Every few months or so, critics declare that “real” r&b is back. The pronouncement signals to fans over 40 that it’s safe to venture back into the urban waters because, like a savior, the latest incarnation
of (insert legend’s name here) has arrived and you won’t have to endure slightly off-key singing from girls whose first names sound like antidepressants.
At 22, Keyshia Cole is being crowned the “new” Mary J. (which must thrill the still highly functional old one), but despite the comparisons Keyshia is her own woman. Her tone is forceful, open, and clear, noticeably devoid of gimmicky, distracting melisma. And equally straight-ahead is her delicious debut, which unexpectedly entered Billboard at No. 6. The Way It Is buoys honest, rugged, unpitying good-girl-gone-wrong anthems with the de rigueur hip-hop atmospherics: “You’ve Changed,” for instance, sturdily flips the script on Jay-Z’s “Song Cry.”
Like fellow Philadelphian Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright has never met a good vibe she couldn’t coast. But anchoring those grooves is a tangy, adventuresome vocalist (Wright is best known for stealing Jigga’s “Unplugged” out from under him) who knows how to burrow into the heart of a song. That emotional intelligence serves her well on her subtly satisfying Divorcing Neo to Marry Soul—which, despite its god-awful “thematic” title, winningly vacillates between playful, wise, and reflective.
Leela James’s masterful debut, A Change Is Gonna Come, held up in label limbo for three years, was worth the wait. Weary and husky (think Candi Staton, or Anthony Hamilton with estrogen), James is old-school enough to cover Sam Cooke, but also hip enough to spin No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” on its ear—and pure singer enough to fiercely color outside the lines while still acknowledging the past.
You could argue that these three women give credence to that whole soul messiah scenario. But really, they just prove r&b never went away in the first place.