At times Marie's marketing and overtures to the hip and Black feel comically overdone, if seeming to always come from a sincere place. Musically, these calculations have been known to undermine her latter day albums, particularly during her Cash Money years. Marie's latest release, Congo Square, has a bit of her side-eye worthy tendencies, but the project is largely a return to the kind of music-and dare I say vocals-that made her a star in the Black community in the first place, one without regard for color.
The Congo Square title references TremÃ©, a New Orleans neighborhood boasting a diverse musical history of jazz and rhythmic African and Haitian music that stems back to slavery. Some of those influences do make it on her album, albeit in the most modernized jazz and R&B possible, but Marie wants you to know that she is more than an admirer of high and low Black history and culture; she's an apt pupil as well. Marie's admiration extends to homage to Coretta Scott King ("Ms. Coretta"), a prayer for Barack Obama ("Black Cool"), a quizzical Creole interlude on "Rovletta's Jass," a metaphorical love song to Harlem ("Harlem Blues"), and phonetically ebonic song titles. Preciously, Marie raps with her daughter, burgeoning singer Rose LeBeau, on the auto-tune infused "Milk N Honey." Marie even claims the curious allegiance of "we" with the dancing, singing slaves of the real Congo Square on the opening verses of the title track. Beautifully sung politics need not be racial just because it's soul, which Marie compassionately demonstrates on her inspiring "Soldier." Yet, when it comes to social consciousness, Marie usually proves a wee bit heavy-handed.
Clearly, Marie wants to return the love that she's received over the years from her largely Black following. The mixed results of these overt tunes make me wish Marie understood that we love our honorary sister best when she's just singing the music that allows her-and us-to shine.
Consistently, Marie has been blindingly bright on cuts like "DÃ©jÃ vu,""Now That I Have You," "Yes, Indeed," "Casanova Brown," "Have My Cake and Eat It Too" and so many other "quiet storm" jams. These often elegiac ballads were done with just enough live jazz and aching vocals that you longed to hear them rightfully performed at Carnegie Hall, with Marie fronting a full Basie orchestra. While she could also cut a mean rug on the dance floor with funky, oft-sampled hits like "Square Biz," "Lovergirl" and "Portuguese in Love," Marie ruled evening urban radio through her unique love and torch songs.
Longtime fans of those songs will be delighted to hear that the best of Congo Square is in the tradition of her early hothouse ballads and mid-tempo grooves. The pleading "Marry Me" is timeless Marie from her Motown days, "What U Got For Me" has the Joe Cool strut of a veteran jazz player, and the single "Can't Last A Day," her duet with Faith Evans, is already becoming a worthy classic. When radio is done playing with that fire, they can drop and roll right over to the doo wop infused "You Baby," an urban AC hit in waiting. Still, it's the epic sweep of "Rose N Thorn" that causes swoons, a throwback album cut sure to make fans fall back in love with Teena Marie all over again. On "Rose N Thorn," the voice, which had taken on some quivering affectations over the years, is magically returned to its lush, clear heights on this understated emotional tour de force. Actually, throughout Congo Square, Marie seems to be in her best voice in years.
At a daunting 17 tracks, largely written and produced by Marie, the album is bound to have its share of highs and lows. The tepid duet with Howard Hewitt makes you miss Rick James that much more; and a duet with MC Lyte is among a handful of questionable up-tempo choices. Yet, in many ways Congo Square represents the triumphant return of a soul sister who needn't convince us of her street credibility anymore. Marie earned them long ago, not by flexing her Black musical academics, but by simply creating good music like this--music that stands the test of time. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson