Soulfully and without a hint of vinegar, India.Arie sang for the ones seldom celebrated in song: the dark-skinned girls, the happy-to-be-nappy folks whom mainstream media have either grossly parodied or shunned altogether. In "Video," the singer-songwriter's breakout hit from 2001, Arie's love of self felt so infectious, the melody and chorus so euphoric, that even the most self-hating heart melted under the song's sunny vibe: I'm not the average girl from your video/And I ain't built like supermodel/But I learned to love myself unconditionally/Because I am a queen.
Spurred by the chart success of its first single, "Video," Acoustic Soul, Arie's cool drink of a debut from 2001, caught on quickly, selling more than 2 million copies and garnering seven Grammy nominations. (She famously didn't win a single trophy that year.) Voyage to India, the singer's 2002 follow-up, was better produced and dotted here and there with more confident vocal performances, but overall it wasn't as catchy as its predecessor. However, it still sold a million copies and snagged two Grammys.
Now, after a four-year hiatus from the charts, Arie has returned with her long-awaited third album, Testimony Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, in stores today. The guitar-slinging, Denver-raised artist is back with more folk-tinged R&B; ditties about loving yourself unconditionally. Only this time, the lyrical theme centers on self-renewal after a painful breakup. But Arie isn't shedding any tears over her ex. She's not cussing him out or hoping karma kicks him where it really hurts.
Instead, with a smile in her voice on the glowing "These Eyes," she's wondering what their children would have looked like. But the bitter taste of a dying love momentarily chokes her up on the haunting "Good Mourning" Good morning silence, good morning to myself/Good morning to the pain in the center of my chest. Those two standouts exemplify how gloriously transporting Arie's music can be when her revelatory lyrics and honeyed, spacious music dovetail.
Unfortunately, those moments are few on Testimony, where the artist's lyrics are often too simplistic and a bit self-righteous, the music too bland and predictable. Arie is like the Iyanla Vanzant of "neo-soul" minus the earthy wit and "sista-girl" warmth.
Arie has made all three of her CDs feel like cohesive, personal statements, and that is a commendable skill in an age when pop albums feel more and more like haphazardly made mixtapes. The problem, however, is lyrical content, which sometimes sags with earnestness and drips with sap. "Private Party," a song about loving "me time" is downright hokey, and "Better People" sounds like a lame love-your-neighbor tune from a hip-hopped episode of Sesame Street.
The 29-year-old singer extends the sentiment of "Video" on "I Am Not My Hair," Testimony's first single, featuring the smooth, sonorous vocals of Akon. The song pushes too hard to be a black-is-beautiful anthem. But much better ones have already been done: Check "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by Nina Simone (1969), "Miss Black America" by Curtis Mayfield (1970), "Be Real Black for Me" by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (1972), to name a few.
Musically, Arie tries to expand her scope, but the results are sometimes wobbly. "Summer," her foray into country-pop, features the ever-sappy Rascal Flatts and goes nowhere. "I Choose" is slightly funky with Bonnie Raitt on guitar. But the veteran's bluesy licks are woefully underused.
Since blowing onto the scene in early 2001, Arie has stuck by her musical mission to uplift heavy spirits through self-reflection - and that's all good. But sometimes it wouldn't hurt to add a dash of salt to all that sweetness. Or live outside your head for a while.