For fans of the soulful, bluesy roots of R&B and Soul, Leela James may seem like a saviour. On the sure single "Music", she appeals for a return to soul's musical roots, asking "Where did all the music go / it's all about the video". Her pleas to "put the thongs away" and stop going on about "bitches" or "'ho's" seem well timed in this MTV age, in which the radio star is truly dead.
But "Music" is much more than just a political and musical statement. It's also an irresistible, sexy little number that proves it's NOT "all about the video."
James's musical heroes are Marvin Gaye, Aretha, Tina Turner and the like. She'll also appeal to fans of Jill Scott, Lauren Hill and other quality stars who are genuine songwriters and artists - not just underwear models who happen to know how to sing reasonably well.
Unfortunately, if Leela James has as much to do with the album as the sleeve notes seem to suggest, she's allowed duds into the line-up. "Good time" - a mindless "gonna have a good time" type track- follows right after "Music". Disastrously, because without a video, this idiotic song is worthless.
"Ghetto" does a better job of scrunchy cat fight Jerry Springer storytelling than most of its type. "Soul Food" gyrates with believable Mississippi fervour. "When you love somebody" gets a bit stuck in its funky groove. The album seems to slow down a bit through the brief "Mistreating me" but keeps it together thanks to Leela's sweet vocals, which don't descend into screeching urban cliches.
Not averse to covering other people's songs, she gentle tackles Gwen and Eric Stefani's "Don't Speak", the perfect lead in to "My joy", a slow jam about self respect.
"It's alright", the highlight of the second half, is a poppy lament for love she's losing, penned with the help of Kanye West... At least, it's the highlight until Leela outstays her welcome, finishing with 30 seconds of prima donna histrionics. The title track, a cover of Sam Cooke's classic is overly shivery, but works as a slowdown leading into the final track, the marching "Long Time Coming".
Except it's not the end.
What's this outdated nonsense of "hidden tracks" - which actually can't be hidden at all anymore. Don't producers realise they show up clearly in any media player on any computer? Why not just call them "Pretentious tracks" from now on? Most of them are. Anyhow, Leela James includes four on Change is Gonna Come. Actually, they're not bad. But they all favour a more classic bluesy soul style, so they don't fit the soft but sultry urban-influenced stylistic core of the album.
Overall? Leela's not going to save music - she isn't innovative enough for that. No old fogey moaning about how all the new stuff sucks is ever going to turn the world around. But until someone comes to take soul where no thong wearing songstress has taken it before, Ms James is holding the fort just fine.
- Jean Barker
WHAT OTHER CRITICS SAID:A change must surely come, but she's not it, not yet, not whilst she can summon the mood but is uncertain what moves to make with it. Make it personal, would be my plea.- Stefan Braidwood for Pop Matters
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