Wednesday, April 13, 2016

album review: 'more issues than vogue' by k. michelle

When I first covered K. Michelle near the end of 2014, I found myself surprised. That had been a year where I was taking tentative steps to appreciating more R&B, and as such I had been game to K. Michelle's somewhat unique position. She had played the reality show game but you can tell there was a unique songwriting voice that came through her record Anyone Want To Buy A Heart?, a fiercely independent and imaginative writer that had genuine promise. That record had the potential to be a smash... potential that wasn't realized thanks to frustratingly cheap production and a vocal performance that brought volume but not quite the tact or emotive subtlety to match the writing. In other words, definitely a good record, but a flawed one all the same.

As such I was strongly debating whether I would even bother to cover her third release, More Issues Than Vogue. On the one hand, it was reportedly a greater stab towards differing genres and styles, pushing more artistic boundaries - of which K. Michelle had shown a tendency towards on her sophomore release, there had been some odd instrumental choices there. But what gave me pause were the songwriting credits, namely that K. Michelle didn't have writing credits at all on over half of the album. This is coming after an album where she had writing credits on every single song and a lot fewer cowriters overall, and it gave me concern that her unique personality would end up diminished, especially when there was no guarantee her production team was top quality. But hey, it could turn alright, so I dug into More Issues Than Vogue - how did it turn out?

Here's the thing: like her last record More Issues Than Vogue is better than many people would presume or expect, and yet if this record was taking any steps to resolving the issues of her 2014 album, they're haphazard at best. And as such it's a bit of a frustrating listen - it's more diverse in its sound and probably will end up having more staying power with more unique songs, but that can cut both ways. It might have a few of her best tracks, but it's also got one of her absolute worst, which in an odd way seems to average out to holding steady as a pretty good, likely underappreciated album.

So let's start off with K. Michelle herself, and if there's any strength that makes this record stand out, it's her. A ton of vocal personality, a huge range, and while she isn't subtle, more often than not this record pivots towards her strengths in soul and 90s-inspired R&B. Now the one thing that characterized many of the darker songs on Anyone Wanna Buy A Heart was its borderline instability in both writing and vocals, but since More Issues Than Vogue is a little more reserved and controlled, it requires K. Michelle to bring more poise - and to her credit, she proves mostly capable, especially when she's taking a firm stance against guys who did her wrong like on 'Not A Little Bit' or 'These Men' or 'Time'. And while I did cringe a little at the high note on the messy relationship of 'If It Ain't Love' - you could tell she was pushing it - when she hops on the more gentle 'All I Got' she proves plenty capable. The one thing that caught me off-guard was the opening track 'Mindful' - I know it was T-Pain who wrote those bars, but K. Michelle had such a forceful, authoritative delivery that if she wanted to pivot towards hip-hop, her voice would at least be distinctive. And make no mistake, that voice means that most of her guest stars cannot measure up - Jason Derulo does get some okay interplay on 'Make The Bed' even if it's definitely clear he's playing second fiddle, but on the absolute worst track 'Rich', Yo Gotti sounds half asleep and Trina chooses to ramp up her obnoxiousness and it's just intolerable.

Granted, there are more reasons why 'Rich' is such a godawful song, so might as well get to the songwriting and themes. Now keep in mind I don't mind K. Michelle bragging or smacking down those who did her wrong - even if she's offbase or running up to the line of good taste, she's got enough personality to get away with a lot, so tracks like 'Mindful' or the many names she drops on 'These Men' tends to work for me. And I really liked 'Nightstand', an barely-veiled smackdown on Meek Mill which I'd argue probably lands as many hits as Drake ever did in 2015, calling to account his masculinity, false flexing, lies, and how she'd rather turn to her vibrator on the nightstand than him. It reminds me a bit of Beyonce and Nicki Minaj's 'Feeling Myself', but K. Michelle's blunt honesty and a few clever lines give her a significant boost. And yet she's not all just smack talk - the complicated situations of 'Make The Bed', 'If It Ain't Love' and 'Sleep Like A Baby' might be handled without a lot of tact, but lyrically they connect. And in the case of songs like the 'moving on' track 'Not A Little Bit' or the genuinely sweet love song 'All I Got', the writing hits all the notes it needs to, which puts to bed a lot of the fears I had about fewer writing credits. I will say many of these tracks aim for less complicated framing, but that can work if the subject matter connects... which brings us to 'Rich'. I might respect K. Michelle on tracks like 'Ain't You' where she's fully conscious of her own money and pursues guys on a similar level not for golddigging but equality, but 'Rich' is insipid, vapid greed - I don't care about 'rich people problems', brand name porn doesn't interest me, and the tone of the song screams obnoxiousness.

But now we need to get to the elephant in the room, and probably the biggest element that kept me from revisiting K. Michelle's sophomore album: instrumentation and production. Now the big issues there came in how thin and cheap so much of the instrumentation sounded, even if it did reflect some real imagination in instrumental choices, and the pileup of vocal effects didn't help accentuate K. Michelle's personality. On the plus side, they mostly got rid of the latter - with the exception of the odd oily layers on 'Got Em Like' or the blatant autotune on 'Rich' - which might expose more flaws in K. Michelle's vocals, but they thankfully sound a fair bit more organic. The issue is that the instrumentation and production that can compliment them well is hit-and-miss. On the one hand you get 90s-inspired R&B ballads like 'Not A Little Bit' or 'All I Got', which play off great piano, strings, and live drums from some phenomenal groove, and that's before we get the real soul of 'Ain't You' with the liquid guitars and waltz cadence or 'These Men' and 'Time' with the elegant strings and potent bass. Hell, I kind of admired how much of 'Nightstand' managed without real percussion, just glittering streams of piano and bass guitar, at least until the beat changed up into a buzzed out and hollow trap beat. And then we get the tighter, wiry synths of 'Make The Bed' with Jason Derulo, which sounds a bit like a cross between the songs 'Try Me' and 'Cheyenne' on his last album - and I mean that as a complement. But here's the frustrating thing: putting aside minor nitpicks like the constant drop-off of groove at the end of each chorus on 'Time', most of this production doesn't quite do enough to give K. Michelle room to breathe against it, not quite as opulent or as organic as it could be to support her. It leads to tones feeling thin if they're not swamped in reverb, not quite with the body to really make tracks like the electro-pop closer 'Sleep Like A Baby' connect. You can definitely tell they had more of a budget for instrumentation and production over last time and the melodies do come through better, but it doesn't quite get all the way there.

So at the end of the day, I think I'll keep covering K. Michelle records, if only because she's got enough personality and blunt confidence to be appealing in modern R&B. Now there are dud tracks here - ending the record with 'Rich' and 'Sleep Like A Baby' does not help - but they're ultimately cancelled out by better songs, which leaves me feeling this record is of similar quality to the last, but perhaps might be more memorable as. Such, I'm thinking a very light 7/10 and a recommendation if you're a fan of this brand of R&B, but otherwise, it's definitely got some tunes that are worth a listen, so check it out.

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