Album Review: Love And War, by Tamar Braxton, and Rebellious Soul, by K. Michelle
The latest Billboard 200 album chart saw a #2 debut for Tamar Braxton, the Severn, Maryland-raised singer heretofore known as one of ’90s superstar Toni Braxton’s less famous younger sisters. In August, another R&B singer who’d been kicking around the industry for years with little success, K. Michelle, also enjoyed a #2 chart debut. Both impressive sales figures would probably not have been possible without one common link: reality TV. WE’s Braxton Family Values and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, which K. Michelle recently left the cast of, are both cable hits that raised each woman’s profile significantly over the past couple years, setting the stage for those sales coups.
Once upon a time, reality shows were only a career option for two kinds of musicians: hopefuls and has-beens. An unknown singer might become famous on American Idol, and a fading star might be able to collect a paycheck on The Surreal Life and raise their touring profile, but there wasn’t much opportunity in television to nourish a recording career still in progress and make hit songs. In recent years, that’s changed. The title track to Braxton’s Love And War has been one of R&B radio’s biggest and best hits of 2013, and K. Michelle’s “V.S.O.P.” has been climbing the charts since before her album Rebellious Soul started selling. They may have built their audience with reality TV antics, but now there’s a bona fide fanbase for their music, which they leveraged with Twitter followers buying up their singles and eventually getting them on the radio.
The rise of Braxton and Michelle comes at an interesting time for women in R&B, when there’s something of a stardom vacuum. Although Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige aren’t going anywhere, they’ve all been on commercial declines for years, and no new female R&B artist has emerged in the last decade with any major staying power (save for Rihanna, a pop star whose biggest hits often aren’t even played on R&B radio). At the ripe age of 36, Tamar Braxton sold 114,000 copies of her second album (following a long forgotten 2000 debut) in one week, a better number than far more established artists like Ciara, Keyshia Cole, Fantasia or Kelly Rowland did with their latest albums. And it’s not just women – Love And War outsold new albums by John Legend, Jaheim and Raheem DeVaughn released in the same week.
Tamar Braxton could have made an album that follows through on the promise of “Love And War,” with lush, emotional ballads that show off how she has both her big sister’s sultry tone and a range that soars higher. And about half the time, she does, with equally impressive songs like “Stay And Fight” and “Where It Hurts,” which was co-written by longtime Toni collaborator Babyface. Unfortunately, there are also several half-baked, ill-fitting tracks that make the album feel muddled and confused. Halfway through the album, Braxton strains to sound sassy on the noisy, Diplo-produced “One On One Fun” and the ‘turnt up’ Rihanna-style track, “She Did That.” That each track runs less than two minutes long is just about the only good thing about them.
Where Braxton’s attempts at an edgier sound feel forced, K. Michelle is brazen in a way that feels true to herself. Rebellious Soul is the rare major label R&B album with an explicit lyrics sticker not earned primarily by guest rappers (the only MC on the album is Meek Mill, who barely curses at all in his brief verse). K. Michelle first gained fame a few years ago when she was mentored by R. Kelly, but the material he penned for her was a bit bland, lacking in the personality and X-rated sensibility of his own songs. Kelly didn’t work on Rebellious Soul, but it feels like she’s picked up a little more of his approach since then, singing about sex and relationships in frank, sometimes filthy terms.
The week Rebellious Soul was released, #KMichelleSongTitles was a trending topic on Twitter, lampooning her ‘ratchet’ personality as seen on VH1 and occasionally in her lyrics. Ultimately, though, she’s not saying much that male R&B singers, from Kelly to more recent acts like The Weeknd and Ty Dolla $ign, haven’t been saying for ages. And Rebellious Soul would feel like merely an amusingly foul-mouthed novelty if not for the fact that K. Michelle can sing circles around many of her contemporaries. With not just a large vocal range but an extremely loud style of singing, she sounds a bit like if Jennifer Hudson had been raised in Memphis and cursed like a sailor. That she demonstrates that impressive ability on an interlude like “Coochie Symphony,” in which she sings in an operatic style about her broken coochie, could either be considered squandering her talent or simply applying it in an unusual way. That she puts those moments of levity alongside sincere (and explicit) songs about love and sex and family, all sung with the same conviction, puts her in a unique position in a genre where well-behaved women haven’t been thriving much lately.