The relationship SoulTracks has with artists can be an interesting and complex one, since writers often come to know artists personally through the work, but strive to maintain a professional distance to be able to still offer raw and honest critiques for our readers. This we feel is our duty. Even more complicated is the relationship critics have with a platform’s readers, which for fans can be a love-hate one with the different writing personalities covering their personal favorites, especially when a critic doesn’t love what that reader believes is sacrosanct.
In 2008, after a decade-long wait, singer/songwriter Algebra Blessett released her official solo debut, Purpose, through her then-label, Kedar Records. I was the reviewer of the project and like many in the industry, I’d been eagerly awaiting the release having been a long time fan of Ms. Blessett, especially after witnessing her kill a set at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club as an opening act for indie soul pioneer, Eric Roberson. I’d even purchased an unreleased project from the artist and wore it out for months thereafter. Then came her Kedar release; to say Blessett’s solo performances on Purpose disappointed me would be an understatement. While I gave the well-produced project major kudos on various elements, from quality musicianship to Blessett’s own writing and background arrangements, the rather scathing review became infamous and still remains one of the Top 5 most visited SoulTracks reviews of all time. Looking back, its harsh tone isn’t one I’d reproduce, finding it needlessly personal and sharp, but my artistic critique of Purpose I stood and stand by today.
In any case, rather than be hurt by the bellicose review, as word spread, it exposed literally thousands to Blessett’s music and became a major seller, partially through click-throughs from SoulTracks to Amazon.com (a metric we track). Further, Blessett went on to become a SoulTracks readers’ favorite, winning that year’s Best Female Artist of the Year at the SoulTracks Readers’ Choice Awards. Our readers showed me! And, I’m glad they did, because it proved that our readers’ are ultimately the last word when it comes to who wins and lose; not a single critic here, no matter how well regarded, but the fan. We as a site and I as an editor and writer learned a lot from Ms. Blessett and our experience with Purpose.
Still, it was with some reservation that I agreed to review the first album release in the six years since Purpose and that critique made the rounds, the Purpose Records project entitled Recovery, a name that could be taken a lot of ways given the time and experience Blessett’s had immediately after Purpose and in between albums. There were moments during the ensuing years that quelled some of my apprehensions about reviewing, such as Blessett’s 2011 Top 20 R&B hit with Anthony David, “4Evermore,” her liquid duet with Esperanza Spalding on “Black Gold,” and the latest charter, “Nobody But You,” produced by Shannon Sanders (Anthony David, Heather Headley). These moments of clear artistic growth from Blessett assisted my decision to tackle Recovery, since I was bored at the thought of another “takedown” review, but have this pesky need to be honest about what I hear. Luckily, Recovery is an utterly solid urban adult contemporary affair with several worthwhile highlights, offering me some relief and Blessett’s fans some moist musical cake to dig their forks into.
Recovery has many of the attributes that made Purpose a fan favorite, namely slickly polished hip hop soul productions from collaborators like Kwame Holland, Todd Moore, Shannon Sanders, and Bryan Michael Cox, as well as Blessett’s own strong storytelling elements told from a woman’s point of view, one with more than a bit of class about herself. Unlike many of the R&B projects that make radio and garner praise as “ratchet n blues,” to her credit, Blessett sings about relationships without the expletive-laced, overcharged sexually blatant material that has become the du jour. On the title track, a bass and drama production epic, the defiant yet confessional Blessett expresses how difficult it is to recover from heartbreak, but is resolute in the decision to do just that. On the catchy warning, “Paper Heart,” Blessett cleverly uses basketball analogies as she explains her fragility to a man who seems prepared to bring yet more pain, just as Blessett is working her way to vulnerability again. The album possesses more than its share of lyrical blues, like the country-tinged, old school regret of “Another Heartache.” While songs like the expository “Better for Me” and the duet with Q Parker (of 112), “Struggle To Be,” could benefit from stronger, more memorable hooks, given the density of Blessett’s storytelling verses, simpler songs like Michael’s piano ballad, “I’ll Be Ok,” chorus creams like Holland’s “Recovery” and “Right Next To You,” and Moore’s cinematic “Danger Zone” are there to create balance and dynamism on Recovery.
As with Purpose, Algebra’s background singing histories with such artists as Bilal serve her in good stead here, as few arrange and sing as well with themselves in harmony and doubles as Blessett. As a lead vocalist, Blessett’s melisma rich instrument has grown, as some of the more sustained notes on “Danger Zone,” truly special bridges on cuts like “Nobody But You,” and overall delights such as “Another Heartache” illustrate. Like artists Choklate and Deborah Bond, Blessett’s not a multi-octave belter, but rather a smooth hip hop soul track rider who knows how to get the most out of phrasing, jazz rifts, inflections, and surprising modulations to bring dramatics to a song and keep listener’s attention. How much you enjoy Blessett’s pleasing vocal approach may depend on how much of a fan you are of the hip hop soul and smooth soul that dominated ‘90s UAC radio, with artists like Monica, with whom Blessett once sang and sometimes favors.
That doesn’t mean the project doesn’t have any head-scratchers, such as the inspirational “Writer’s Block” about the laborious writing process, which works as a first listen intimate look at an artist, but wears on repeat. As does “Forever,” which starts beautifully, but grates through the simple hook’s repetition by the cut’s end. These are minor blips in a project whose overall benefits and creative juices do more than satisfy, they nourish. With this Gibraltar offering, Algebra Blessett’s solid return is one of an artist who has fully recovered from the past and is ready to win. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson