Lalah Hathaway is an artist that has built a lengthy career with a dedicated base of fans despite never breaking through to the pop market, which is cool. If you take a look at the artists that might be considered contemporaries-her buddy Rahsaan Patterson, Van Hunt, Meshell Ndegeocello, she’s in some pretty damn good company. Blessed with a rich, buttery vocal tone just a ½ step removed from that of her father, the incomparable Donny Hathaway, she’s one of those singers for whom the shop-worn cliché “I could listen to her sing the phone book” is pretty apt.
Lately, Lalah’s been doing some things to help raise her public profile a little bit. She recently appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” with The Roots, which has to have been her first major late night TV look since the days of Arsenio. She was also introduced to a larger audience by virtue of being a special guest of Prince during his recent string of dates. As someone who saw one of those dates last December, I can vouch for the fact that there was a pretty good chunk of unfamiliar Prince fans who got hipped to Lalah-as many issues as we diehards may have with Mr. Nelson, you’ve gotta give the guy credit for championing the underdog.
Over the past two decades, Lalah’s recorded six albums, which have all ranged from good to very good-but unlike the aforementioned Patterson, Hunt and Ndegeocello, she’s never made an album that’s front-to-back “got-DAMN that’s good”. Her latest effort, Where It All Begins, is another consistently solid effort that’s occasionally great. Will it bring her the major pop success that she deserves and has alluded to desiring on her Twitter feed? No. Will it satisfy her core fans? Mostly.
Lalah’s never shied away from contemporary sounds. After all, her first album was recorded in the shadow of new jack swing and, given her pedigree, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she’s only forty years old. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that some of the material on Begins is beneath her, but…let’s just say that her sound is better suited to a more mature musical and lyrical vibe. There are a couple of bouncy cuts on here that have a shinier, more club-friendly sound than one would normally expect from her, and while they’re not terrible, they’re certainly not the meatiest cuts on the album. First single ‘If You Want To” is indicative of this sound. Listening to it, I thought to myself “I get it.” “My Everything” is probably the best of the more upbeat cuts, with a vibe reminiscent of some of Faith Evans’ peppier tracks-and I swear to God, I never noticed how similar Lalah’s upper range is to Faith’s until I heard this song.
She fares much better on the introspective title track (which has that patented, ?uestlove-esque “neo-soul” throwback sound), and on songs like the stunning “Lie To Me” (a beautifully written heart-rending ballad that’s the absolute standout track on the album, should be a huge hit and for which my excitement totally justifies this ridiculously overlong parenthetical sentence.) The acoustic guitar-led “Wrong Way” is another highlight, with it’s lyrically sober message and a chorus that I swear reminds me of…The Doobie Brothers? Hey, ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little Michael McDonald in your life, right?
The track on Where It All Begins that will likely get the most attention is a cover of “You Were Meant For Me”, the last solo hit her father had before his tragic death in 1979. You would expect that Lalah would fit snugly into this song like a hand in a favorite glove, and she absolutely does-so much that if you close your eyes and get lost in the song, you would be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a slightly sped up version of the original. It’s haunting in a way that I can’t totally put my finger on.
Much like the rest of Lalah’s catalog, Where It All Begins is just a tad inconsistent. However, as usual, the plusses far outweigh the minuses. She sounds loose yet totally in control of her instrument, and it’s obvious at this point that the only hindrance to a show-stopping album from her is material, certainly not the voice. As it stands, though, Where It All Begins is a worthwhile pickup in what’s becoming a pretty solid year for R&B lovers.