antasia’s never going to be a pop-culture-conquering star.
I could be wrong, yeah, but I doubt it. I understand that for a brief moment a few years ago, she was close to being just that—as close as she’s going to get—after (deservedly) winning the third season of “American Idol.” But Fantasia Barrino ain’t crossin’ over. Her debut album, 2004’s Free Yourself, was a good, if spotty, effort marred mostly by its attempts to turn Fantasia into Whitney Houston, smoothing out some of her “rough” (read: Patti LaBelle-esque, read: black) spots for the benefit of the larger “pop” (read: non-black, see also: white) audience. Except that it didn’t work; the album sold well initially in the way that Idol winners’ debuts generally do, and then sank quietly into the urban (read: black) radio ghetto, where she reeled off hit after hit and was 2005’s top urban adult contemporary artist—and didn’t cross over a solitary single to the pop charts.
Seemingly in response to what happened with her debut, Fantasia’s sophomore effort is aimed squarely at the R&B market, and it’s all the better for it. Yes, that means in all likelihood she’s destined to be somewhat of a niche artist for the rest of her career—but that didn’t exactly hurt, say, Zapp, or Frankie Beverly and Maze, did it? Fantasia wasn’t designed to be America’s pop star, anyway. She’s too black.
Start with her name, and then move on to her rather astounding, multi-octave (but-not-in-an-annoying-Mariah-Carey-way) voice, capable of the smoothest singing but also heavy on the grit. Perhaps the best comparison for Fantasia’s voice isn’t LaBelle but K-Ci Hailey—he can croon until you don’t even know where your panties have gone, but he can also nearly out-Womack Bobby Womack, as evidenced by his cover of “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” Check the way Fantasia wails on “Baby Makin’ Hips,” a ridiculously sexy ode to women who’ve, ahem, got it goin’ on (it’s at least more artful than “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”): girl’s got lungs that can’t be reigned in by no David Foster, know what I mean? She’s not just black, she’s Southern black (like Hailey, actually, from North Carolina).
That serves Fantasia well, especially since she’s talented and (semi-)famous enough to be able to surround herself with producers and songwriters who know how best to spotlight her instrument. Sure, Fantasia is saddled down midway through with a Babyface-produced, Diane Warren-penned empowerment number (“I Feel Beautiful,” not bad by any means, just a bit snoozy), but for most of the rest of the album, it’s mid-tempo grooves and club bangers that let Fantasia just do the damn thing. The aforementioned “Hips” is destined to be a smash, while sassy lead single “Hood Boy” (featuring a solid 16 bars from Big Boi and underpinned by a great loop from the Supremes’ “The Happening”) is well on its way to hitsville as well. “I Nominate U” is likely this album’s “Free Yourself”—i.e. a colossal ballad-esque hit—and should be joined by “Only One U,” and don’t sleep on “Two Weeks Notice,” a brilliant break-up/movin’ on song.
Fantasia is straight R&B, uncut. No pop here, no nothin’ except good-to-great commercial R&B circa 2006. The likes of Sean Garrett and Missy Elliott have helped Fantasia craft an album that’s admirably consistent in tone and content and sold entirely on the personality and voice of the woman whose name is on its cover (as opposed to its producers or songwriters). Fantasia’s your homegirl—in essence, America’s homegirl. Hmm, maybe Mary J. Blige’s example shows that Fantasia could, in fact, cross over. Not yet, though. For the time being, she’s hardcore R&B, and for that we should give thanks.