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Fantasia Barrino is a little known r'n'b artist in the UK, despite being a US household name. She first rose to fame as the winner of the third season of American Idol - with the combination of her distinct, raspy, gospel-tinged voice; and her rags-to-riches story of struggle, winning the nation's hearts. Her first two albums contained a handful of gems, but 'Back to Me' is her first album of true greatness. Released in the weeks following her attempted-suicide, this is a distinctly personal album for the singer, as it marks the end of a dark period in her life, and the start of a newer, more hopeful one.
'I'm Doin' Me' kicks off the album, with its bouncy piano riff and upbeat hand-clapping percussion. The songs lyrics are really inspirational, as the song acts as an insistent declaration of the self. "Sometimes as women we give more than we should, to a man that just don't treat us good" she laments in the first verse before concluding: "Nothing more beautiful than knowing your worth, and finally, I know exactly what I deserve." There's something gritty in the production and a rawness in the vocals that keep this from becoming a sickly sweet anthem for self-improvement, it is a universal, almost-timeless sounding record. It's the perfect way to kick off the album.
The second track is 'Bittersweet', a modern-day r'n'b masterpiece in my opinion. It has that timeless production that you might find with Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, in that you could not tell if it was recorded yesterday or thirty years ago. Fantasia's vocals really soar in the song, as she addresses the memories of a lost love ('When I think about you, it's bittersweet/Guess I'll always love you, it's bittersweet'). The lyrics are fairly standard, but as with a classic Aretha Franklin track, the lyrics don't matter when the delivery is this mesmerising. The chorus has such a great, classic sound to it - it completely deserves the Grammy awards it accumulated.
'Man of the House' switches up the tempo and genres a little bit. With heavy synths, the song verges on the territory of hip-hop/dance. The grimy, hard beats work perfectly alongside Fantasia's sassy and empowered vocals. The song, lyrically, is really clever and deals with gender stereotypes. "But now see it's gettin' a little out of hand/Cook, cleaning, providing taking care of little man" she sighs. The chorus really goes hard - the kind of song you'd play in the car with all the windows down - "You can be the man, but if you can't, baby I can" she sets out as a warning to lazy men, who want status and respect from no work. It's almost like a modern version of TLC's 'No Scrubs' in a domestic setting. Perfect!
Track four is 'Who's Been Lovin' You?', is a powerful torch song. Fantasia sings with conviction as she asks an ex-lover, how they will carry on without her. "Drivin' down the road, you're homeward bound /But baby home is where the heart is/And that's what hurts the hardest", she sings. The harmonies in the chorus are fantastic, and a few well-timed runs show off her vocal range without spoiling the laid-back tempo of the song. Yet another great track!
'Collard Greens and Cornbread' is such a laid-back and feel-good track. The finger-snapping tempo and rousing percussion compliment Fantasia's silky vocals in this tongue-in-cheek love song. She sings about how her love for her man is great, that she thinks she "may have the nerve to say, that you're better than my mama's collard greens and cornbread." The vocal acrobatics towards the end of the song are phenomenal, and I just love everything about the lyrics and production on this one. Fantastic!
'Teach Me' is the first dip in quality on the album. The production and the melody are just a little monotonous for my liking. The song deals with a woman being so in love with her man, that she's willing to adapt and change for him. Such a message sticks out like a sore thumb on an album which has a central message of being independent and never sacrificing your own needs to make a man happy. I could overlook this if the hook was stronger, but really the song just feels a little like filler. A bit disappointing.
'Move on Me' ups the quality, but still isn't quite on the level of the first few tracks. The frantic production of bouncy, clattering drums and percussion, along with dense backing vocals, manage to keep your interest. It also showcases Fantasia's rougher vocals in the chorus, which has to be her biggest draw as an artist - her voice can do smooth, silky pop choruses as well as gravelly Janice Joppelin-esque runs. The song is a real grower though, and with every listen it begins to slowly get caught in your head.
There is a real return to form with 'Trust Him' - a piano-based, Supremes-inspired love song. The sing-a-long background vocals compliment Fantasia's upbeat, positive lyrics as she gushes about a man, who has completely restored her faith in men. It's hard to put my finger on the appeal of the song, as it hasn't got a particularly strong hook or killer vocals, but it is full of charm and charisma, that doesn't fail to make me smile.
'The Thrill is Gone' has a stop-start staccato drum-based production. It is the only duet on the album and features Cee-Lo Green singing alongside Fantasia, about a relationship where the spark has died. Fantasia's vocals really sound fantastic in the chorus, especially when singing the title. This is yet another instance of when the production is so flawless, it feels like a Motown classic. Cee-Lo's guest spot takes a while to get used to - it feels a bit of a stale, almost spoken-word piece - but after a few listens, it really grows on you and adds a lot to the song.
One of the hidden jewels on this album is 'Falling in Love Tonight'. It's a mid-tempo with hints of dance, as Fantasia sings about going to a club and being taken over by the euphoria of the music, and using her confidence to tell the man she's interested in that he owns her heart. The production is really interesting, with a gentle, xylophone-sound punctuating the verse, with thicker synthesizers kicking in when the chorus hits. Fantasia's vocals are restrained, but as the song gains momentum, as does her voice box. Another feel-good track, and I absolutely love it!
'Even Angels' is probably the most pop-sounding track on the CD. With glossy synths and a rousing piano melody, the verses provide melancholic snapshots of daily life. "I'm at the station pumping gas, I'm taking out the trash - I'm all alone" she sings, as if to launch into a self-pitying ballad about love lost. Then, there's a volta in the production and rousing background vocals kick in. "Since you been gone, I learned how to move on/I learned how to be myself, I don't need nobody else," Fantasia sings, talking about how to find use heartbreak to find yourself again. It's such an uplifting track, the chorus is almost addictive but I am really thankful to Fantasia for reigning in her vocal stylings to keep them appropriate for the song. There aren't huge powerful runs, it's simply a perfect r'n'b/pop song.
The last track on the album is 'I'm Here'. This is the theme from the Broadway musical, the Color Purple, which Fantasia starred in. The song, which deals with suffering and struggle has some unfortunate parallels with Fantasia's own life (She published a book and TV-movie bleakly entitled "Life is Not a Fairytale"). The vocal performance on this song, because of the overflowing emotion, is nothing short of magnificent. "I got my eyes though they don't see as far now/But they see more 'bout how things really are now" she sings wisely, before reaching the a stunning crescendo, as the song finishes it's journey of self discovery to deliver the simple message: "I'm beautiful... and... I'm here". I get chills everytime Fantasia delivers that final line, it is so powerful, and so overflowing with feeling. This song is nothing short of perfect - I am so glad that her label went down the unconventional route and chose to include it.
The album is undoubtedly one of the best r'n'b albums of 2010. While her first two studio efforts were patchy at best - 'Back to Me' boasts meatier hooks, timeless production and a cohesive message. The marrying of themes that are applicable to Fantasia's private life to the choice of music is successful, and you really do feel that you are learning as much about the person as you are the artist when you listen to it. Albums like these are always going to be the hard sell, as rarely provide smash-hit singles, but should be seen as a body of work. I purchased 'Back to Me' off iTunes, as it features a bonus track 'The Worst Part is Over' - possibly the best thing Fantasia has ever recorded. The message, the production, the vocals - are absolutely flawless. However, you can find the album fairly easily on Amazon or high street music stores. If you look r'n'b and soul music, this is definitely for you.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 I'm Doin' Me
3 Man Of The House
4 Who's Been Lovin' You
5 Collard Greens And Cornbread
6 Teach Me
7 Move On Me
8 Trust Him
9 Thrill Is Gone, The - Fantasia & Cee-Lo Green
10 Falling In Love Tonight
11 Even Angels
12 I'm Here