I was a little curious about Chrisette Michele. A little. I wanted to check out for myself what was behind all the hype surrounding her. Industry insiders have been all abuzz for the past few months about the 24-year-old Long Island, N.Y.-raised singer-songwriter, comparing her to such holy names as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
I Am, her debut released this month, has garnered favorable reviews. "Michele's game comes with no frills," wrote Billboard magazine. "The voice says it all."
You've probably heard her by now. Michele's vocals -- generously sprinkled with jazzy nuances and double-dipped in gospel soul -- recently enlivened otherwise yawn-inducing hit singles by Jay-Z ("Lost Ones") and Nas ("Can't Forget About You").
Having grown tired of hype machines backing wannabe divas whose music somehow evokes elements of fabulous dead divas (e.g. Amy Winehouse and Corinne Bailey Rae), I was pursing my lips as I read all the fawning press about Michele. Then I finally received her CD in the mail.
I must admit: She's gifted. Her debut is indeed impressive, vocally less affected and more assured than Winehouse's, and musically meatier than Bailey Rae's.
Michele is in the throes of a hectic promotional tour, which was originally supposed to stop at last week's African American Heritage Festival at Camden Yards. But scheduling conflicts kept the bluesy singer away. When I caught up with her this week, Michele was calling from an airport in Detroit, where she was waiting to board a plane for New York to appear on the Today show the next morning.
"My whole life has been a whirlwind," Michele says. "I've always been on stage; that's the easy part. My family and my church family have kept me grounded."
Over the phone, she comes across as businesslike, answering questions quickly, politely, assuredly. Her music gives off the same vibe. Through her conventional lyrics centering mostly on self-esteem and romantic love, Michele seems to be a young woman who knows herself.
She has no time for fellas who can't reciprocate the love. Check this opening line from the superlative head-nodder "Be OK": I'mma take my Lexus to the mall/Get a little black dress just because/Me and my boo just broke it off/I'mma be fly although he's gone.
But she's not a hard rock all the time. Like just about every young woman I know, Michele longs to be in love. In the strings-drenched ballad "Golden," she croons: I'm so ready to love/I'm so ready to promise my all/I'm so ready to give to the day/That my life is no more."
Michele manages to make it all sound believable. After all, she wrote the lyrics to the 14 songs on I Am.
"I had a lot of input in this record," she says. "I was in all the production sessions. I don't know how much more involved you can be when you're creating the songs."
Like many soul artists before her, Michele honed her vocal skills in the family church, where her father was a deacon and her mother directed the choir. In high school, a music teacher introduced her to the sounds of Astrud Gilberto. Shortly afterward, Michele (whose last name is Payne) started absorbing the catalogs of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Holiday.
While a music major at Long Island's Five Towns College, the artist performed at open-mike nights in New York City's Village Underground. The exposure there led to an opening gig for India.Arie, which eventually led to an audition with Antonio Reid, president of Island Def Jam. He signed her on the spot.
She was then connected with marquee producers: Will.i.am, who seems to be on everybody's record these days, Babyface and John Legend. None overwhelm her with bombastic arrangements. Michele's warm, attractively weathered voice is rightfully at the center of each song.
Although the album lags in the middle with drippy ballads and mid-tempo cuts, Michele still manages to infuse everything with verve and personality. She rips it on "In This For You," a stark, hip-hopped number featuring blisteringly raw vocals toward the end.
"That's me right there," Michele says about the song. "I was so sick in the studio that day. The producer just pushed me, and I gave it all I had. That's what I do. I give it all I got."
And she seems to have much to offer. Let's see how far she goes.