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Music Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13


Chrisette Michele--I Am
By Mark Anthony Neal--SeeingBlack.com Contributing Editor
Jul 13, 2007, 15:49

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When most audiences were introduced to Chrisette Michele, she was wrapping Jay Z’s lament about lost friends, lost families and lost loves with warm sisterly kisses. Weeks later she was a throwback chanteuse from the jazz age of the 1920s, endowing Nas’s plea for immortality, with the verve and brashness of Harlem Renaissance-era writers who gave the jazz age its meaning. With both songs, Jay Z’s “Lost Ones” an Nas's “Can’t Forget About You”, my inclination was to check the liner notes (“What are those?” says the boy to the Ipod) to find out which coquetish, dead jazz diva had been exhumed from her digital grave to provide the emotional depth that contemporary artists sometimes seem incapable of channeling. (Thinking favorably here, about Will.i.am’s brilliant pairing of Nina Simone and Mary J. Blige on the latter’s “About You”). At the very least, I wanted to confirm that Erykah Badu was back in the world. Chrisette Michele? Doesn’t ring a bell.

Chrisette Michele, I Am, says the 24-year-old woman from Long Island and, when pressed, she admits, “I been studying, Ms. Billie, Ms. Ella, Ms. Sarah Vaughn, and Ms. Natalie Cole.” (from “Let’s Rock”). Michele’s debut recording, I Am, is a curious collection, as much for the choice of songs as it is for the fact that the singer has been allowed to build from the ground a small, but growing audience. R&B singers barely a decade older than Michele—Deborah Cox and Amel Larrieux are the singers I’m thinking of specifically—have been banished from urban radio and find themselves either recording jazz standards or claiming stakes in the gospel music industry to find an audience. The clear message is that not only do these women have to compete with the Rhiannas and Ameries of the world, but also the Fergies and Nelly Fertados of the world. Quite frankly, save Mary J. Blige and perhaps Beyonce (though she too must be beginning to feel old), there is little room—or seemingly need—for grown Black women in contemporary R&B. But Chrisette Michele is too grown—her voice is too grown—to play to the expectations of an industry that still struggles to accept women and Black women in particular, on terms that these women define themselves. When Michele asserts to Baltimore Sun critic Rashod Ollison that she “had a lot of input in this record…I was in all the production sessions”, she is to be commended for demanding such input. The same goes for figures like L.A. Reid and Shawn Carter for granting her request.

Michele co-wrote all the songs that appear on I Am and is given ample support by industry and veteran like Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds as well as Will.i.am, John Legend and Christopher “Jazz” Grant. Many of Michele’s lyrics suggest that she was allowed to pursue her artistic interests in ways that were natural and unfettered. Great claims are made about the art of those who’ve been witness to great upheaval and tension but there is something be said about just imagining the world from the safety of your parents backyard or in the back seat of the minivan on your way to church—or while simply listening to a love song on the radio, as Michele sings on “Mr. Radio.” In the era of digital music and cable television, Michele may be of the last generation of folk for which the radio was their most critical connection to music. I can’t imagine that, even at 25, that Michele didn’t spend a few hours listening to Vaughn Harper’s "Quiet Storm" show on New York’s WBLS.

It’s been more than a decade since Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was at his artistic peak, but his contributions to I Am are arguably some of his finest in years. “Best of Me”, which Edmonds re-borrows from John Legend what Legend borrowed from him the first place, is a breezy slice of nostalgic desire for a love long past. The yearning is different on the touching “Your Joy”, where Edmonds lightly plays guitar as Michele recalls her childhood and the giantness of her daddy: “Walking down the sidewalk staring at your feet/Wishing my steps were longer so by your sides I could keep/Hold your hand much bigger never wanted mine to grow/So I could always fit perfect inside your palms just so.” How rare it that we get to hear about the giantness of black men as fathers or to pay attention long enough to listen to little brown girls that remind us of the giantness of those fathers (yes babies, daddy will be right with you in a minute).

Not to sell John Legend short, his lone contribution is the sweet “Love is You” which you can almost hear Legend himself singing. It’s the perfect vehicle for Michele in that it provides her intricate phrasing with a supple environment. While Michele is clearly suited for balladry, tracks like “Let’s Rock” which samples both Run-DMC and The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” and “In This for You” where she pushes her vocal register down, shows that she can also get to head-nodding when the spirit moves her. Indeed one of her most striking performances on I Am is the change-of-pace anthem “Is This the Way Love Feels”, where one gets the clearest sense of Michele’s church training, as well as the full range of her vocal capabilities. As Kevin Wooten’s left-of-center production threatens to overpower Michele’s vocals she summons a Chaka like power that quells the insurrection, so to speak. It is a fitting official close to a highly satisfying debut. As if expecting a curtain call, Chrisette Michel, returns with the requisite hidden track, and “I Am One” doesn’t disappointment, pleading for the sense connection that its author desires and indeed, contemporary R&B needs.


A longtime contributor to SeeingBlack.com, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of fours books including What the Music Said (1998) and Songs in the Key of Black Life (2003). Neal is Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. His blog Critical Noir, appears at Vibe.com.



© Copyright 2006 SeeingBlack.com

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