Fantasia - Back to Me

Fantasia
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With a galvanizing, gospel-grown, sultry soprano and a fiery, crackling stage presence, Fantasia Barrino is, indisputably, one of the most talented and versatile performers of her time.  She wasn't the most likely person pegged to win the coveted first-place slot on American Idol in 2004---because, honestly, what single mother and high-school-dropout would be?---but over five years, two CD's, one stage smash play, a VH1 reality show and best-selling autobiography later, her Southern charm and undeniable charisma has sustained her success long after naysayers had written her off as a lucky one-shot.  Still, success at a tender age can be a gift and a curse, as displayed by the full-on irony of releasing her third album, Back To Me, in the midst of her first major scandal as an artist (being on the receiving end of an "alienation of affection" lawsuit, public scorn and surviving a ‘suicide attempt' in its aftermath).

With a galvanizing, gospel-grown, sultry soprano and a fiery, crackling stage presence, Fantasia Barrino is, indisputably, one of the most talented and versatile performers of her time.  She wasn't the most likely person pegged to win the coveted first-place slot on American Idol in 2004---because, honestly, what single mother and high-school-dropout would be?---but over five years, two CD's, one stage smash play, a VH1 reality show and best-selling autobiography later, her Southern charm and undeniable charisma has sustained her success long after naysayers had written her off as a lucky one-shot.  Still, success at a tender age can be a gift and a curse, as displayed by the full-on irony of releasing her third album, Back To Me, in the midst of her first major scandal as an artist (being on the receiving end of an "alienation of affection" lawsuit, public scorn and surviving a ‘suicide attempt' in its aftermath).

Now 26 years old, Fantasia is at the inevitable crossroads that many performers reach after years into their profession: should they try to appeal to the younger set, or make more sophisticated songs to hang with an older crowd? Her sophomore set seemed intent on the former, but Back....blends both approaches, from its modern mantras of independence ("I'm Doing Me") and flipping the script ("Man of the House") to songs flush with romance, risk-taking and regret. Collaborators like Ne-Yo, Claude Kelly, Cee-Lo Green and Rico Love make their presence behind the boards known without crowding out her artistic imprint---a good thing, since Fantasia's vocals are as electrifying, elastic and original as ever. She's toned down on the screechy histrionics, thankfully, but still puts novel twists and turns on the subject matter at hand. Anyone can interpolate a Motown classic (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Your Precious Love") with new lyrics, for example, but few can convey the sweetness and the longing that Fantasia does when she coos about loving her man like a sizzling plate of soul food ("Collard Greens and Cornbread"). And when it's time to turn loose a love affair (art imitating life?), who rails against being with him or without him better than she ("So even though I left you, I can't forget you/Cuz' when I think about you, it's bittersweet")?

Toning things down doesn't necessarily mean turning it off: she's a willing slave to her emotions in the grooving, gritty "Move On Me," she clamors to be a student of love on the amorous "Teach Me" ("I wanna love ya, I wanna satisfy/I wanna give ya, all that you want and all that you need in life.....baby, I'm happy to grow") and is downright giddy with anticipation like a teen deep in her first crush on the glittery "Falling In Love Tonight." Cee-Lo Green is cucumber-cool on the 70s-flavored "The Thrill Is Gone," but it is Fantasia's driven and dramatic rendering of the song that makes it a hypnotic listen.

Although some of the songs don't do her justice (there's the cloying "Even Angels" and "Who's Been Loving You" means well, but lacks conviction), it's moments like "I'm Here," from the Broadway musical The Color Purple, that make it clear how broad and beautiful her skills actually are. The lyrics, although sung as the character of Celie, seem to echo from within about the life she's lived and the losses she's endured----before and after celebrity---up until the present: "I don't need you to love me," she says with quiet clarity to those seeking to break her spirit. "...I got my house, it'll still keep the cold out. I've got my shawl, when my body can't hold out/I got my eyes, thought they don't see as fine now, they see more about how things really are now."

That closing track seems to summarize it all: yes, it's rough out there and sometimes, the lessons that life can yield aren't always pretty (let's demand final divorce papers, okay ladies?), but Fantasia has strength and skills to survive.  So Back to Me is a good place for her to dwell and, for the fans, an authentic, if not exciting, journey to endeavor. Recommended.

By Melody Charles

 

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