Syleena Johnson - Chapter 4: Labor Pains (2009)

Syleena Johnson

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Chicago chanteuse, Syleena Johnson, has long teetered somewhere between Millie Jackson and Kelly Price. On her fourth project, Ms. Johnson fell down in Millie-land and-if the chosen landing heard here is to be believed-she won't be getting up anytime soon. With raunchy come hither cuts, daytime TV dramas, and an overly healthy respect for "sistah-ghurl" realness, Ms. Johnson delivers fans more of what they expect, but without the interesting arrangements and ambitious love anthems that once balanced her more obvious, urbane fair. Similar in tone, theme and topic to the independent release from another big voiced niecey, Lil Mo, Chapter 4: Labor Pains is never bad, but it's also never great.

Chicago chanteuse, Syleena Johnson, has long teetered somewhere between Millie Jackson and Kelly Price. On her fourth project, Ms. Johnson fell down in Millie-land and-if the chosen landing heard here is to be believed-she won't be getting up anytime soon. With raunchy come hither cuts, daytime TV dramas, and an overly healthy respect for "sistah-ghurl" realness, Ms. Johnson delivers fans more of what they expect, but without the interesting arrangements and ambitious love anthems that once balanced her more obvious, urbane fair. Similar in tone, theme and topic to the independent release from another big voiced niecey, Lil Mo, Chapter 4: Labor Pains is never bad, but it's also never great.

There was a time when Syleena Johnson made the most sexually enticing music on digital today. With the lusty lyrics from "No Words," "Phone Sex," and "Slowly," Syleena cooed erotica like she was reading from the pages of Zane while filming the lead in Spike Lee's "Girl 6." The raspy crackles of her bluesy alto seemed readymade for baby-making and thug-loving exaltations (somehow you just know Syleena's is singing wanton odes to the blue-collar man). These songs were and are glorious in arrangement, sensuality and compelling in Syleena's tightrope walk between obscenity and audacious artistic expression. It's really a shame to witness Johnson lose her balance so late in her career.

Syleena is surprisingly flat in her enthusiasm and lyrically boring on "My First" and "Personal Trainer," two tepid magazine confessions set to music. Some might say it's the influence of R. Kelly (her frequent co-collaborator) on Syleena's music that is to blame for this lyrical preoccupation with orgasms. However, the two haven't made music together in a few years; something about being estranged over court cases and adolescent girls... In any case, Syleena, it seems, has decided she's developed and has indulged on Chapter 4: Labor Pains a taste for tasteless tunes heretofore only heard by the likes of Lil Kim, Adena Howard and the Queen of Filth and Soul, Millie Jackson.

At least with Millie, the bluesy soul comedienne of the South, the tunes were funny. Johnson decides to carry Jackson's torch into ghetto humor on cuts like "Maury Povich" (yes, that is the title and yes, it is self-explanatory for those familiar with its dubious parentage shows) and "Shoo Fly," the storytelling kin to Jackson's classic "Lovers and Girlfriends," but lacks Jackson's wit and griot prowess. There are other panderings to the ladies that feel less like testimonies and more like calculated contrivances, such as the party girl's anthem "Go," and the auto-tuned platitudes of "Where's The Love" (an original title, no?) just for starters. There is also an oddly timed racial protest song "Is It Because I'm Black?" just days before we swear in our first Black President.

And yet, despite all these flaws, the Johnson's fourth project escapes being bad.  Why? Well, because the other side of Syleena Johnson is that Kelly Price mode of singer, one with the enormous vocal talent to make the frothiest schmaltz listenable and sometimes even lovable. There are endearing tunes on Chapter 4: Labor Pains and they are almost all thematically about love that is working, from the Sweet Inspirations flavored "It Is True" to the only real, love anthem on this joint, "Your Love." Why there is only a handful of this type of tune is bewildering, since Syleena's best work has always been well-arranged music about inspired hope and love. True, her radio hits such as "Guess What?," "I Am Your Woman," "Tonight I'm Gonna Let You Go (Remix)" and "All Falls Down" are about dysfunctional relationships set to a slow grind or a dance groove. But, Johnson's fan hits are about giving "All of Me" to be "Faithful to You," shouting "I Believe In Love" and testifying how "I'd Rather Be Wrong," when not declaring "Time" is all that's needed for more "Special Occasions," "Now That I Got You." With each album chapter outgrowing the last in artistry, composition and common sense, Syleena Johnson has proven responsible for so many timeless, unsung tunes about the aspirations and beauty of love-both mutual and unrequited-it was hard not to have ever escalating hopes for Chapter 4: Labor Pains. The conscious funk of "Freedom" on Labor Pains kind of gets there, but...there just really isn't anything even close to the tunes from her classic Chapter 2: The Voice. That she produced this album through her own newly launched indie label regrettably leads all fingers pointing back to Ms. Johnson as the culprit.

Talented and underappreciated by the mainstream audience, Syleena Johnson has rightly earned a cult following for her soul children. Hands rubbing in cheek-pinching anticipation, folks have been waiting a long time for Johnson's latest delivery. While a new child has been born to beautiful parents, when viewed along side its siblings I suspect everyone will be too polite to point out the obvious, but I'll do so by quoting my favorite children's song: "one of these kids are doing his own thing, one of these kids don't belong." Mildly Recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson

 
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