Chrisette Michele - Better (2013)

Chrisette Michele
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Chrisette Michelle couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate title for her fourth album release, Better. In nearly every way it is a superior product to her unfocused 2010 project, Let Freedom Reign. From producers who know exactly how best to showcase Michele’s unique vocal style to the fun, catchy writing that is a throwback to the hey days of early neo-soul, Better may be second only to the Grammy-Award winning artist’s critically and commercially acclaimed debut, I Am, for verve and versatility. Fans who were looking for the Chrisette Michele of the gold-selling #1 R&B album, Epiphany, will be delighted to see their jazzy soul chanteuse return to form, one of excellence.

Chrisette Michelle couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate title for her fourth album release, Better. In nearly every way it is a superior product to her unfocused 2010 project, Let Freedom Reign. From producers who know exactly how best to showcase Michele’s unique vocal style to the fun, catchy writing that is a throwback to the hey days of early neo-soul, Better may be second only to the Grammy-Award winning artist’s critically and commercially acclaimed debut, I Am, for verve and versatility. Fans who were looking for the Chrisette Michele of the gold-selling #1 R&B album, Epiphany, will be delighted to see their jazzy soul chanteuse return to form, one of excellence.

Out of the first half, for nearly nine songs straight, Chrisette Michele delivers premium material with a strong ear for melody and edited with Oscar-winning discipline, the kind that made singles like “Blame It On Me” and “Epiphany (I’m Leaving)” 2009 smashes. No superfluous extras, Michele gives just what each song needs. None of the songs are the same, each creating its own mood and catering to different demographics among Michele’s wide and varied audience. The romantic quartet of beautiful ballads “Snow,” “Better,” A Couple of Forevers,” and “Love Won’t Leave Me Out” will cause heart palpitations among those who think good soul music died at the peak of their Members Only 20s. For the hip hop soul heads who loved the Grammy-winning “Be Okay” from off Michele’s debut, the mid-tempo bumpers “Let Me Win,” “Be In Love,” and “Visual Love” will delight with bass lines that suggest both funk and hip hop without going all in with either. Of the divine nine, only the hook on the boastful “Rich Hipster” causes one to raise a critical eyebrow; while the song is metaphorical, many will take it at cringe-worthy face value. In melody and earworm appeal, there isn’t a clunker in this bunch.

After soothing the savage beasts of the 30 to 40 something sets, with the Wizzy Wow produced “Charades (featuring 2Chainz) Michele reaches back for #10 to the 20 something hipsters with an auto-tuned radio jam that actually doesn’t offend more mature ears, again thanks to strong writing and arrangements that suggest the moody ballads of Janet Jackson.  In keeping with the more loosely structured songs of the day but with a twist of mid-career Prince, the Darhyl “DJ” Camper produced “You Mean That Much to Me” is a tour de force vocal performance from Michele. Pregnant with emotionalism and sentiment, “You Mean That Much To Me” is an album highlight with Michele digging deep to excavate a performance of meaning and sincerity.

In keeping with the sequencing of Chrisette Michele’s debut, the latter third of Better is more a matter of tastes. None of these closer songs are poorly crafted per se or unpolished, just less undeniable when compared to the album’s early offerings. Call them the B-sides to the first half’s A. There are moments here of Chrisette Michele stretching artistically, as with frequent producer Chuck Harmony’s “Get Through The Night,” the kind of reserved but emotive acoustic soul that Phoebe Snow would’ve slayed. Providing another slam-dunk is the heartbeat rhythms of “I’m Still Fly.” With its Philly Touch of Jazz style production, “I’m Still Fly” is the kind of intricately arranged finger snapper that Jill Scott might have cut someone for. Less successful is Michele’s group outing with Bilal and Dunson, which suffers from an arrangement that under-utilizes its esteemed guests for the first two minutes against a head-scratching Wizzy Wow production that muffles a bassline whose drive could’ve delivered an invigorating experience, but was decidedly neutered. The urban AC ditty “Ten Foot Stilettos” is another watered down production that comes close to the more energized early entries but falls short of the compelling.

Rounding out a solidly R&B album that has more high than low lights, “Love in the Afternoon” is indicative of what makes Better such a triumph for Michele after stumbling through the preachy, self-consciously confessional, and ultimately undisciplined Let Freedom Reign. Like much of the best of Better, “Love in the Afternoon” appeals to multiple audiences, one who needs strong melody and familiar structure to wrap its ears around and another seemingly obsessed with all sounds technological and robotically perfected. As on several tracks, a vocally liberated Michele opens up her phrasing here, trying on new voices and sounds other than those that invite tired Billie Holiday comparisons, this time channeling her inner Chanté Moore, among other great stylists. The challenges Michele made to herself as an artist, the selection of producers better suited for her gifts (including Andrew “Pop” Wansel, Ivan “Orthodox Barias, Carvin “Ransum Haggins” Shea Taylor, and Warren “Oak” Felder, among others), and a return to good old fashioned solid songwriting from a collective of writers with an eye on what the audience is missing, all make Better one of this year’s finest entries and a Chrisette Michele career best. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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