Leela James: My Soul

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Posted September 13, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0
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Soul power with mix of hip-hop bubbles up on warm new release from sultry diva-in-the-making

Not sure exactly why Leela James hasn’t exploded into the R&B diva she deserves to be. Vocally, Leela James configures the tonality of Betty Wright and the down-right combustible nature of Aretha Franklin. Visually, her look – usually an artistic approach to the‘70s vintage blaxplotation film era – scoops up the oozing sex appeal of Foxy Brown/Cleopatra Jones as she dons her poofy Afro-Sheen natural hair look and her decadent attraction towards bracelets and luxurious necklaces. And with two albums behind her – A Change Is Gonna Come – a nationally-released project on Warner Bros., which gave her the debut of a lifetime and 2009’s brilliant all-covers album on Shanachie – Leela James has yet to see her transition from blooming new artist to household-identifiable songstress. With the recently-revived Stax Records now behind her, James is out to push a product that ultimately blends her soulful influences together with a style that gels with the beats and trendy productions found in contemporary R&B. On My Soul, she achieves such merits but loses some of her edge while, in the process, gains a few points for focusing on the real mission. On her covers project, Let’s Do It Again, James had grown so close to her tasteful live band (with horns) and adapted to a Southern soul that fit the Stax magnet. She breaks free from that rich tradition, trying to defray away from the predictable forecasts, by zoning in on more hip-hop beats and glimmers of classic soul via samples, arrangement and some production magic. On “Tell Me You Love Me,” the lead single for the album, James finds a bubbly melody atop a familiar Manhattans’ sample (“Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye”) and warm harmonies. The production from Gerrard Baker (Toni Braxton, Billy Crawford) along with the soulful bounce suits James’ perfectly, even sounding more and more like a vault classic designed for Betty Wright. She nabs a few more juicy front-running cuts with the effervescent ballad “The Fact Is,” bubbling with all the potential of being the next strong radio player, and the hip-hop flavored “So Cold.” Raheem DeVaughn, another soul act in search of his much-deserved fan, teams up with James on the Chucky Thompson-produced “Mr. Incredible, Ms. Unforgettable.” The song, co-written by both singers, boasts powerful performances from both, almost battling it out to secure their love for one another lyrically. Even though they tear the song up vocally, going way beyond the predictions of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell standard, it remains one of the album’s standout attention-getters.

Her gutsy “I Want It All,” soaked in gutsy gospel moans with a militant black fist in the air, reveals James hungry for “A-1 credit and platinum records” and “reparations and free education.” She delivers an even bigger performance loaded with aggression on the opener “I Ain’t New to This,” where James pens and belts out “out on my own/still standing strong/that old label didn’t believe/but I proved them all wrong.”

My Soul contains a few filler cuts, still all the more interesting and entertaining. Albeit short in length, “Let It Roll,” sounding like a Ruth Brown/LaVern Baker Atlantic Records single from the ‘50s, is a playful jukejoint party that seems like it will work well during her engaging live shows. “Party All Night” continues that juke-joint pulse while mixing in a concocting ‘70s groove lifted from the mystical vibes of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” While these “musical interludes” are obviously not radio-ready, seemingly just party starters or remnants of a jam session, they work well within the album’s format and give fans of James’s old school tributes a little more material to seep their teeth into.

Despite one or two pop-up irritants including the whining baby pitches of “It’s Over,” the album stands as a remarkable feat for James – pushing her closer and closer to her place of deserved merit. She also proves she’s more than a belting soul, writing most of the material presented. Four of the tracks was solely penned by her. Not sure if James has been given the freedom to do as she chooses, but My Soul is a step in the right direction commercially. Fans of her covers project, hungry for delicious live performances like her immaculate remake of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” her outstanding cover of Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How to Love Me” and Betty Wright’s spunky classic “Clean Up Woman,” are simply teased on My Soul. Good thing about the album is that she provides living proof that she still can sing like the soul vets. This time around, she’s just centered in a conducive environment that suits her apparent youthfulness and outer beauty.

J MATTHEW COBB

HIFI DETAILS

  • Release Date: 25 May 2010
  • Label: Stax
  • Producers: Gerrard Baker, Carl “Chucky” Thompson, Kadis & Sean, Carvin & Ivan, Steven “Supe” White, Ray Murray, Butter
  • Track Favs: Tell Me You Love Me, Let It Roll, I Ain’t New to This, So Cold, The Fact Is

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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