Syleena Johnson - Chapter 6: Couples Therapy (2014)

Syleena Johnson
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There is that part of the fan psyche that compels them to question why Syleena Johnson – with her compelling biography and strong body of work both as a solo artist and a collaborator with performers such as Kanye West and Musiq Soulchild – would do a reality show such as R&B Divas: Atlanta.  Most ask that question while consuming every episode, and that contradictory response serves as the best explanation of Johnson’s recurring role. Divas is often a prelude to and promotion for an upcoming project, such as Johnson’s Chapter 6: Couples Therapy, and being broadcast into hundreds of thousands is a value added for an independent artist. So while some won’t be able to resist cynically dropping the “no publicity is bad publicity trope,” the fact is that clichés become so because they contain more than a small nugget of truth.

There is that part of the fan psyche that compels them to question why Syleena Johnson – with her compelling biography and strong body of work both as a solo artist and a collaborator with performers such as Kanye West and Musiq Soulchild – would do a reality show such as R&B Divas: Atlanta.  Most ask that question while consuming every episode, and that contradictory response serves as the best explanation of Johnson’s recurring role. Divas is often a prelude to and promotion for an upcoming project, such as Johnson’s Chapter 6: Couples Therapy, and being broadcast into hundreds of thousands is a value added for an independent artist. So while some won’t be able to resist cynically dropping the “no publicity is bad publicity trope,” the fact is that clichés become so because they contain more than a small nugget of truth.

Consider Leela James, who stars on the Los Angeles version of the “Divas” franchise, and duets with Johnson on “Fools Gold,” one of many airplay worthy tracks on Couples Therapy. James, like Johnson, has released a series of recordings that received critical acclaim over the course of the last decade. However, her recurring role on the Los Angeles version of “Divas” probably aided James in earning a level of radio airplay for “Fall For You” that has largely eluded the dusky voice vocalist.

Here’s something else to consider: Dropping a project filled with weak tracks would confirm the view that the Divas are washed up train wrecks using the franchise to maintain a death grip on the last rung of fame. But that cynical view will be challenged by Syleena Johnson from the first track on Chapter 6: Couples Therapy, and will be totally excised by her aforementioned duet with James on “Fools Gold.” Johnson and James are a match made in vocal heaven. James’ husky, blues based voice plays off Johnson’s equally soulful but higher and softer voice on this track that features a dramatic, almost theatrical musical arrangement and a lyrical narrative of two women who decide to cut their losses after realizing that the returns on their relationships don’t match their investments.

Nearly all of the 14 tracks on Couples Therapy feature a mature take on love and relationships. Some reviewers note that the album places a focus on the darker sides of love. That is certainly the case of a track such as “I Cut My Hair,” a high point on a record that is filled with them. Johnson is always at her best on tracks that allow her to convey contradictory emotions such as vulnerability and strength. Her father, Syl Johnson, endowed “Is It Because I’m Black” with that level of honesty, and his daughter does the same on “I Cut My Hair” and transforms the act of shearing locks into a statement of defiance and independence: “Cut out all the things you put me through/To cut out all the memories of you/To cut out all the ties I have to you/I cut my hair to show you/You don’t have control of me no more/And I’m not afraid to let you go/And it’s time for me instead of you/I cut my hair to show you”

However, saying that Couples Therapy is devoid of sweetness and light would be incorrect. “Harmony” finds Johnson pairing off with fellow Chicagoan Dave Hollister on a dreamy ballad where the two liken their love to the kind synchronicity seen in birds in flight, the rising of the moon and stars and - of course - music. “If You Need to Know” is a bluesy number that finds Johnson using her sweet as honey vocals to ensure her lover that her love remains strong. The distance between how a listener feels about those two tunes and “No Beginners,” will likely be a function of age. The bedroom ballad that features the rapid fire, hip-hop inspired vocals of Johnson and Willie Taylor will likely go down smoother with the millennial crowd than with old fogies such as yours truly.

In the end, the R&B diva scores by fusing contemporary R&B production techniques on Chapter 6: Couples Therapy with the time honored virtues of solid lyrical content and passionate and honest vocals.  For those who’ve tracked Syleena Johnson through five previous “chapters,” Therapy is another dose of her honest, thoughtful brand of R&B. For those who just know Johnson as one of TV’s “Divas,” it will be a quick lesson as to why the music world has cared about her deeply for nearly two decades. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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