Thursday, December 14, 2017

album review: 'kimberly: the people i used to know' by k. michelle

This is the third K. Michelle record I will have covered on this show... and at this point, I'm questioning why I'm even bothering again beyond the fact that it's the end of the year and there aren't that many new releases getting added. And yet going back to my last review, I discovered to my amusement that I was asking these exact same questions and yet ultimately made the decision that I'd probably wind up covering her again - she was such a powerhouse of blunt personality that I kept venturing back in the hopes that there'd be some refinement in her writing or that she'd fix her consistently exasperating production problems. 

But going into this record, which was promising to be more focusing on a more vibe-driven R&B sound - and was planning to do so by bringing in Chris Brown and Jeremih, lovely - I also remembered that for as mostly positive as I've been on K. Michelle's work in the past, I've rarely felt all that compelled to go back to either of the records I've reviewed from her. Now granted, K. Michelle is enough of a personality that her plans to delve into figures in her past could be entertaining, if a bit melodramatic - she's not one to shy away from airing dirty laundry - but at the same time, it was also over an hour with over twenty songs, and there aren't many artists who can sustain that sort of momentum. And yet did K. Michelle manage to surprise me here?

Honestly, not really. Of course that's not saying this is a bad release, but in the three records I've covered from K. Michelle, this is both the longest and least essential, not nearly as imaginative or interesting or at least overloaded with personality as her previous records have been. And what continues to be exasperating is that all of that is paired with production issues that have not been solved release after release - and over a longer record, they get a lot harder to ignore.

But hey, it's K. Michelle at the core of this, and she's still a compelling performer, right? Well, yeah, but I'm starting to get the impression that if her vocal production or technique doesn't improve quickly, she should switch things up. Of course the big selling point of a record like this is K. Michelle's huge range and pipes that she sells with so much raw passion - she's never been subtle, but that firepower has always been one of her strong points and it lets me overlook how often she slurs words in her belting or how her pitch can feel a little sloppy, leaving the autotune to clumsily patch things up in post. But if that's going to be the case, it's really inexcusable how often she peaks in the mix, and considering how much this album draws upon earlier eras of R&B and soul, you'd think that her producers would have learned the right techniques by now - and no, just tacking on reverb is not a solution! Compare this to when K. Michelle actually starts rapping on this record, dropping verses on 'Alert' and 'Crazy Like You' and not only is her lyrical construction and flow remarkably solid, she's got plenty of the charisma to make her convincing behind the mic. Hell, if you're not going to give her the opulent, expensive production budget that she really needs to sell her style of R&B or soul, strip it back and let her rap and I'd put money on her being even more successful - I'd certainly take her over Jeremih doing his Travis Scott impression on 'Takes Two' or Chris Brown being utterly irrelevant on 'Either Way'!

Unfortunately, if you were looking for a consistent style of production to match K. Michelle, I'm not sure this album is for you either. She's always had a liking for some of the smoother tones that were prevalent in the 90s, but as I've said time and time again, to make that sound feel organic and lush you need producers with a deft touch that is definitely not here, even I will give credit to strings sections and gleaming keys that show up to compliment the groove on songs like 'Make This Song Cry' or 'No Not You' or the hilariously overwrought 'Brain On Love' - and yes, we'll be getting back to that one. Granted, on the flip side you get songs that try for that vibe, like the sample of 'Earned It' by The Weeknd that shows up on 'Giving Up On Love' - a gratuitous choice if there ever was one - but it gets far more atonal and grating on 'Either Way', or is chopped into knocking, muddy fragments on 'Kim K'... and again, if K. Michelle wanted to make hip-hop, there are some decent beats here. 'Alert' might be sparse but it's effective as an opener, and the watery trap skitters on 'Crazy Like You' are certainly more flattering for her rap verse than the oversold chorus. And I have to come back to this: a big part of how much you'll find these songs tolerable is whether they have the atmosphere to handle K. Michelle, which is why the spacious hollow trap knock of 'Rounds' or the scratchy soul piano ballad 'Woman Of My Word' mostly work - I will say 'God, Love, Sex And Drugs' and 'Takes Two' try to bring in a guitar foundation with live bass that's welcome, but it's not like this record is allowed to pick up any real organic flavor and not drown them in reverb. And that's before you get the outright pop songs on this record that do try to bring in more acoustic tones to match the strings like 'Heaven' and 'Run Don't Walk', the latter written by Kelly Clarkson and man, you can tell - and while I'm not saying K. Michelle can't handle these songs, they're definitely a tone that feels jarring with the rest of this record.

But really, the larger problem is when you had songs like 'Not A Little Bit' and 'All I Got' with some of her best ever hooks, I'm not hearing what on this record can compete with them... and that takes us to the content. And again, K. Michelle is not a subtle artist, and all of the spoken word interludes she peppers this record with make it clear she's coming to acceptance as an untouchable, unrelatable figure and she's looking to set her affairs in order to transcend the rest of the petty drama... and I can't be the only one who thinks this is the wrong choice, right? One of the main reasons I'd ever listen to a K. Michelle record is the diva-driven melodrama, and even here one of the main cathartic thrills behind 'Alert' and 'Crazy Like You' is watching her engage in some ruthless disses, or the sex-hungry flexing of 'Rounds' and the three minute interlude aptly called 'Fuck Your Man'. Now granted, there's a part of me that wishes she'd at least try to elevate this melodrama into territory that shows a little more thought like on 'Make This Song Cry', where she's trying to get us to buy into her anger that she didn't cheat on her partner and that was such a struggle for her, or take 'Kim K', which wants to call out the Kardashians for white-washing and appropriation of black culture but the intended sarcasm on the hook doesn't quite land as you can tell she just wants the privileges and freedoms to be just as terrible as they are. And that's the thing: K. Michelle is, on a fundamental level as a performer and writer pretty damn earnest and straightforward, which is why the heartbreak of 'No Not You' actually connects or her frank admission of the mess of whatever relationship to come on 'Heaven', or even the slight moment of maturity on 'Run Don't Walk' where she encourages the ex to go back to the partner they truly loved. But at the same time, it exposes two major weak points in her writing, the first being that 'above-it-all-coolness' is not a convincing weapon in her arsenal, which is why 'Talk To God' and its shots at internet gossip falls flat. The second, and slightly more embarrassing weakness comes that her directness can lead to songs that just feel clumsy or overwrought without foundation, like her wants for 'God, Love, Sex And Drugs' in as blunt language as possible, or the hyper-sincere 'Brain On Love', which if you grew up in the 90s might not be able to dissociate from that Rachel Leigh Cook ad about your brain on drugs and it suddenly becomes pretty damn hilarious in the wrong way.

But as a whole... look, I said at the end of my last review that I'd be interested in covering more K. Michelle records, but this one pushed my limits here. The production quality is haphazard and rarely flatters her as much as it should, which can blunt the impact of writing that starts to ring as a little stale and a performer that isn't exactly evolving in ways that work for her skill set. And given this runs over an hour and doesn't really have the dramatic muscle or unique storytelling to earn it... yeah, this is a light 6/10 and really only for fans at this point. Otherwise, there's other R&B and soul that is more tightly composed and interestingly written, it's worth a listen but not much more.

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