With over two decades in the industry, a family name that inspires awe in music lovers worldwide, and a voice that can melt the hardest of hearts, a new album from soul veteran Lalah Hathaway has been on everybody's wishlist this year. Three years after the release of Self Portrait, her most successful album to date, Lalah is back to fulfill those wishes with her sixth studio album, Where It All Begins.
It's clear from the minute you press play that this is a different Lalah album from what we are used to. The opening track, "Strong Woman," is probably the most contemporary R&B track we have had from her thus far, with a thumping, synthesized beat we would expect from the current crop of R&B starlets. Let me be clear though, I'm not saying this is a bad track, in fact far from it. "Strong Woman" shows that Lalah is capable of combining a modern, radio-friendly beat with meaningful, empowering lyrics, and, of course, that voice is still present, which can make up for a multitude of sins. Similar comments can be made about the first single, "If You Want To," and the dance floor ditty "You Are My Everything." Both are in a more commercial vein than what we have previously heard from her, but commercial isn't bad per se, as long as it's done with integrity and passion for the music.
The title track, the soothing love song "Always Love You," and the sultry "This Could Be Love" take us back into more familiar territory, with Lalah's smokey vocals riding tight, mid-tempo grooves that just wash over you, showcasing why she is deemed one of the finest singers of a generation who dosn't need to resort to any histrionics or "oversouling" to make her point.
I'll admit that the country-pop of "Wrong Way" and the folksy lullaby "Dreamland" left me scratching my head at first, as these are avenues that we haven't heard Lalah explore before. The former is probably the more successful of the two. It's pleasant enough, but it would be difficult to pick out Lalah's usually unique vocal amongst a crop of similar, standard pop fare. Thankfully the remainder of the album makes up for any misgivings I may have had. The remake of fan favorite "I'm Coming Back" 21 years after its initial release is a stroke of genius, taking the original's youthful hopefulness and giving it a more mature, realistic makeover, that works just as well. I would have liked to have heard a little more of Rachelle Ferrell on the track -- she is mostly resigned to background vocals and harmonies -- but the sound of these two together on record is simply magical.
Another nice touch was the addition of a cover of one of her late father's songs, an idea that at one time was dismissed by Lalah as unnecessary but something she finally got around to on her 1999 album with Joe Sample, The Song Lives On. "You Were Meant For Me" is one of my favorite Donny Hathaway songs, and Lalah's version lives up to its predecessor. Besides the two of them possessing wonderful vocals, they also both sing with absolute sincerity, making the words and the emotions behind them completely believable, an attribute that's essential with a song such as this.
At first "Lie To Me," which falls around the album's midpoint, got a little lost in the shuffle and it was only after repeated listens that it began to stand out. The song deals with that point in a relationship where things are inevitably at an end but one party cannot bear to let go, proclaiming "baby, lie to me tonight. Give me at least 'til tomorrow before you walk out of my life." "Lie To Me" is probably the best example of Lalah's ability to marry material that will appeal to her existing fans with a contemporary sound that might give her some degree of crossover radio success. Another such track is the album stand-out "Small Of My Back," which effortlessly oozes subtle sexiness and is sure to rival Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton's "So In Love" for the title of "best love song you can two-step to" in 2011.
Overall, Where It All Begins is a very accomplished set giving us glimpses of the Lalah we know and love, and a Lalah many of us never knew existed. There is certainly plenty here to satisfy her loyal, die-hard fan base and at the same time enough of a contemporary touch to draw in new fans, both young and old. In a year that has seen other SoulBounce favorites Rahsaan Patterson, Van Hunt, and Ledisi change things up a little, it seems that 2011 will go down as the year where trying something a bit different paid off.
Lalah Hathaway Where It All Begins [Amazon][iTunes]