"A Change Is Gonna Come"
"Where'd the soul go?" Leela James sings on "Music," the first single from her debut album, "A Change Is Gonna Come." Over a lean, funky guitar-and-organ groove, she argues that in today's black pop "it's all about the video." In the verses, James name-checks her heroes -- Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye -- and delivers the chorus with the kind of note-smearing emotion that marks her as their legitimate heir. She's smart enough to admit that we "can't go back to yesterday," but if we're going to update the soul-music tradition for the hip-hop era, she asks, "can we just put the thongs away?"
On her remarkable recording, James puts aside not only the thongs but also the notion that human experience can be simplified to a cartoonish lust for respect, booty and bling. To evoke a more complex view of life, she reaches back to the early-'70s work of Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, who reflected the push-and-pull of their lyrics in multiple melody lines and multiple rhythms, all given expansive scope in an echo-laden soundscape. James's co-writers and co-producers -- Kanye West, Wyclef Jean, Raphael Saadiq, Commissioner Gordon and others -- modernize that soundscape with scratches, samples, loops and beats but remain true to the original intent.
The album's best songs address the dilemma of loving someone who's not treating you right. On songs such as "When You Love Somebody," "Mistreating Me" and "Rain," James captures the conflict between powerful attraction and self-respect by creating a compelling argument for each side of the internal debate. When she describes a thrilling but troublesome man with the potent metaphors of "Ghetto" and "Soul Food," she hints that her ambivalence stretches beyond the realm of romance.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Thursday at the Black Cat and Oct. 24 at the Rams Head Tavern.