Point of No Return
ne of the best outlets for an R&B singer these days is to become the token non-rapper on a hip-hop label. After striking platinum once with Bobby Valentino, Ludacris's Def Jam imprint Disturbing Tha Peace picked up Shareefa Cooper, from New Jersey by way of North Carolina. And on last year's label compilation, Ludacris Presents...Disturbing Tha Peace, the 22-year-old singer stole the show with "I'll Be Around," a brassy banger with a harder beat than many of the surrounding hip-hop tracks. The song, and her recent appearance on "Can't Break Me" on Shawnna's Block Music, raised my expectations for Shareefa's debut album, Point of No Return.
Although her look and voice don't signify it as explicitly as, say, Keyshia Cole's, one of Shareefa's primary influences is clearly Mary J. Blige. The pedigree of Point of No Return's two main producers, Carl "Chucky" Thompson and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, reflects that—each became go-to hitmakers based on their work with Mary (on 1994's My Life and 1997's Share My World, respectively). Both producers' styles have evolved since developing the pillowy sonics associated with 90's R&B. Here they craft sharper, more explicitly hip-hop-styled beats for 'Reefa.
In fact, Jerkins' work on Point of No Return's first two singles, "Need a Boss" featuring Ludacris and "Cry No More," sound like they could both be mistaken for any number of Southern rap producers. The choppy drums and stabbing string samples are a perfect foil for Shareefa, who sounds powerful and confident on more aggressive beats, but turns whiny or, worse, anonymous on slower tracks.
In addition to his R&B credentials, Chucky Thompson was a member of Puff Daddy's original "Hitmen" production team. On a skit that precedes "No One Said," Shareefa phones up Thompson and sings him a melody she wrote to a song on the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, an album that he worked on. On the song that follows, Thompson crafts a whole new beat by interpolating the song sampled on Biggie's "Everyday Struggle," adding a level of creativity to R&B's recent tradition of jacking beats wholesale from hip-hop records. With most of his productions shuffled toward the end of the album, Thompson claims responsibility for Point of No Return's strong second half. Unfortunately, that means "Fevah (He Don't Know)," a slow vamp over a funky guitar line, is inexplicably buried. Which may also mean that you miss the best retro spoken bridge on an R&B record since Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name."
It's Point of No Return's sagging middle stretch that’s to blame. "Butterfly" is a Mary J.-style vulnerable/inspirational ballad, and it's an absolute bore. On "Phony," she kicks some sass and sounds more like Lil’ Mo than herself, but the weak, repetitive hook kills any chance of it becoming a bitchy anthem. Shareefa's voice begins to grate on "How Good Luv Feels," a nasal tone creeping in as she oversings what should be a smooth mid-tempo jam. "Hey Babe (Give Me Ya Lovin')," though, transcends the mere corporate synergy of having Shareefa duet with labelmate Bobby Valentino—they harmonize beautifully, his silky voice sounding great against her rough rasp.
Point of No Return is a solid debut album, and above par for contemporary R&B. Still, I can't help but be disappointed. Too caught up in playing house with her Mary J. fantasies, Shareefa never recreates the magic of “I’ll Be Around” on Point of No Return—or craft the sort of individual statement that would allow her to step outside her shadow.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-11-01