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DJBooth Album Review
If American Idol is about making real the rag-to-riches American dream, than Fantasia is the embodiment of the American dream. In a well chronicled early life, Fantasia was an illiterate teenage mother who had suffered sexual abuse before her instantly distinctive voice landed her on the American Idol stage, and by extension the country’s living rooms. An Idol victory quickly spawned a number one single, I Believe, and a slew of Grammy nominations. But, as Biggie so eloquently pointed out, mo money, mo problems, and Fantasia quickly found that the American dream could be as much of a nightmare as her pre-fame life. Legal battles with her father, serious financial difficulties, a failed relationship and more lead the singer to attempt to end her life just a few short months ago by overdosing on pills. "I didn't have any fight in me," she said to VH1 about the suicide attempt. "I didn't care about anything. I just wanted out. I wanted it to be over with—all of it.”
Whether the suicide attempt was a publicity stunt, as some have alleged, or not (and we have to believe her word and assume it was), America showed their support for Fantasia last week by making her third effort Back to Me the number two album in the country. While it’s rare for an album to perform that strongly without at least a top 50 single, here it’s only fitting; Fantasia is a rare singer, and Back to Me is a rare, and valuable, album.
The closest Back to Me has come so far to a hit is the softly grinding Bittersweet, an aptly named record whose production parallels Fantasia’s voice by intertwining a strong, sometimes gritty bass line and percussion with a melodic piano line and soft harmonies. Notably, Bittersweet doesn’t have the slight pop-influence of her previous hits; this is pure r&b, and on an album with a title like Back to Me, we have to believe that Fantasia too, at her core, is pure r&b. In fact, the easily accessible music that modern r&b artists like Usher have mastered to massive crossover success is remarkably rare here. Who’s Been Loving You comes the closest, thanks in no small part to producer Los da Mystro, but unfortunately the easy bounce of Loving You whitewashes Fantasia’s best quality – her ability to embed her vocals with raw emotion. The sweet Falling in Love Tonight and the hypnotizing ballad Even Angels are also in the vicinity, but they also fall just short of truly connecting. These tracks are the album’s head, not its heart.
Where Back to Me truly shines is when Fantasia adds her signature sound to the blueprint laid out by classic r&b, gospel, blues and soul. Album standout The Thrill Is Gone, which it has to be assumed is about the failed relationship that helped prompt her suicide attempt, draws on the spirit of B.B. King’s original Thrill is Gone for a heartfelt anthem that finds Fantasia expertly balancing pain and the strength to overcome on her vocals, with kindred spirit Cee-Lo icing the cake. Similarly, the beautifully retro-soaked Collard Greens & Cornbread reaches back to Aretha’s Something He Can Feel for its breezy but still powerful feel, and Trust Him, a rare moment of male-related positivity, hums with the feel good energy of ‘60s doo wop. These tracks aren’t re-creations, they’re re-imaginations, and in Fantasia’s hands, or more accurately her vocal cords, they help Back to Me more than capably join a long and storied musical history.
We can only hope that the same demons that are the catalyst for such engagingly emotional music don’t ultimately destroy Fantasia, that someday she’ll follow in Mary J. Blige’s Just Fine footsteps and finally learn to be entirely and comfortably herself, scars and all. But in the meantime, at the very least everyone else whose life has proven heartbreaking at times (a.k.a. everyone) can find comfort in knowing that Fantasia feels their pain, and voice that pain beautifully.
DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 09/6/10
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"When I See U (Remix) ft. Remy Ma, B.G. & Young Jeezy" (2007)
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