Just Like You
ow that Mary J. Blige has officially become the new Queen of Soul, rather than the Queen of Hip Hop Soul—i.e. watch for the weight gain, because she’s actually becoming our generation’s Aretha—the post of QOHHS is open. There’ve been no shortage of pretenders to the throne and would-be candidates over the past decade-plus (MJB’s held the title for 15 years, remember), but it now looks like we’ve finally got a singer who’s not just thoroughly qualified but who actually seems to want the position. Most importantly, with her sophomore effort, she’s made an album which shows she’s worthy of the QOHHS title.
Don’t misunderstand me; Keyshia Cole’s second album isn’t perfect. Then again, it shouldn’t be—like Blige herself, Cole is a flawed woman (more to the point, as her BET reality series Keyshia Cole: The Way I Am showed, she’s prone to angry rages, just like her idol early in her career). Arguably, it takes a flawed person to be a great artist, though, and Just Like You shows and proves unquestionably that Cole’s capable of some seriously rich, powerful art.
First things first: leadoff single/album opener “Let It Go” is one of the singles of the year. Thanks in large part to guest Missy Elliott’s production prowess and a perfectly-used loop from Mtume’s 1982 classic “Juicy Fruit,” this mid-tempo anthem for the sistas hits on all cylinders. Its remix, which closes Just Like You, features verses from Young Dro (eh) and T.I. (great fun), along with a new verse from Cole herself; while not essential, it makes a nice bookend with its original.
There’s a refreshing paucity of guests on this album; apart from those contributing to the two versions of “Let It Go,” there’s the Diddy-featuring “Last Night,” a slow-burner with a gorgeous vocal assist from Anthony Hamilton (“Losing You”), the club-crunk “Didn’t I Tell You” with her Oakland homie Too $hort, and “Shoulda Let You Go,” which includes a brief rap from Cole’s new protégé Amina. While that may sound like a lot of guests, where most contemporary R&B albums are concerned—especially those shooting from the hip-hop, um, hip—it’s actually not. All of the above songs, by the way, are good-to-sensational: in particular, “Last Night” jacks the sonics of “Erotic City” to great effect (credit producer Mario Winans), and “Shoulda Let You Go” perfectly marries a spare Rodney Jerkins production without a bassline (there’s a kickdrum, but no bass) with Cole’s regretful lyrics.
Oddly, the album’s Achilles heel appears to be Cole’s desire to come off as more quote-unquote adult than she is; a few of the midsection’s ballads tend to get slightly lost under string-laden production. That said, “Heaven Sent” does a fine job pairing a snare tattoo with lush strings and acoustic piano—this is how you do hip hop soul in the ’07—and “Same Thing,” inexplicably a 1:35 “interlude,” is so tasty in its update of ‘70s southern soul that it deserves to be a full-fledged song, and single, in its own right. Cole’s still finding her way, but on Just Like You it sounds as if she’s already named and claimed her voice (speaking of, she mercifully cuts the over-vocalizing that made her debut such a chore to sit through). If she keeps playing to her strengths (pray she’s got good management), there’s no reason we won’t be talking of her, in 15 years, the way we speak of MJB today. Just Like You is tough and tender like Blige’s sophomore album My Life, and while it may not quite match its predecessor’s legendary status, it’s not so far off—and it sounds like the R&B album of the year, easily.