Syleena Johnson, Rebirth of Soul | Album Review
R&B veteran Syleena Johnson returns more soulful than ever on her latest studio album, ‘Rebirth of Soul.’
‘Mainstream listeners’ will likely best associate/remember Syleena Johnson her for her collaboration on the hit Kanye West record, “All Falls Down” (The College Dropout). On that hip-hop gem, her vocal cracks, nuances, and soulful aptitude were a sight to behold, rather hear. Additionally, Johnson has collaborated with the likes of Anthony Hamilton, R. Kelly, and Common. Impressive, but it’s important to understand she’s the real deal on her own – a true gem. On Rebirth of Soul, she explores classic R&B, handpicked by her father, the legendary Syl Johnson. The results of this tribute to her dad, also produced by him, are excellent.
“Make Me Yours”
From the opening tip, the rebirth is in full effect. “Make Me Yours” sets the tone, finding Johnson delivering assured, soulful vocals. As commanding as her lead is, she’s assisted with superb backing vocals, which play a vital role in establishing the old-school, throwback vibe. Following a strong start, Johnson sounds even stronger on “There’ll Come a Time,” showcasing the full character of her voice – that signature rasp. Furthermore, the live instrumentation kicks things up a notch, particularly the horns.
“We Did It” cooks, period. Johnson is balanced, delivering with a ‘cool bite,’ as oxymoronic as that may sound. She doesn’t necessarily ‘break a sweat,’ yet still packs a punch – the mark of a captivating, compelling performance. She has huge shoes to feel on “The Makings of You,” among the most cherished Curtis Mayfield classics. Given her elite musicianship, she does Mayfield justice in her wheelhouse. The reproduction of the original orchestration is well-executed- it’s lush and warm.
“Something is holding me back / Is it because I’m black?” Hard-hitting to say the least. Johnson sounds funky and invested on the proud “Is It Because I’m Black,” her father’s song. There’s an extra rawness within her vocal performance, which amplifies the authenticity of this heavy record. Once again, the production work stands out, particularly given the live quality of this album.
Continually unafraid of tackling the biggest songs, Johnson capably covers Etta James staple “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Her coarse pipes carry the grit to deliver the goods, with the keyboards (organ), horns, and background vocals providing fuel for the fire. Things keep on rolling on the Aretha Franklin classic, “Chain of Fools.” Again, there’s no intimidation for Johnson, whose vocals seem to grow riper as Rebirth of Soul progresses. She’s locked in with excellent pitch and superb balance between exhibiting poise and digging in.
Following a dynamic rendition of “Chain of Fools” isn’t easy. However, Johnson keeps the ‘chief amongst’ renowned soul classics coming with Otis Redding gem “These Arms of Mine.” This provides sound contrast to the funky “Chain of Fools,” slackening the pace. Even so, that bite and that passion remain firmly planted – autopilot. The only rub is a nitpick – perhaps adding some background vocals to further drive home the soulfulness. Again, nitpicking.
The tongue-n-cheek “Lonely Teardrops” is delightful. A soul cut originally chocked-full of personality, Johnson captures that charm herself. The backing vocals return, further lifting the overall performance. The vocal cracks and nuances truly stand out here, but arguably, the high A-flat she nails as the track fades is the crowning achievement. “Monkey Time” closes things out with a bang. Here, Johnson is as confident as she’s been throughout the entirety of Rebirth of Soul.
All in all, Syleena Johnson ‘brings the heat’ on Rebirth of Soul. Throughout its course, she never loses focus, with her mind focused on preserving and in some respects, reintroducing soul music. Johnson may not reinvent the wheel or soul music itself on Rebirth of Soul, but she delivers an enjoyable, well-rounded, old-school affair. In modern times, we call this flexing.
Gems: “Make Me Yours,” “There’ll Come a Time,” “Is It Because I’m Black,” “I’d Rather Go Blind” & “Chain of Fools”