Rihanna: Good Girl Gone Bad
Def Jam Records
Release Date: June 5, 2007

Rihanna was an unknown R&B teenaged singer in the Caribbean until she was discovered and exploded onto the music scene a couple of years ago. Her breakthrough album last year, A Girl Like Me, featured several hit singles including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and back-to-back Number 1 hits, “Unfaithful” and the mega-smash “S.O.S.” which stylishly sampled Soft Cell’s 80’s juggernaut “Tainted Love.” She’s now 19, she’s back with a new CD, and if you grooved to the last album, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

The new disc, Good Girl Gone Bad (her third in less than two years), is similar in fashion to her last album, with its 80’s and 90’s R&B/Pop/Rock flavor, but where the last one had its moments, this one shines through and through. There’s not a bad track on this album.

“Good Girl” gets a ready-made sensational kickoff as the first track, “Umbrella” featuring Jay-Z, is currently occupying the penthouse suite on the Billboard Hot 100. Two weeks ago the single was just outside the Top 40 when it rocketed to Number 1, knocking out Maroon 5’s equally sensational pop/rocker “Makes Me Wonder.”

Rihanna’s vocals never sounded more confident, and it’s safe to say the company she’s keeping on this record could be reason enough. Superstar producer du jour, Timbaland, is responsible for three of the album’s hottest tracks; “Sell Me Candy,” “Lemme Get That” (which is a surefire future hit) and the mid-tempo ballad “Rehab,” which is perfectly timed considering the state of young Hollywood, and co-written by Justin Timberlake.

I’m hearing shades of Beyoncé all over this record, and the fact that B’s main squeeze Jay-Z is present, along with several of Ms. Knowles’ contributors, only makes this album that much sweeter. It was never more evident than on the track “Push Up On Me,” which is as commercially accessible as “Umbrella.” Radio programmers will be all over this track when the timing’s right. The only problem the record company will have with this CD is trying to determine the order in which to deliver each track to radio.

Still mesmerized by the first two tracks, “Don’t Stop The Music” melts its way into my head with its contagious rhythm and sleek beats. It’s also nice to hear Michael Jackson’s pulse again (sort of) as Rihanna’s vocals glide effortlessly over a sample of MJ’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ which is destined to be another hit single. After all of the sensational headlines Jackson’s been making for the past few years which overshadowed his genius, this sample made me realize what we’ve been sorely missing from the pop/rock scene lately. Thanks to Rihanna, we are treated to a spectacular track that reminds us of how special Jackson was/is. “Breakin’ Dishes” keeps the beat moving and the music doesn’t slow down until the mid-tempo R&B knockout “Hate That I Love You” featuring Ne-Yo.

In addition to this album, Rihanna has also created The Rihanna Foundation, a public charity organization dedicated to assisting terminally ill children worldwide. Its mission is to assist and inspire children who suffer from life-threatening diseases including cancer, leukemia and AIDS. The vision of the Foundation is to achieve what Rihanna has always strived for in her music career – “to inspire with hope, courage and love.”

Don’t be surprised when you see this album still riding the charts Independence Day ’08, as it will surely still be dolling out yet another of its dozen sterling tracks. If Rihanna didn’t make herself a household name with her last album, Good Girl Gone Bad is certain to seal the deal.

Evelyn “Champagne” King: Open Book
Jaggo Records
Release Date: August 14, 2007

After a decade-long hiatus from recording, King is back to prove she’s still royalty on the dancefloor, as well as an R&B vocalist to be taken seriously. With the first single, “Skillz,” already making its mark, she’s off to a great start. There’s also an alternative remix of the single on the CD for your dancing pleasure.

Just to be clear, King didn’t disappear from the music scene. She’s been singing and on tour ever since her last release, appearing all over the world, and most especially at several gay pride festivals to give back to the community that’s always supported her endeavors.

Although she’s most famous for her 1978 disco smash “Shame,” that hit the top of the charts when she was just seventeen, King has had a slew of Number 1 pop and R&B and Dance records that include “I Don’t Know If It’s Right,” “I’m In Love” and the mega-hit, “Love Come Down.”

It’s been said that certain things get better with time, and that is clearly evident with King’s vocals and writing abilities (she shares the credit with Freddie Fox, who also co-produces the album). The other producing credit goes out to Preston Glass, who is best known in the industry for producing and writing songs for such artists as Kenny G, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, just to name three.

Old style R&B soul is what makes up the bulk of this album. The sound is fresh enough to blend old-school style vocals with updated hip-hop beats and a deep and divine groove. A favorite of mine is the mid-tempo romp “A Whole Lotta Yum Yum.” It’s sensational! The other single ready-made for the clubs is the upbeat “Dance” that has two versions on this album, one includes the remix. Several other tracks have a great shot for the dancefloor with the right remix, and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing King’s vocals soar for months to come.

The title track is a stunning ballad that really showcases King’s range. In a statement King said, “Unlike many singers today, I am not a studio creation who can not pull it off live in the studio. This is why I can perform the type of live shows that I do.”

Trust me, I remember hearing King live back in the day, and this woman is the real deal. With this latest effort, King is most likely to achieve great success, which will allow this King to be Queen once again.

Thelma Houston: A Woman’s Touch
Shout! Factory Records
Release Date: August 14, 2007

Thelma Houston has been one of the finest, and dare I say, one of the most underappreciated female vocalists of the past four decades. She has been at the top of her game ever since her first album release in 1969, and when she joined the Motown label and legacy in 1971. Since that time, she has enjoyed a bevy of R&B hits, including “I’m Here Again,” “If You Feel It,” “You Used To Hold Me So Tight,” and the worldwide Pop, R&B, and Grammy-winning dance anthem “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which topped all of the aforementioned charts in 1977.

It’s been seventeen years since her last album release, but she’s not back with just another record, she’s back with one of the finest soul collections I have heard since the 1970’s. Just because Houston hasn’t been recording albums doesn’t mean she hasn’t been singing. She still tours and sings in over 200 shows a year, and it’s evident by the strength and warmth of her vocals on this CD. You don’t just take seventeen years off and sound this great.

Houston’s concept of singing an album of songs made famous by male recording artists was something she has been planning for a long time. She has meticulously chosen ten tracks that have been R&B, Pop and Dance song staples ranging from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. The bulk of the album is material that was written and recorded in the 60’s and 70’s, and Houston thought it would be interesting to give these songs the soulful edge of A Woman’s Touch.

The album kicks off with the Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes extraordinary 1976 anthem of peace, “Wake Up Everybody,” and it’s only fitting in this time of war and terror that Houston begin this project with a positive spin. Her take is exceptional, and if one didn’t know it was recently recorded, it could’ve easily been mistaken for her vocals from thirty years ago. Her voice has become warmer and richer, and can still hit those high and low notes as she did all those years ago.

Houston also pays tribute to her fallen friends, gay icons Luther Vandross and Sylvester, covering their dance hits “Never Too Much” and “Disco Heat/Mighty Real,” respectively. Houston wisely pays homage to the genre of music that made her an international recording artist, and the results are spectacular. They put a smile on my face and the spring (literally) in my step. I challenge you to put these two songs on and not tap your feet and move your body to the beat.

Thelma also covers two Marvin Gaye classics, 1965’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and 1974’s “Distant Lover.” If you thought Gaye cornered the market on soulful and sexy, just wait until you hear Houston’s seductive vocals melt over these timeless classics. She even does a cover of Sting’s 1999 hit single “Brand New Day” with a soulful sassiness that brought new meaning to his uplifting and positive message.

There’s also a take on the Jimmy Webb-penned Glen Campbell staple, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” that’s so far removed from the original, she breathes new life into this classic from 1967. It has that old soul charm of when an R&B record had a long spoken introduction, ala Diana Ross, only this time it takes Houston three sexy minutes to begin the verse for an all-out seven minute opus.

Al Green’s funkadelic masterpiece “Love and Happiness” is handled with as much love and happiness as Houston could muster up, and that is a truckload. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” is a true reading of the original, while Houston closes down the show with the Percy Mayfield 1950’s soul sensation “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” It’s sexy soul at its finest.

Houston said of this album, “My aim was not to change the meaning of the songs, I was just hoping to infuse a new personality to the classics.” If there was ever an underestimation of her music, it was summed up in that sentence. Her interpretations have made these classics into classics of her own, and that’s a very rare objective to achieve when tackling music of this magnitude. I must give ten gold stars to this album (one for each track) that will proudly be a part of Thelma Houston’s musical legacy. Hats off to this soul survivor.

Ledisi: Lost And Found
Verve Records
Release Date: August 28, 2007

Eight years ago, Ledisi and her friend, Sundra Manning, launched the label LeSun Records and with it came Ledisi’s debut album, Soulsinger. The record had moderate success and three years later she released her second album entitled Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue. Both collections were well respected among industry insiders but Ledisi had yet to be noticed by a radio audience.

Since the first two albums’ releases, Ledisi has wowed TV audiences with her appearance on the PBS special “We All Love Ella,” singing her heart out on the Fitzgerald staple “Blues In The Night.” She’s appeared on several compilation CD’s, most notably on the 2005 tribute album, Forever, For Always, For Luther, an all-star tribute album to Luther Vandross, and most recently, she was handpicked by Earth, Wind & Fire founder, Maurice White, to contribute her vocals on Interpretations: Celebrating The Music of Earth, Wind & Fire with a fierce delivery of their smash R&B hit, “Devotion.”

For her third album, Lost And Found, Verve Records had the sense to sign her and the results are dazzling. Some people say that timing is everything and sometimes they’re right. I think it’s safe to say that the past eight years of working non-stop has finally given Ledisi, and us, the audience, an album filled with such magnificent material (all co-written by the lady herself) it forced the radio programmers to finally take notice.

The first single, a stunning mid-tempo ballad entitled “Alright,” is rapidly climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has already been #1 on iTunes and is currently listed on iTunes (as of August 30, 2007) as “Single Of The Week.”

The album kicks off with “Been There (Intro)” which is a one and a half minute live introduction of the singer introducing herself to her audience. The brilliant stage has now been set for the fifteen studio tracks that follow.

“You and Me” is an urban R&B song with an intentionally subtle beat that’s sure to arouse a radio-friendly audience. Other tracks destined for commercial success include “Best Friend” which has an irresistible hook as does the stunner, “In The Morning,” a soft and sweet ballad begging the age-old question, will you still love me tomorrow, or as the tile suggests, “In The Morning.” Three additional funk tracks that include “I Tried,” “Joy,” and “Think Of You” are certain to make radio programmers fall in love with Ledisi.

The jewel in the crown and the track certain to become one of Ledisi’s signature songs is the title track. It’s a tender ballad that gently strums the strings of your heart. Without a doubt, this song is a highlight among an entire album that encapsulates the very essence of the R&B/Jazz/Soul/Funk vibe that Ledisi set out to achieve. The title may be “Lost And Found,” but the only thing that’ll be lost after this album is Ledisi’s anonymity as she finally has found the recognition she so richly deserves.

Chaka Khan: Funk This
Sony BMG/Burgundy Records
Release Date: September 25, 2007

Recently I had the privilege of hearing three tracks from Chaka Khan’s upcoming CD, Funk This that floored me. I said at the time ‘if the rest of the album lives up to the sound of these three songs, it would be the best album of hers in years.’ I’m delighted to report that Khan has been able to live up to all of the advance hype.

Funk This is a throwback to Chaka’s early years, first fronting the band Rufus and then her first few solo albums.

The opening track on this new set is appropriately titled “Back In The Day.” This is the sound that defined Chaka Khan from the first time she had a hit record in 1974 (“Tell Me Something Good”) to her glory days when she hit with the mega-smash singles “Sweet Thing,” “Do You Love What You Feel,” “Through The Fire,” “Do You Love What You Feel,” the million-selling Prince-penned “I Feel For You” to the original disco anthem “I’m Every Woman,” before Whitney made it a hit all over again fifteen years after the song had already claimed Chaka Khan as one of the worlds leading R&B vocalists.

The track, “Foolish Fool” (originally recorded by soul singer Dee Dee Warwick in 1969) is a stunner and the beats provided by the slick production team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis keeps this song alive and fresh for today’s audience.

A duo of singles have already been released to iTunes, “Angel” which is a sumptuous, heartfelt ballad that ranks with the best from Khan’s vast catalogue and “Disrespectful” which is an out-of-this-world party smash pairing Chaka with Mary J. Blige (who also penned the song). This is by far the fiercest track on the album and one that is destined to be a classic. The one question I had when listening to this guaranteed R&B hit is where do Chaka’s vocals end and Mary’s pick up? They sound incredibly in sync and compliment each other marvelously.

Aside from the spectacular Blige duet, there are two additional pairings that work extremely well. This occurs when Chaka is accompanied by her old guitarist from Rufus, Tony Maiden, and the two rerecorded two of Rufus’ classic tracks and combine them into one medley, Khan’s self-penned “Pack’d My Bags” and “You Got The Love.” The two songs fuse flawlessly and remind my generation (as well as inform a younger generation) what made Khan a star to begin with. The final pairing on this album is with blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald who duet on Carly Simon’s 1978 hit, “You Belong To Me,” which McDonald co-wrote with Simon. The results are superb and it’s the best pairing McDonald has accomplished since he and Patti LaBelle went head-to-head for the #1 pop and R&B single “On My Own” two decades ago.

Chaka also entered into her own world of fandom when she recorded a couple of songs from two of her musical heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. The Hendrix cover is “Castles In The Sand” and is a funkadelic interpretation with Chaka’s inimitable wail that slips seamlessly halfway through this collection. I have a feeling Khan would’ve made Hendrix proud with this outstanding performance. The Joni Mitchell track selected is “Ladies’ Man” lifted from Mitchell’s 1982 opus, Wild Things Run Fast. When I first saw the track listing, I wondered how this song would fit into this soul collection and then I heard the fascinating rendition and how Khan made the song all her own without attempting to duplicate the uniqueness that is Joni Mitchell. Chaka commented on the inclusion of this song by saying “I’ve known Joni for about twenty years and I was so honored to be asked to honor her at a Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame in Toronto. We got to hang out for the first time in some years and I told her I wanted to record one of her songs. She said (imitates Joni), “No, Chaka you have to do ‘Ladies’ Man’” so how was I going to say ‘no’ to Joni Mitchell?”

Prince is another old pal of Khan’s and his brilliant 1987 masterpiece “Sign ‘O’ The Times” is a spectacular inclusion. The song’s lyrics are as prophetic today (if not more) than they were twenty years ago. Chaka’s vocal rendition along with Jam & Lewis’ production skills make this track an absolute highlight.

The album closes with Khan’s self-penned song of self-affirmation, “Super Life” which is the positive message Khan intentionally leaves the audience with. It’s bright and it’s full of hope as is this entire collection.

This album is sure to grab at least a Grammy or two or more to add to her eight. As I stated earlier, this is Khan’s best solo effort in over twenty years, and trust me, it was worth the wait.

© 2007 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.