Every couple of months, a new artist comes out who is anointed by the media (or more likely, by their PR team) as the next bright face of R&B music, someone who’s going to shake the genre out of its’ perceived doldrums by offering a fresh, new sound. It’s a great concept, but there’s something wrong with it: R&B doesn’t need saving. There are plenty of artists-new and old-who make great music that can (however loosely) be classified as R&B, and although they may not necessarily be what gets played on your local urban radio station, the fact is that we have the internet and so much access to new music these days. It’s easier than ever to discover new music. So if you’re complaining about the death of R&B-or any music genre-in terms other than commercial ones, you’re just fucking lazy. OK, now off my soapbox.
Elle Varner is a singer/songwriter/musician who comes to us by way of Jeff Robinson, who used to be Alicia Keys’ right-hand man. She’s also on J Records, Keys’ label home. So it’s fairly obvious that her debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, will immediately draw comparisons to Alicia. Again, fucking lazy. Varner’s vocal style is quite different, and her songwriting is definitely different. Imperfect is a pretty solid debut that should be judged on its’ own considerable merits.
Vocally, while Varner isn’t a full-on belter, she has a husky voice that’s full of character and is somewhat reminiscent of Chrisette Michele (yeah, that’s kinda lazy, too…give me a pass.) Musically, the album consists of well-constructed contemporary R&B without any idiotic production tricks and only one guest rapper (J. Cole appears on “Only Wanna Give It To You.”) There’s a quirky element to Imperfect that adds a little extra charm. Hit single “Refill” has a fiddle riff running through it that stops just short of being corny. Meanwhile, “Sound Proof Room” has a Seventies Motown/Sylvers vibe to it, although you wouldn’t have caught anyone singing lyrics this sexual back in the day. It’s a nice little touch. Even with the quirks, the album has a continuity you seem to only find these days on records by self-contained artists. It’s a credit to Varner’s ingenuity that she generally sticks to the same writing/production team for the entire album. It certainly makes for a less jagged listen.
That quirky element is also present in Varner’s songwriting. The track that everyone will point to as evidence of this (and I will as well, because I’m secretly lazy) is “So Fly.” On this song, Varner proudly identifies herself as a member of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and the end result is a fun, self-deprecating track that’s unique to R&B. It’s like india.arie’s “Video” grew up and got a sense of humor.
Perfectly Imperfect isn’t…um, perfect, but it does reveal quite a bit of promise. A lot of times, “next big things” in R&B either turn out to be a bunch of hot air or wind up getting so caught up in their own hype that they go insane. If Elle Varner can avoid those pitfalls, she has better music (and a nice long career) ahead of her.