Monday, December 22, 2014

album review: 'anybody wanna buy a heart' by k. michelle

If we want to speak about one of the biggest trends of 2014, we need to talk about R&B. Not only did it come back in force and with the exception of Taylor Swift do a number on mainstream pop, it also showed itself willing to experiment and brought a ton of different sounds to the table. I might not have been a real R&B fan a year ago, but I'm think with artists like FKA Twigs, Jhene Aiko, and the return of stalwarts like D'Angelo, I think I'm on board this time.

And since I'm one of the few critics who has covered the entire spectrum of R&B this year, from the stuff gunning for mainstream airplay to the underground, I figured that I should check out one last artist before the year's end - and one that I had significantly mixed feelings on going in. K. Michelle was signed to Jive Records back in 2009 before they bought out her contract, but she quickly accrued a lot more fame tied to the VH1 reality show Love & Hip-hop: Atlanta. I suspect some of that fame coloured the release of her debut album Rebellious Soul last year on Atlantic. Which was a bit of a shame, because it wasn't really a bad album. Not a great one, but if you're looking for some early 2000s-inspired R&B with modern synths and a surprising amount of texture from a woman with real pipes. Now I'm not going to say that era of R&B was always my thing, but I could definitely respect it and that K. Michelle had some real talent behind her.

That said, if I hadn't started getting requests - and I mean a lot of them - for this album, I probably would have passed it by - but then I started seeing other things, like how the critics who did talk about it called it one of the best R&B records of the year. That's a lot of high praise, and considering this was looking to be a mainstream accessible R&B record with no rap features - which is rare - I definitely gave a listen. Does it live up to the hype?

Well, parts of it do. And really, I do like this album - in fact, I wish I liked it more, because there's a lot to Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart that I find pretty solid, even if it doesn't exactly blow apart boundaries for modern R&B. But there are problems with this album that I can't exactly ignore, and they did knock it back from being a great album to just a very good one.

For a change, let's start with the songwriting - and really, this is an area I feel K.Michelle can shine. Her persona is a lot more confident and aggressive than most other R&B singers, to the point where some of her songs can come across as a little unstable. And yet she knows it, and there's a lot of self-awareness surrounding the decisions that she makes and how it makes her look - and to her definite credit for the most part she doesn't care. 'Love 'Em All' is a prime example - she's cycling through guys like most hip-hop artists do women, and while I'm not exactly a fan of how she just seems not to care about the hearts she could be breaking, I can respect her taking control and refusing to allow herself to be judged by everyone else. She's openly sexual, not one to take any crap, and in cases where she's in a more vulnerable position, there's enough complexity so that any bad decision she makes kind of makes sense in a twisted way. Granted, there are songs that test my patience - 'Cry' is the sort of revenge song that even with self-awareness isn't exactly something I can endorse or respect, and 'Drake Would Love Me' comes across as really petulant and trying to court unnecessary controversy - in other words, a lot like Drake, but I digress. Still, when you have songs like the second-guessing 'Maybe I Should Call' or the 'get-your-crap-together' song 'God I Get It', which ends off the album and does underscore its self-awareness, I can respect K.Michelle as a songwriter.

From there, though, we need to talk about instrumentation and production - and there are moments I do like, let me stress this. We get moments of real electric guitar snarl on 'Love 'Em All', there's a solid rollicking progression on 'Going Upper' with the layered effects and popping beat, the cascading piano on 'How Do You Know?', the watery funk of the bass on 'Something About The Night', I liked the guitar and brash horns on 'Build Me A Man', and the distinctly late-90s interweaving guitar melodies of 'God I Get It'. Hell, whenever this album sticks with more melodic guitars, much of the instrumentation really shines. The big problem comes in the production, which at best sounds really dated and at worst sounds cheap. It's an issue of mix depth - you can tell this album was gunning for more of a pop-friendly sound and thus many of the sounds are layered very close to the top and front of the mix - but at the same time, the sounds rarely have a lot of depth or deeper presence or much organic texture. You get moments of it occasionally, but it often feels like a thin film of oil is slathered all over many of these songs, and it can really neuter a lot of the impact and make much of this album sound cheaply produced.

And part of this issue is K.Michelle herself. Now let me stress that I do like her as a vocalist - I think she's got a lot of unique personality and range, she's plenty capable of showing off harder edges while still having vulnerable, confessional moments, and she definitely has pipes. What I don't think she has is a lot of control and technique - if you compare her to Beyonce - which is fair, because both play in a similar vein of R&B or at least they used to - K.Michelle might show off more dramatic range and write more interesting songs, but Beyonce has a lot more vocal control. She's able to have a lot of poise and emotive presence without letting it overtake her, whereas K. Michelle has the emotion but it's a lot less refined, which leads for a lot of words and notes that blend together. Now this can work - it adds to that unstable framing that I like about this album, that tidal wave of surging emotion that she can bring to the table... but then the producers decided to slather so many vocal effects on her voice that not only does she lose intimacy, she also loses a lot of raw vocal texture. There's so much noticeable autotune and reverb and vocal effects that it actively detract from her unique personality and only seems to highlight the moments where her vocal runs lose control or just don't land that punch they should. Now I don't know whether this was done in post in order to cover up for going flat or sharp, or was a symptom of the dated production, but either way, it's not all that attractive.

And yet even with that, I'm prepared to mostly recommend this album. It's not perfect, and FKA Twigs, Teyana Taylor, and Jhene Aiko have nothing to worry about in terms of stronger R&B records, but Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart does have a unique personality and some charm to it, especially in the songwriting. I get the feeling that if K. Michelle got better producers or at least who are a little more willing to amp up the raw side of her delivery and personality, we could have had something really special. But as it is, I'm giving this album a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of R&B that sounds like it could have come out in the mid-to-late 2000s. Otherwise, yeah, it's pretty good, give it a listen.

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