Hardest thing about being a rhythm and blues singer today is—well, we can’t really say the hardest thing since all the difficulties, by the Jurassic standards of yesteryear, have really been removed from the enterprise. No more death by motel clerk, Russian roulette, defenestration, barbiturates. No more six shows a day or lessons in elocution and the salad fork on Berry’s farm. So, no, the hardest part of being a rhythm and blues singer today, besides the rituals of starvation and gymnasium, might be where once you were expected bring the drama, now you gotsta become the drama—preferably on surreality TV.
Being able to truly sing, write, produce, and play keys as well as Marsha Ambrosius is dang near a deficit in the current environment. She’s become mad svelte since we last saw her, but Jennifer Hudson owns that as a PR campaign. Having great pipes, being able to put ’em down on your own self-penned musical confessions with wit and wiles is impressively old-school, but a problem. Crooning from the gut when Auto-Tune remains the rage, something of a problem. Wailing with aggression and genuine libidinous ecstasy, more problems. Being a Womanist in this century’s rhythm and blues demands that one dumb down or fake out the zombies who program radio. Superwomen who come selling songcraft over ass got hella crosses to bear.
Listening to Marsha’s debut album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, is to sometimes wonder just how dead hardcore Womanism is, really, on R&B radio? Especially if you’ve heard the singer and writer who dropped the rugged jewels found on Yours Truly, her Don Cannon mixtape of a couple years back. That Marsha Ambrosius sounded like a souljah in the killing fields of romance—like the reason that we need rhythm and blues singers in our lives in the first place. Blues-blackened avatars of salvation feel our pain because they already over all that mess. That Marsha’s musicality was a thing of rare beauty. We really took to her unladylike cussing, too. Like Janelle Monáe, that Marsha could wrap her dulcet pipes around the kind of double-time tongue-twister phrases rappers love and tease swing and sweet melody out of them. She could also make laying into or leaving a lover—for being an impossible ass, for succumbing to temptation, failing to connect, all the above—sound not whiny but, like, tough titties. That Marsha would also ride hard beats with as much tenacity and flow as any hard-rock MC in the vicinity. That Marsha was on some ole black-mackadocious back in the days of Nzinga/Nanny maroon warrior queen soul slinger shiznit. That Marsha was fearless, even when sadomasochistically dredging an emotional holocaust. That Marsha dropped a stone-cold masterpiece in the form of “Some Type of Way”—just her on piano, her own multitracked chiming choir, for two minutes and 40 seconds of slow burn and scarred-up real talk scenes from a common-law breakdown: “You don’t want to commit/You said you wasn’t with it/But got mad when I ain’t get back, because I was fucking one of your friends.” But that’s not the Marsha we get on the Official Album. And reviewing sometimes sucks when you’ve got to go to war with the artist you have.
“The words don’t fit my mouth,” the poet Jessica Care Moore once said. The extreme and undeniable musicality is still here, but something feels kinda Stepfordized. Too badly in need of male attention, approval. Can’t say it’s not sexy as hell in places—this more come-hither Marsha makes breathing “Unh-unh-unh” on the mic extremely prurient—but over an album it feels like a touch of careerism overtook sister’s freedom of speech and spit. Or, hell, maybe we just like our Ambrosius more aggro, more Mfufu-of-the-urban-bush scented. That Marsha gets momentarily resuscitated with jokes, even, on “Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player),” but where do you go after a great punchline like that? I don’t know, and Team Ambrosius didn’t really figure it out, either.
Fourth song is “Far Away,” one we’re really feeling on here as a vehicle for Ambrosius-degree passion. On it she does this thing we love—this thing where she’ll start a line in her conversational voice then go up high for an obbligato phrase (not quite melismatic, she’s more precise than that) and catch us by happy surprise every time. (Major props for using the video to contest bullying and promote gay rights and suicide prevention). Album takes a dip, though, when she gets to Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Lose Myself.” The core lyric of “I had to lose myself/So I’d love you better” made us want sump’n more coldblooded, like “I had to lose you/So I could love me better.” Because on Marsha it seems a stretch—a woman this powerfully good at bringing the bidness is really going to be losing herself down some ninja’s rabbit hole to play Alice to his Queen of Hearts? Call us addicted to the SBW mythos, we’re just not buying. Funny thing, though, is that if Miz Hill was doing it, the layers of dark subtext would arise to make the thing all phantom of the operatic. Ditto goes for “I Just Want You to Stay,” which has the album’s most underdeveloped lyric. The cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times” is more our kind of Ambrosius: a sly British cackling-from-the-shadows approach, and final proof that this tune remains the best James Bond theme Shirley Bassey never rocked. By the time she resolves the plaintive repeat chorus of “Nobody loves me” with the plangent answer line of “Like you do” on that ominous John Barry chord, some sinister-ass ambiguity has gotten attached to the album. Closing is a remix of “Butterflies,” the tune that put Marsha and her former Floetry partner Natalie Stewart on the map when MJ rendered it on Invincible. It’s cool, still, a dreamy breezy lilt of a mid-tempo torchsong, still. Forever charming. The last new original, though, “The Break Up Song,” is one you wish Mike had covered, too. The Broadway affect and gushy appeal in her delivery tell you that Marsha might also have been imagining that possibility when she wrote it.