Lalah Hathaway – Honestly (2017)
Lalah Hathaway – Honestly
It is often said of exceptional singers by their fans that they are willing to hear their fave sing the telephone book. This idea is generally fervently believed by its deliverers with an abundance of passion and certainty…that is until an album they don’t like hits their hands. Then, all bets are most ceremoniously off, and off to Instagram and Twitter they go to gripe. For some, Lalah Hathaway’s eighth album release, Honestly, will “honestly” offer such a test of her fans’ devotion and stretch the limits of taste for the most conservative among them. It certainly stretched this long-time fan and reviewer’s limits until the band broke into tatters…honestly.
Solely written by Hathaway and multi-instrumental singer-songwriter Tiffany Gouché and largely produced by Grouché, the project will read for some as yet another vain attempt by a veteran artist to “go young” and be “on trend.” These are expectations no Lalah Hathaway devotee has ever had of this singular mahogany voice, whose claim to fame came through the doors of purist jazz, fusion, and classic soul, and that’s without her famous pedigree. But, in a seeming attempt to reach for those a generation after those who grew up as young adults with Hathaway, Honestly is a project riddled with overused production techniques, trap and other radio urban pop sounds, and gratuitously coarse language.
As with “yoy” the mood is dark and depressed, like much of the emo sounds littering the landscape, minus the typical allusions to drugs and capitalistic fever dreams of the hedonistic party life. Still, that this electric indigo has been delivered to those still high off of the 2016 Grammy-winning recordings from Lalah Hathaway’s long-awaited 2015 Live album of largely organic covers is a curiosity worthy of a Neil deGrasse Tyson inquiry. It seems almost a slap in the face to longtime fans and newcomers by way of the Grammy win for Best R&B Album to pivot so dramatically to sounds that are nearly wholly the antithesis of the album that epitomized what had been up to this point the signature Lalah Hathaway sound.
The voice is still the voice, liquid warmth enveloping you like ermine. This is especially true on “I Can’t Wait,” perhaps the sole traditional R&B song on the collection. As is consistent with most of Hathaway’s catalog, the songs are still largely about the complexities of relationships. There are attempts at vaguely Asian sounds similar to Hiatus Kaiyote on cuts like the title single “Honestly,” but they feel stiff and stilted here. Rare inspirational cuts are heavy with synth production such as the rock pop influenced “Don’t Give Up (feat. Lecrea)” and are successful almost solely through a hooky chorus that few can deny, despite the unimaginative production. The “f” bombs in “Change Ya Life” are jarring coming from an artist that has seldom so much as said “damn” in her previous work, and can’t help but read as something desperate and oddly juvenile, like a teen in rebellion against the expectations of conservative convention. The bulk of it is utterly forgettable fare like “Won’t Let It Go” and “What U Need”; obvious attempts to get radio attention that has long abandoned the R&B artist over 35 without a famous rapper on tap.
If the goal was to bring in fresh blood, the whole enterprise has one questioning how an L.A.-based artist with a background in jazz and a lineage in soul, even progressive soul, didn’t access young West Coast creators who have mastered being both musical AND current, such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, The Internet, Alex Isley, Paris Strother of KING, or Ronald Bruner, Jr. Or, to look across the pond or near borders to on-fire producers like Kaytranada, Tom Misch, MNEK, SONNEN, Flying Lotus, or Eric Lau, if the goal was to do something wholly different in the electrosoul space, but not so different that it alienates your base. In today’s “niche is rich” marketplace, the options are vast and varied, from Daniel Crawford to Disclosure to Missy Elliott. Can you imagine the woman-power of a Missy and Hathaway collabo? Something both unexpectedly lush and powerful one assumes.
Yet, artists, the most intellectually curious of them, want to grow and explore new things, new sounds, and possibilities, usually on their own once they achieve Hathaway’s level of critical and commercial respect. Alternately, their fans want them to give them more of the same that made them love them. The tension is as old as the music industry itself. The trick is to grow and play in ways that still allow old fans to follow while bread crumbing a path for new fans with different ears to be introduced to their familiar sounds. Many legends aren’t successful at this trick. Fans of John Coltrane’s bebop and cool jazz periods got off the line after the apex of a Love Supreme. Miles Davis’s fans of the Gil Evans ‘60s period exited stage left for the electric jazz work of the ‘70s, and, unlike Coltrane, picked up new fans of his new thing. Many a Lenny Kravitz fan is hard pressed to name a song they love after the album 5 with the exception of the hit single “Again.” Likewise, Hathaway, daughter of famed soul legend and pioneer Donny Hathaway, may be charting a new course for others to follow or not. It depends on how committed you are to that mantra: “I could hear her sing the telephone book.” I, for one, at least this time, was proven a liar. Mildly Recommended.
Correction: Originally, the article stated that the album was largely produced by Hathaway herself, when in fact it is largely produced by her collaborator.
By L. Michael Gipson