By Daniel Garrett
Leela James, My Soul
Executive Producers: Leela James, Al Manerson,
and Chris Dunn
Stax/Concord Music Group, 2010
“Soul is whatever comes out of you when you bring your deepest and most honest emotions to the forefront.”
Near the end of her first album, A Change Is Gonna Come, the singer Leela James declared herself a queen, and many critics agreed; and although Leela James, who grew up in Los Angeles, has performed for audiences around the globe, James has not achieved the prominence of other singers I could name, something she must know; and in the introductory song on one of her subsequent albums, My Soul, she is compelled to declare “I ain’t new to this” and describe a ten-year history in the (“cut-throat”) music business. “I been paying dues,” James asserts; and she is not the first among us to discover that expectations and plans are easier to execute in dreams than reality. Leela James may have come to maturity admiring singers such as Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, and Smokey Robinson, as well as funk and hip-hop, but James learned that music was about more than art or emotion, that financial profit was as much a goal in the music industry as in any other. Yet, James renewed her faith in the music (“Good music is timeless,” she has said). The slow, intimately blues-tinged song “So Cold,” a response to a quirky lover, is a quick reminder of the gifts of Leela James, in which it is easy to identify with her voice and to feel empathy for her. Leela James has a great voice, the kind of voice one hears and then feels like crying or making love. She evokes and inspires feeling in “So Cold” and “The Fact Is,” the second song being one of remembrance and remorse, with a slow, blues-based funk groove, in which the narrator admits, “I can’t get over you because I’m still in love with you.”
With a rumbling beat and audible sighs, James’ song “I Want It All” initially recalls Sly Stone then moves past with a listing of desires and demands: “I want forty acres and a mule…and your apology…I want a free education…I want your respect…I want to be happy. I want to live in peace…” Clamoring voices and a beat opens “Party All Night,” and James declares, “Nobody wants to party alone, and tonight I’m feeling good, so it’s on.” The light soul, romantic ballad “Mr. Incredible, Ms. Unforgetable,” that James shares with singer Raheem Devaughn, uses the metaphor of a lock and key for the opening of love and passion. A woman asks a man to express his feelings to her, to “return the love,” to say he loves her before he parts, in “Tell Me You Love Me,” a song with unexpected guitar accents. The anti-stress song “Let It Roll” has a brassy rhythm as James sings “If you can’t change it, just forget all about it” and “I won’t let ’em take my joy from me.” She has acknowledged the positive Motown vibe in the song; and it is fascinating to consider that she—not the first or only person—associates joy with Motown, and perseverance through pain with other music companies and traditions.
Leela James has said the album My Soul contains “a more accurate reflection of who I am than anything else I’ve ever recorded,” partly because of her participation in the writing of the songs. James has a great voice, but like too many singers she is convinced that she must write her own songs, whether or not she has inspiration or talent for it; and some of the songs do not reach an exceptional level of distinction—and, though I found “Supa Luva (Super Lover)” to have an intricate arrangement, a pleasing modern touch, it and “If It’s Wrong”—in which James sings “I don’t care if it’s wrong—let it do what it do”—do not seem special to me. (James has traveled to countries such as South Africa and Switzerland, and it would be interesting to have some of that show itself in her music.) The MySoul collection ends with the song “It’s Over” and it may be too abrupt or even bitter a close (“You will get no more tears from me” and “I changed the locks on my door ’cause love don’t live here no more”). Yet, the listener appreciates the tone Leela James found in certain songs—“So Cold” and “The Fact Is”—and is willing to forgive her; although, on second thought, when a woman decides to leave suffering behind, there may be nothing at all to forgive: respect is due, and celebration possible.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.