Syleena Johnson - Chapter 5: Underrated (Advance Review)

Syleena Johnson
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In an ideal world, those with better looks than vocals or hooks would be out striking poses so that more could hear true artists like Syleena Johnson. Thanks to her lineage (the daughter of blues star Syl Johnson), experience (training in gospel, jazz and classical music) and ability to evoke pain and passion with searing lyrics and gut-wrenching vocals, Ms. Johnson was a favorite with R&B lovers (“I Am Your Woman,” “Guess What,” “Suddenly (Bulls-Eye), “Down & Out”) long before her plaintive wail went mainstream on Kanye West’s smash “All Falls Down.” Today, with over a decade in the biz, a Grammy nomination and six studio CDs behind her, it’s a newly-emboldened Syleena shining through on Chapter V: Underrated, which is less introspective, but still as intimate, as the previous chapters she’s released.

In an ideal world, those with better looks than vocals or hooks would be out striking poses so that more could hear true artists like Syleena Johnson. Thanks to her lineage (the daughter of blues star Syl Johnson), experience (training in gospel, jazz and classical music) and ability to evoke pain and passion with searing lyrics and gut-wrenching vocals, Ms. Johnson was a favorite with R&B lovers (“I Am Your Woman,” “Guess What,” “Suddenly (Bulls-Eye), “Down & Out”) long before her plaintive wail went mainstream on Kanye West’s smash “All Falls Down.” Today, with over a decade in the biz, a Grammy nomination and six studio CDs behind her, it’s a newly-emboldened Syleena shining through on Chapter V: Underrated, which is less introspective, but still as intimate, as the previous chapters she’s released.

Paired with urbanized producers like Unik, AK and Toxic, yet continuing in her traditional story-telling candor (she co-wrote all but one song), Ms. Johnson spills out her heart’s contents, pours angst into every line and bites her tongue for no one. The opening title track, for example, fires off her personal and professional dilemmas like targeted rapid-fire bullets as she claims victory over each one: “I’ve been in this business  fifteen years and still I’m growing stronger/messed around, got married, had two kids and still I’m going stronger/Never let this industry determine how and when I’m gonna….don’t care what y’all do I do what the **** I wanna.”  Another hard-hitting proclamation, “Label Me,” tells gossip folks that she’s earned her success and to move around with the half-truths and innuendoes---“How come a girl can’t have expensive things (Girl that man bought her car, don’t he play ball overseas?)/ How come I can’t just have my own money….and by the way, his money is MY money.”

Where Syleena really shines, as expected, is when she navigates the rocky terrain of relationships, romantic or otherwise: her first single, “A Boss” is an irresistible ditty and should be 2011’s ‘Single Lady’  anthem, tooting her own horn (“I got my own money when I want my own thrills, got my own bottles poppin’ and they’re on chill”) while she waits for someone worthwhile: “Now some fellas got their hands out, but nothing lasts when it comes free/ I need a man that’s willing to work, when it comes to loving me.”  On the flip side, any woman needing to get untangled should reference “Go Head,” which features a tangy rap from Na’ Tee (“Getcho’ clothes before I throw em’ in the trash quick, bag it, take it out, gas it, ashes to ashes, Angela Bassett”) and deflates male egos with cutting lines like “Now wait a minute, who do you think you dealing with/This ain’t no habit, this here ain’t **** for me to quit!”

Thanks to her throaty husk of an alto, even the ballads and mid-tempos pack a punch:  “Angry Girl,” a duet with Tweet, offers soothing, yet straight-forward advice to a woman who uses her resentment from one bad love affair as a shield in the next: “Now he thinks that all women are no good, you’ve ruined him for me/a vicious cycle you’ve started, now because of you, he can’t be open…. Angry Girl, you’re making it so hard for women like me to find Prince Charming.” “My Shoes,” functioning as a gritty sequel to 2005’s “Another Relationship,” turns the tables and asks her man if he could handle the pain he’s inflicted on her time and again: “What if it’s me that walks all over you, what if it’s me that raised my hand to you? / Would you be at Momma’s house crying, trying to stop my daddy from killing you, would you be confused, would you feel like a fool?”  A decidedly understated, yet evocative performance emerges in “Like Thorns,” a song where one can practically picture her tear-streaked eyes peering through a rain-pelted window pane as she walks away for the final time: “The things that you do I can’t ignore, you used to be like roses, now you’re just like thorns.”

Syleena squeezes more heart out of a single verse than many can out of an entire album, and It’s a travesty that she remains under the radar for many.  But as soulful and self-possessed as she is, being Underrated is not a state she's destined to remain in for that much longer; her Chapter 5 may be the one that flips the book open for the rest of the musical world to discover an artist who always delivers the goods. Highly Recommended.

By Melody Charles


CLICK HERE to listen to Chapter 5: Underrated

 
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