) and organ work (Dana Sorey, Bryan-Michael Cox).
The musicians' and producers' hard work has the misfortune of shining that much more glaring a spotlight on Algebra's vocal weaknesses. "Halfway" has a horn and trombone arrangement on a Shaft-influenced track Alicia Keys would have pulled someone's hair out to get her hands on, but one that Algebra only stoops to tackle halfway. On a power ballad like "What Happened," you're left wondering what happened to the full-bodied, blood-boiling lead the song screams for. All the instruments, including Algebra on the background harmonies, are begging - positively straining - to know what happened to this love gone wrong. Algebra? She kinda wants to know what happened. Yeah, kinda, you know, when you get a minute...
Other classic soul and R&B moments are repeatedly offered to Algebra on Purpose. But the singer seems too scared to get ugly for the producers in the studio to nail them, lest they lose faith in this pretty gal. "At This Time," which could have been a defining quiet storm jam, pulls too many punches to win a prized belt. The light-hearted "U Do It For Me," which has the ghetto sunshine feeling of Scarface's hip-hop classic, "On My Block," gets you a little closer to bliss. Still, even this feel good track doesn't stop the tune from feeling tiresomely repetitive past the three-minute mark (please trim for radio!). This is roughly the same time that Algebra appears befuddled as to what else she can do to keep the cut interesting other than to repeat the chorus ad nauseam. Should I even bother to talk about how Algebra unintentionally waters down tight soul-pop cuts like "No Idea" or "I Think I Love You" (still, the Takayuki Nakazawa's guitar riffs on "I Think" are hot to death)? Suffice it to say she was so close, so darn close to making the classic music we ache for.
You can hardly blame Algebra's backers for being believers, since, fleetingly, Algebra is the real thing. The latest single, "Run and Hide" is an example of everyone, including Algebra, operating on all cylinders. "Run and Hide" is a strutting peacock that irritatingly speaks to what this album could have been. Larry Gold's ironic vintage strings, the wit and frivolity of Algebra's word play, the opulent exchanges between her lead and background vocals are all absolutely sublime. Another arguable example of well-placed faith is the hip-hop acoustic hybrid, "(Holla Back) Simple Complication." Algebra's bluesy vocals on the answering machine skit, true-to-life lyrics, the Southern fried guitar riffs, and complicated percussion sample on "Simple Complication" further proves how fresh and original Purpose could have been.
Ultimately, I believe, Algebra is a victim of two things: prolonged hype - including, perhaps, her own belief in it - and very accomplished songwriting. As a featured duet partner of Musiq, Erro, and Anthony Hamilton, Algebra has been a staple of indie soul for almost a decade. Prior to signing with Kedar, the ATL-based singer had earned a respectable reputation as an entertaining live performer. Back then, her earnestness and interpretative abilities masked her vocal limitations well enough to pull off covers of Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and Aretha's "Day Dreaming," causing her debut to be one of the most anticipated on the scene. Additionally, Algebra can be a profoundly good story telling lyricist, in the Musiq/Erro songwriting school of soul meets hip-hop syncopation in her lyrics and rhythms. The songs Algebra writes are consistently intimate, well-constructed and in sore need of a stronger vocalist than what we hear here to maximize their potential.
Algebra fans will undoubtedly give her a pass on her solid, but forgettable vocals, because the stories in her songs ring authentic to the lives of women. For the rest of us, there are a few really good iTunes singles. I predict that unless Algebra is willing to surrender to the demands of her own music, her own beautifully made lyrics, she'll have no memorable place as an enduring soloist. A career as an accomplished songwriter and session singer will await her. On the deceitful promise of her opening number, "Now and Then," Algebra says she's gotta give this thing called singing a try." If only Algebra - on what is arguably the most pivotal moment in her career - really had tried, instead of teasing us with what might have been, she could have given us a purpose for buying this album. Picking and Choosing Singles Recommended.
-L. Michael Gipson