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Michelle Williams may not be a name you are too familiar with, yet you've probably heard her voice countless times before. She was a member of R'n'B royalty, as one third of super-group Destiny's Child. While, Beyoncé has since gone on to conquer the world, and Kelly Rowland has gained a great deal of respect following her latest work with David Guetta, Michelle quietly released two gospel albums and shunned the spotlight. Then in 2008, she released 'Unexpected' - an album which lived up to its name, in that it was a dance-pop orientated album full of highly polished and well-produced radio-friendly songs. While it didn't set the charts alight due to poor promotion, it is one of my favourite albums to come out in recent years.
After a brief introduction - a hazy frenzy of spoken words and sound effects - 'Hello Heartbreak' hits. It was written by Rico Love, the brainchild behind smashes such as Beyoncé's 'Sweet Dreams', Chris Brown's 'Forever' and more recently, Alexandra Burke's 'All Night Long'. From the moment the song begins, it is an impeccably written and produced number. Rippling synths and a pulsating beat feature throughout the track, along with an unmistakable dance sound. There is grimy, dark sound to Michelle's emotive vocals, which helps to make this not just a good pop song but a sublime one. There is something different about it, as showcased in the lyrics. "It cuts me deep but I'm still wanting more," she sings ominously, before launching into the infectious chorus of: "Hello heartbreak, it's good to see you/When all else fails, you'll always be around". I'm an absolute sucker for depressing tracks turned into up-tempo dance songs. It's an instantly memorable song as there are very few songs that can be both thought-provoking and make you want to dance. A great start to the CD.
It is followed by the euphoric party anthem, 'We Break the Dawn'. With heavy synths, and a simple clapping beat, it's a bit more laid back than its predecessor. "We gotta hold back that sun, we ain't stopping' for no one/The night is young," Michelle sings, in the addictive chorus. I just love the slight vocoder effect used on her voice when she sings the name of the song. While it's not uptempo enough to dance to in a club, there is something undeniably feel-good about the lyrics and the production. Michelle's voice, which is a little huskier than your average pop star, also makes the song memorable and stand-out amongst other songs in the genre. Another fantastic track.
'Lucky Girl' lulls you into a false sense of security. It sounds like it'll be an atmospheric ballad, with heavy vocal layering, before a dance beat drops after a minute and it transforms into a big up-tempo. It's lyrics speak about a woman who is grateful to have finally found a man who'll treat her right. Again, Rico Love serves up some amazing beats, and Michelle's vocals really stand-out. The song is more of a grower, because the hook isn't particularly instant, but with every listen, you fall victim to its charms.
'The Greatest' is a gorgeous piano led ballad which allows for the first time on the CD for Michelle to show off her vocals. She sounds simply divine from start to finish on the song, with her able to show off her range with some really impressive high notes in her ad-libs. There is a good bass to the song, along with some male vocals which compliment Michelle's fantastically. "And I was reaching for the stars/But I didn't have to look so far/Because love's where you are/But I didn't have a clue," she sings in the chorus, an unashamedly loved-up moment. There is something endearing in Michelle's vocal ability that stops the song from being too saccharine, and in fact, I really love it. It certainly adds another dimension to the album and stops it from being too frivolous and dance-orientated.
There is only one word to describe the next song - epic. I'm not talking in the clichéd and overused meaning of this word, but I'm describing the lyrical content of 'Til The End of the World'. The lyrics speak about an unconditional love in the face of adversity, be it prison, persecution or even Armageddon. Rico Love delivers another fantastic set of beats, which do remind me a little bit of Beyoncé's 'Sweet Dreams'. The verses in this up-tempo track are rich in metaphor, but admittedly the chorus is rather basic: "Even til the end of the world/Would you still want me to be your girl?/Would you be my lover, forgetting all others?/Even til the end of the world." However, it really is a great track regardless, and has a unique twist on this well-explored topic of unshakeable devotion.
'Private Party' is simply fantastic. I love the production in the song, it's hard to put my finger on, but it's the perfect blend between American r'n'b and European Dance. The vocal layerings create a unique sound to the song, so much so, it's like Michelle has been cloned and there are five of her singing at once. It adds to the appeal of the song though, and shows more of her creativity in her vocal arrangements.
"Ladies and gentlemen, report to the dance floor!" is the first line in 'Hungover'. It has a fantastic introduction, then just lulls into an odd-rhythm and lacks any distinctive hook or melody. For me, this is the only weak track on the CD. While I love the jazzy sounds that infiltrate the dance beat, the melody isn't up-tempo enough and you feel rather irritated when you listen to it.
'We Break the Dawn Part II' is essentially a remix of the original, featuring rapper Flo-Rida. It adds a more urban twist to the song, and I feel it loses a bit of it's charm. The chorus is no longer uplifting or euphoric, and while the guest vocals actually fit quite well, it's clear that Flo-Rida is there only to widen Michelle's appeal rather than for artistic reasons.
'Stop This Car' is the brainchild of the production-team, Stargate. Responsible for enormous hits by Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Beyoncé, they have crafted a surprisingly laid-back finger-snapping break-up song. However, the lyrics are interesting, acting as an extended metaphor for a relationship that is no longer working: "Stop this car/I don't want to ride no more/Stop this car/Was our destination just too far?/I want to get out." Melodically, it doesn't modulate enough to be too memorable, however, after the middle-eight, there are some fantastic ad-libs and runs from Michelle which spices up the listening experience. Overall, a good track, but one that takes multiple listens to appreciate.
The title track, though, 'Unexpected', has to be one of my favourite Michelle tracks. A slow stuttering beat starts off the song, which is surprisingly stripped back, allowing the focus to fall on Michelle's emotive delivery of the dark lyrics. "After so many lies, where's the meaning?/Did you really think you could cause me pain/Stepped on the track right in front of the train" she whispers huskily. Then there comes a sweeping set of synths that crash like a tidal wave as the chorus hits. The song transforms into such a fantastic anthem for anyone who has ever been betrayed or hurt. "So unexpected, the tables have turned/I'm laughing now because the joke is on you." The chorus has such a great melody, and as the song progresses, Michelle delivers some beautiful ad-libs. For me, this was an unexpected favourite (pun-intended).
'Thank U' actually reminds me of the Jamelia song of the same name. They both deal with the same topic, and both subvert a devastating topic and make them into uplifting ballads. I love the fusion of acoustic guitar and pop beats in the song, and also the chorus, which may not be too original but is wonderfully positive: "I want to thank you for staying out late all the time/While you were at getting yours, I was getting mine/I want to thank you for losing me." Michelle's voice adapts to the unique rhythm of the song, and fits in so well with the production. Her emotive delivery also helps the lyrics be delivered convincingly. It's a really surprising track but I love it. It might not be a dance-pop anthem like I've come to expect from Michelle, but it's just as good in terms of quality.
The album closes on another ballad. A tinkling piano introduction followed by the crashing percussion characterise 'Too Young For Love'. Michelle's voice really shines in this song, particularly when she reaches those high notes. I think the lyrical content is really compelling too, particularly in the great chorus: "He's just a boy/She's just a girl/Alone in this world/Too young for love/Ran away together, so they won't have to answer to anyone/Who says they are too young for love." My only real criticism is that maybe the content of the song would make it more suitable for a teen artist or someone just a little younger, but really this is nitpicking. I was really taken aback by the ballads on this CD, and for me, this is a fantastic close to the album.
'Unexpected' really does live up to its name. Michelle surprised me in that she was able to deliver a diverse yet cohesive album, with some real club bangers ('Hello Heartbreak', 'We Break the Dawn') yet also managed to show tenderness and her vocal ability ('The Greatest', 'Too Young for Love'). It's a crime that this album underperformed, as I believe at least half of it could have been enormous hit singles. If you like good pop music then you'll love this album, I really urge you to buy it - come with an open mind - and prepare to be surprised.
"Let us decide when they play that last song,
The night is done, when we break the dawn"
Although it has now been four long years since the split of the worlds best-selling female group of all time, Destiny's Child, it is only now that one of its members is beginning to get noticed as a legitimate solo artist.
Michelle Williams joined the group in 2000 amidst the controversial departure of two members, with it later emerging that both Beyonce Knowles and Kelly Rowland (the other two members of the 'three-piece') had met with Michelle in a hotel lobby two years prior to the unveiling. From this moment Destiny's Child truly sunk their teeth into the market with tracks such as 'Independant Woman' and 'Bootylicious'. Filling the void before their final album, each member tested the water with their own solo attempts, where as you will know Beyonce emerged as the most profitable of the members.
Whilst Kelly garnered sales through her hugely successful duet with Nelly, and Beyonce was being 'Crazy in Love', Michelle took a route that was different to the R&B origins of Destiny's Child. Instead, Michelle released the most successful gospel album of the year. 'Unexpected' is the third studio album from Michelle Williams, although the first that has a similar listening style to anything of her former band-mates.
"And now I realise, that the stars are in your eyes..."
In an interesting marketing decision, 'Unexpected' shall be promoted and released in most of Europe before eventually her publicity tour coming to the UK at the end of September, and finishing off with an October release of the album in her home country of the United States. The entire album has already leaked on to the internet, two months short of its US release, and public opinion has not been overly polite to Michelle's effort.
"...Cause you always shine, baby you're the greatest."
01, Unexpected Intro (0.45)
02, Hello Heartbreak (4.07), 4*
Listening to 'Hello Heartbreak' there is no indication that this is an artist that has serial success under her belt, and rather could be a one-off dance track released by a group somewhere in Europe looking for sucess with a one hit wonder, ala the ketchup song. What is great about those sort of tracks is that for a while they do catch your attention, until you wear them down with repetitive plays. Although you are unlikely to be able to enjoy hours solid of the track, this track is a good way to start a solo career attracting fans to the dancefloor in the masses.
03, We Break the Dawn (3.54), 4*
04, Lucky Girl (Interlude) (3.51), 3*
'Break the Dawn' is the first single to be released from the album, and considering I have been listening to the remix of the track, it sounded incredibly strange listening to the original again. The pace is much slower than the remix, that is featured later on the album, but there are still the building blocks in place for a great track. The evidence of how successful a track this could be when it is released to the UK market is evident in its appearance at the top of the US Dance Billboard. 'Lucky Girl' acts almost as an instrumental that you can picture someone walking down to the street after a night out with the sun on the horizon, you almost hope that the party isn't closing already on the album. After the interlude beginning is over, the track does pick up pace slightly but not by much.
05, The Greatest (3.32), 3*
06, Till the End of the World (3.10), 1*
Whilst this album was being hailed as Michelle's first contempoary R&B album, you wonder if dance has been confused with R&B up to this point. 'The Greatest' is the first slow track of the album, and is largely expected to be the second track released. The track hails the man in her life as, you guessed it - the greatest. 'Till the End of the World' keeps in mind how much she loves her man, but also reverts to the albums dance routes. And when I say dance, I'm not talking Beyonce and 'Crazy in Love'. I'm talking proper childrens disco, although with the odd drop in of the word 'wifey'.
07, Private Party (3.36), 1*
08, Hungover (3.31), 2*
09, We Break the Dawn II ft. Flo-Rida (4.22), 4*
'Private Party' reminds me of something you may have heard on Danity Kane's last album, and the way Michelle layers her voice across herself you may begin believing there is more than one person in the song. With lyrics inviting to tell you secrets if you tell her yours, you can see why this track is nothing that you haven't heard before. By the time you reach 'Hungover' you really are beginning to feel like you've got a hangover from the album that's had about two good songs, and that's being generous. The track never materialises from its early promise. Flo-Rida is an artist that has benefited from having one track, 'Low', that completely grabbed young peoples attention - however since then he has been trying to make money with any opportunity he can. Rida's appearance on the remix of 'Break the Dawn' is probably the second best move he has made so far, and the quality of this dance/R&B track is a farcry from what you've heard prior. I genuinely believe that this remix should be an absolutely massive hit, but I'm usually wrong about these sort of things.
10, Stop This Car (3.58), 3*
11, Unexpected (3.58), 4*
12, Thank U (3.47), 3*
13, Too Young for Love (3.57), 1*
Reportedly 'Stop This Car' was hotly expected to be a single released from the album, and is the most R&B track on the entire album. Produced by Stargate, you have probably heard me going on about him in previous reviews, how he was the brains behind 'Irreplaceable' and has worked with the likes of Neyo and Rihanna. Whilst the track is by no means a huge seller, you can see why it is being commented on as one of the high points of the album. 'Unexpected', the albums namesake track, begins in the same vein as the track before it and Michelle seems to finally be turning on the men she has been praising earlier in the album. Perhaps when she woke up from being hangover her night out before didn't seem that great. 'Unexpected' is a powerful track, but would never make it as a standalone single. After sounding as though you are about to punch through glass, 'Thank U' seems to go down an acoustic, country route that sounds similar to something off Jordin Spark's debut album ("No air, no aiiirrr"). Do not be fooled by the sound of the track though, because when you listen to the lyrics the track is the opposite of what you may think.. as Michelle is thanking her man for cheating on her. 'Too Young for Love', the 28 year-old is not talking about herself? Nope, because everyone knows that a Destiny's Child singer would always be talking to their younger fans. Ending the album on these two tracks that completely reverse any maturity of the album was a bad decision though.
"Was our destination too far? I wanna get out, I don't wanna ride no more"
I think when you look how many times the name Beyonce Knowles pops up in this album sums up mostly what I think of this album. Michelle Williams works excellently as part of Destiny's Child, but on her own it's hard to try and find things to say about her. The same applies to Kelly Rowland as well really. I began listening to 'Unexpected' with an open mind after thinking that 'We Break the Dawn' was one of the better first single tracks I have heard, but unfortunately the album lets you down in too many places. And the last two tracks undo all the good work she has done between tracks 9-11.
I can't put Michelle William's voice into despite, although having said that never does she try and make any effort to leave a lasting impact vocally. This shall be one of 2008's forgotten efforts, and thank god that there are rumours of a Destiny's Child reunion around the same time as this album is going on sale. That sort of publicity may get people interested in hearing what sort of men Michelle feels like singing about today.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Unexpected Intro
2 Hello Heartbreak
3 We Break The Dawn
4 Lucky Girl Interlude/Lucky Girl
5 The Greatest
6 Till The End of The World
7 Private Party
9 We Break The Dawn (Part 2) Ft. Flo Rida
10 Stop This Car
12 Thank U
13 Too Young For Love
14 We Break The Dawn (Karmatronic Remix Radio Edit) (Bonus Track)