Leela James | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Leela James



"Where'd the soul go? / It's all about the video," Leela James sings on "Music," the first song on her debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come (Warner Brothers). Laments like that have become a cliche in the neosoul camp, but James can be forgiven since she's actively redefining the genre. She coproduced the album with a who's who of contemporary soul and hip-hop figures, including Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, James Poyser with Vikter Duplaix, and Commissioner Gordon (who worked on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), who all draw on up-to-date production techniques; though the album doesn't have a live-band sound, the music still imparts a strong blast of classic soul feeling. James sings with a deep, husky sensuality a la Ann Peebles, and she favors the understatement of D'Angelo over divalike histrionics; her subtle shadings, like making a sudden upward swoop or letting a phrase just die away, say as much as the words themselves. James cowrote most of the tunes on the album, and she has a knack for making others' songs her own: the title track is stripped-down and vocally raw where Sam Cooke's original was sweeping and orchestral, though her grittier take on No Doubt's syrupy "Don't Speak" is less successful. Despite the varied personalities of her hired help, there's not a trace of schizophrenia to the album; it's far and away the best contemporary soul album I've heard this year. Mon 9/12, 8 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, 312-362-9707, $20 in advance, $25 at the door.

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