Marsha Ambrosius’ solo debut has been a long time coming, considering she’s been in the music biz for almost a decade. As one half of the innovative R&B duo Floetry, her creamy vocals seemed a bit constrained by the occasionally clumsy raps of her partner Natalie Stewart. Although their two studio albums were successful, Marsha really earned her stripes as a songwriter, arranger and guest vocalist for artists ranging from Michael Jackson (“Butterflies”), Justin Timberlake (“Cry Me a River”) and The Game (“Why You Hate the Game”).

Speaking of The Game, there was a point in time when Marsha was heavily linked to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath level, never a good look if you actually intend on putting an album out (ask Stat Quo…or Rakim…or Raekwon…or Dawn Robinson). Thankfully, she shook that association free and has blessed us with a very solid debut album entitled Late Nights and Early Mornings.

Late Nights doesn’t deviate much from the template that Floetry set. The emphasis is on mood here-as you might be able to glean from the title, much of Late Nights‘ material has to do with…erm, certain activities. The title track is a sex-you-up jam worthy of Prince (complete with Linn drum), and coming (no pun intended) after the moan-tastic “With You”, it sets the tone for the gamut of emotions expressed on the remainder of the album.

The majority of the songs float by in mid-tempo/ballad territory, which is cool, because I don’t really figure Marsha for a dance diva, with a few cool left turns. “Tears” is a beautiful Motown-styled song that would sound right at home on R. Kelly’s latest album (for the first time in many years, that’s not an insult), while Marsha’s quivering voice gives “Your Hands” extra emotional gravity. She twice pays tribute to the late King of Pop-“I Want You to Stay” contains some falsetto runs very reminiscent of “Human Nature”, while the closing track is a revision of “Butterflies” (and in light of Michael’s death, she’s forgiven for pulling the same trick twice over the course of only three studio albums.)

As evidenced by the fact that she’s been in-demand as a lyricist, Marsha has a way with the pen. “Hope She Cheats on You (with a Basketball Player)” is one of those “real talk”-type songs that manages to reflect non-sugarcoated emotion (without going all the way left like Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” did), and she also flips it on the cover versions tip-turning in a faithful version of Portishead’s 1994 breakthrough hit “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)”.

I’ll admit, although I had my eye on Late Nights & Early Mornings for a while, I was surprised by how good it was. Not to diss Natalie Stewart (who put out her own album last year), but Marsha seems to have pulled an “addition by subtraction” trick by going solo. At a time when quality R&B releases aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, the quality of Late Nights stands out even more. Definitely check this album out, and make sure you take the necessary precautions before listening with that special someone, because the end result just might be a baby.

Grade: B+

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