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R&B - Released October 16, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released October 11, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

Sketchbook is a reset of sorts for Fantasia, newly independent after racking up a full career's worth of accomplishments -- a platinum debut, three additional Top Ten albums, and a Grammy among them -- with majors J and RCA. She's backed by a licensing deal with BMG and now has her own label, Rock Soul, named after the self-termed sound she has been plugging for years. Fantasia co-wrote all the material and is also credited as co-producer with new associate Jevon Hill, a studio veteran who has worked with high-profile artists ranging from Tamar Braxton and Tank to James Fortune and Tye Tribbett. The core of additional writers is connected to gospel more than any other genre, yet the set mixes it up as much as any previous Fantasia album. Contrary to the title, nothing sounds incomplete or even off-the-cuff. It's more like a lookbook. Skittering percussion and other mechanical, trap-styled production touches are most common, utilized to best effect on the slick testimonial "Holy Ghost" and the gospel-blues finale on which Fantasia duets with her mother, Mama Diane (Diane Barrino). She switches to early-'90s adult contemporary mode for the sparkling ballad "Enough," one of her sturdiest (if bizarrely out of time) love ballads, and not long afterward is in the present with a mismatched dancehall-lite production for the blissful "Take Off." A couple other cuts resemble peer tributes. Tearful throwback belter "Bad Girl" is Jazmine Sullivan to the core. "PTSD" is artful pop-R&B, a slinking slow jam that, heard from a distance, could be mistaken for the work of Dawn Richard (at least until T-Pain provides the album with some impulsive humor, exclaiming "Good god almighty, great googly moogly!"). There's also one rocker, the blaring intervention "Warning." It merely hints at what Fantasia might be able to do if she took a truly sketchbook-like approach in the studio. There's no telling what she'd cook up in a couple weeks of live recording with a small band fluent in funk and rock. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released September 20, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released August 23, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released August 9, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released July 19, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released June 28, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

Leela James departs from Shanachie a second time and follows Loving You More, her tribute to Etta James, with an impressive synthesis of classic and contemporary sounds. The blend of styles on her fifth album is made evident immediately, with lead song "Who's Gonna Love You More" opening with a buzzing synthesizer quickly offset by a typically gutsy and assertive vocal from James. "Do Me Right" and "So Good" mix respectively hard and rattling drums with nostalgic touches to pleasing effect. Plenty of the album aims to please traditionalists, such as the title track, her best bare piano ballad yet. On the silky "Give It" and the hushed "Stay with Me," she dips into a softer, gritless delivery that suits her surprisingly well. Since the release of her 2005 debut, a duet with Anthony Hamilton seemed like only a matter of time. It finally comes to pass here on "Say That," something of a Philadelphia International throwback in which the two singers sound at ease with one another, like they go back decades. While the percentage of excellent material isn't as high as it is on James' two previous albums, Fall for You is an engaging release with some pleasingly unaffected twists. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released May 9, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

Another Joe release distributed by the Sony-owned RED, Bridges sees the R&B stalwart move to Plaid Takeover, a venture of his co-executive producer, Gerald Isaac. Two highlights from his previous album, 2011's Doubleback: Evolution of R&B, were "Love & Sex," a duet with Fantasia, and "Mary Jane," a relaxed original. Here, the former gets a superior sequel on which Kelly Rowland is featured. The latter receives some remix treatment involving an interpolation of the like-titled Rick James hit, plus a negligible opening verse from 50 Cent. While Bridges verges on pastiche and nearly outstays its welcome at 16 songs in 60-plus minutes, its vibrant nature is undeniable. Joe is engaging from beginning to end without sounding as if he's trying particularly hard, and he gets a tremendous amount of help from Derek "DOA" Allen, who produced all but two of the songs. Overall, this is more finely detailed than the majority of adult contemporary R&B, and there's a little more rhythmic bite through some deft dancefloor-aimed material. "Future Teller" and "First Lady" are elegant disco-soul numbers with demonstrative nods to Philly, strongly reminiscent of R. Kelly's nostalgic hits. (Also, catch the escalating riff in "First Lady" that cleverly mirrors Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up.") "Take It to the House" is somewhere between Shalamar's "Make That Move" and Kool & the Gang's "Ladies Night," similarly free spirited as well. The level of sonic sophistication makes Joe's occasional 40-is-the-new-20 bachelorhood lyrics go down easy. Tracks that aren't Allen collaborations are very different and equally solid. "Dilemma" is a bittersweet and bumping track driven by Vic Zapata and Taj Jackson, and "Till the Rope Gives Way" is a finessed retro move produced by Element. It all adds up to one of the singer, songwriter, and producer's best albums. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released May 3, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released April 23, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

"We 'bout to make it hot for the summer, baby!," proclaims Missy Elliott at the beginning of Incomparable lead single "I Deserve It," which was officially released in late August. It was evidently intended for earlier impact, reached none of Billboard's charts, and didn't exactly scorch anyway. While those signs were all bad, Faith Evans' sixth proper album, which followed three months later, comfortably surpasses everything she released after 2005's The First Lady. Perhaps due to a combination of her reality television work, maturity, and the establishment of her own label, Evans sounds freer and more direct than ever, whether she's dealing with interpersonal or intrapersonal matters. The downside to that confidence and creative control is that the songs often sound disjointed from one another. These 16 cuts are more like a playlist of mostly good-to-great selections than a focused album; an '80s throwback trails a '60s throwback, and later, a traditional gospel-soul testimonial leads into a slick synthesizer groove. Scattered as it is, the album offers a lot to like. Best of all is the title track, produced by Brian Alexander Morgan -- right, the one who was behind SWV's "Weak" -- which rubberizes D Train's electro-funk classic "You're the One for Me" and is just as effective as Evans' past nods to Chic and the Jones Girls. ~ Andy Kellman
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R&B/Soul - Released April 22, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Unbreakable. It’s written all over it. It’s 2015, and Janet Jackson is still… unbreakable? Baptizing her eleventh studio album thus, her first since 2008’s Discipline, and of course her first since the death of her legendary brother in 2009, the star makes a comeback like only the Jackson family know how. The greatest strength of Unbreakable is its ability to merge Janet’s iconic voice (which was ever-present in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s) with the significant sounds of 2015. The result is a mélange of nu-soul, funk, and light R&B that serves as the backdrop for the voice of a singer still at the top of her game. The disc largely eschews guest spots (only Missy Elliott and J. Cole take turns), and Janet proves once more that she is a complete artist in her own right. Approaching 50 years, Michael’s younger sister never tries to appropriate the style of younger, teenage artists. This is a blossoming woman, mistress of her artistic world and, simply put… unbreakable! © CM/Qobuz
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Soul - Released April 22, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

In the liner notes for Collide, Boyz II Men's first album since 2011's Twenty, the trio say their approach was "sing whatever you like," "sing whatever feels right," a move they see as "risky after many years of the same old thing." More revealingly, they confess that they had "lost the joy" and were too concerned with airplay and sales. While those words seem like they should be written in support of an album involving a great deal of creative self-control, Collide was made with at least three dozen songwriters and producers. In fact, Nathan, Shawn, and Wanya produced only the vocals and did none of the writing -- surprising, given the amount of effort they put forth for Twenty. This is easily the group's most scattered album, as it offers various shades of ballads, some throwbacks, oddly escapist adult alternative fare, and even anthemic rockers. Many of them blur the line between fresh changes of pace and ill-suited switch-ups. "Already Gone," one that falls toward the latter, is schizophrenic itself, as it bounds between early-'80s arena rock and EDM. It's also one of many songs in which Auto-Tune is used -- easily the album's most baffling characteristic. There are, however, some undeniably pleasing moments, led by "Don't Stop" -- a natural and loose disco groove -- while "Believe Us," filled with appealingly dark undercurrents, wouldn't be out of place on commercial radio stations and does not resemble a compromise. The men definitely appear to have enjoyed making this. Hopefully they can get back to writing for themselves and leaning on fewer producers, too. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released April 22, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

Yet another pleasing, succinct album from Goapele, Strong as Glass is a little more energetic than the singer and songwriter's previous release, 2011's Break of Dawn. On "Hey Boy," she taps into the re-emergent sound of sophisticated early-'80s dancefloor R&B (akin to Change) with an unintrusive contribution from Snoop Dogg. "Perfect" and "My Love," the latter of which features Eric Benét, deal out sleeker contemporary sounds without drowning out the singer's voice. Only on "Powerful" does Goapele sound out of place, Auto-Tuned and surrounded by rat-a-tat drums and jarring robotic interjections. The deeply emotive ballads, more impressive than enjoyable, simmer. The slow jams -- "Insanity" and "Last Days" -- boil over. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released April 21, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released April 21, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

More concise than her three previous albums but just as varied as any of them, True Romance is Estelle's first independent full-length after phases with V2 and Atlantic and a 2013 trio of themed EPs. Five of these 11 tracks were issued separately, several months ahead of the album's February 2015 release date. Among these are some of her boldest songs, like "Make Her Say (Beat It Up)" -- all pummeling drums, sub-bass, and Estelle's droning commands, vulgar enough to purge a certain portion of her fan base. The celebratory "Something Good/Devotion," more broadly appealing, takes it back to early-'90s house like Crystal Waters' "Makin' Happy," all the way down to the synthesized horns, while the latter half is contemporary and slinkier. Estelle works through several additional emotions and tries on (and returns to) almost as many styles. There's a lavish and large-sounding empowerment anthem ("Conqueror"), a classic-sounding soul throwback ("Silly Girls"), a seductive and explicit trunk rattler ("Time Share [509]"), some sunny reggae ("She Will Love"), and a handful of dissimilar ballads (topped by the low-key bliss of "Gotcha Love," with a possible nod to the theme for Good Times). Patched together and seemingly out-of-character as it is, the singer's fourth album does have more going for it than her third one did. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released April 18, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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R&B - Released April 12, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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Soul - Released February 15, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

India Arie Simpson's first proper album since 2013's SongVersation, Worthy is truly the follow-up to 2017's SongVersation: Medicine, an EP. Quietly released, SongVersation: Medicine missed the Billboard 200 but did gain enough recognition to be nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best New Age Album. With its soft, atmospheric sound and emphasis on affirmation and wellness, the EP wasn't out of place beside the other nominees and suggested that Simpson could thrive outside the strictures of the urban adult contemporary format. A fair portion of Worthy can be added to an India.Arie playlist of songs promoting inner strength, but Simpson also has a lot to say about good and bad aspects of relationships, the effects of systemic racism and greed, and how to be an undaunting force for change. Production-wise, this contains some of her slickest, most pop-leaning material, but she puts forth a message of optimism and compassion over all of it, even when the observations are inflamed. Those who have been with her since the debut are bound to be pleased by the album's second half, where Simpson's beatific and organic modes dominate. ~ Andy Kellman
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Soul - Released January 18, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC

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R&B - Released January 11, 2019 | BMG Rights Management (US) LLC