Sunday, May 31, 2009

Music Review: Chrisette Michele’s “Epiphany”

By Javier E. David

Chrisette Michele, the immensely talented R&B chanteuse with a versatile yet powerhouse voice, has been something of a difficult sell to mainstream audiences. One might argue that this jazz-tinged singer’s career has been hampered by a mercurial music industry that more than often not, tends to rewards oversexed pop-tarts with wafer-thin vocal abilities (no offense, Ciara]).

Despite the disappointing commercial success of her stylish debut album “I Am,” a setback that might have caused a different singer to conform to mainstream tastes in order to move units, Michele remained true to her abilities, and in the process hit the ball clean out of the park with her latest effort “Epiphany”. This near-flawless album showcases what distinguishes Michele from many of her peers, yet simultaneously captures the frustration of some music aficionados with an industry that tends to cannibalize talent such that demonstrated by this particular artist.

Michele experienced a career milestone and a dubious distinction this week, when “Epiphany” hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, but simultaneously setting a record for the least number of copies sold by a new release to reach that position.

Though blessed with a soulful and unique voice and the backing of some music industry heavyweights - she’s collaborated with Ne-Yo and Jay-Z, who once helmed Michele’s label, Def-Jam - Michele’s relatively limited commercial success is a testament to how inexplicably fickle music listeners can be (and in the same vein, how clueless some record industry executives can appear when choosing which talent to market).

The formula for “Epiphany” differs from her debut album by striking a perfect balance between radio-ready riffs with ear-grabbing hooks, while not burying Michele’s killer voice with hyper-produced boom-baps - or for that matter, reducing the singer to the insipid cooing one might expect of vocalists with lesser talent.

In a recent interview with Newsday, Michele herself acknowledged the variance between “Epiphany” and her first album. “It’s different because it ventured into Urbansville, definitely bobbed my head really hard this time, and definitely got involved with the hip-hop element of who I am,” the Patchogue, N.Y.-native told an interviewer.

Unlike “I Am,” which showcased Michele’s classy vocals and her old, jazz-influenced soul, “Epiphany” is a collection of contemporary and rhythmic songs designed to make listeners jump out of their seats and dance, coupled with ballads that tug at the heart-strings. On tracks such as the title track and “Mr. Right” (this reviewer’s personal favorite), Michele can tell it like it is; but can strike a more evocative tone with songs like “Notebook” and “Blame it on Me”, when she croons about standard romantic fare and its ensuing heartbreak.

“Porcelain Doll”, a song from “Epiphany” where Michele asserts her strength by imploring a lover not to treat her as anything less than a “full grown woman,” almost perfectly captures the conundrum of her career. Here is a songstress whose strong and distinctive voice sets her apart from most other young female vocalists, yet she’s infantilized by an industry that doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

Hopefully, Michele’s professional growth will inspire a host of would-be listeners to experience an “Epiphany” of their own, and perhaps even give her first album a second look.

Sure bets:

“Playin’ Our Song”
“Mr. Right”
“Porcelain Doll”

Javier E. David is a native New Yorker and a contributor to He writes about various subjects including popular culture, entertainment, business, finance and public policy for sites such as and He is a U.S. Army veteran who has worked on Wall Street and as a reporter for the international news agency Reuters. Fluent in Spanish, Javier is an avid sports fan and enjoys literature, music (especially independent hip-hop and soul), movies, good food and wine, and is also a self-confessed comic-book geek.

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