Much has changed for Chrisette Michele in the three years since her last release; she has admitted to developing an addiction to unhealthy food and gaining 40 pounds in the process, leading her to delve deeper into her conflicted state of mind for lyrical content and forcing her to confront aspects of her life that may have been suppressed during previous records. The cathartic process of recording Better makes the title an apt description of Michele herself, and results in a record that is open and ultimately uplifting.
Michele started out with guest-spots on records by the likes of The Game, Jay Z and Nas, slowly developing her sound and style until the release of her first record I Am in 2007. It is this process of continual refinement and growth that has allowed Michele to be considered as one of the best R&B singers around. Better seems like both a culmination of everything she has learned about songwriting and also an introduction for her fans to her new health and happiness.
The album opens with a manifesto in the upbeat, bass-heavy and fiercely independent “Be In Love,” where Michele states her desire to fall in love again, no matter the number of her past failed relationships, alluding to her recent strong state of mind. There then follows a number of down-tempo ballads such as the whimsical “A Couple Of Forevers,” “Love Won’t Leave Me Out” and, my favourite of the album, the classic Boyz II Men-era R&B groove of title track “Better.” It is in these tracks that Michele showcases her true vocal and lyrical skill, allowing her sultry melodies to find their place over the dragging, simplified beats and her lyrics to take hold on the listener.
There are also a number of interesting collaborations on Better including cameos from Wale, 2 Chainz and Bilal. On the sensual “Charades” 2 Chainz adds a verse over Michele’s robotic falsetto, delving into a Kelly Rowland “Motivation” style of R&B. The Wale track “Rich Hipster” is a commentary on the lifestyle changes Michele herself encountered in moving to Williamsburg and Bilal adds his signature vocals to the military drumming of “Can The Cool Be Loved?”. The variety of the sounds on these tracks showcases Michele’s versatility as a vocalist, delivering takes that effortlessly complement the atmosphere of the beats she is singing over.
Despite Michele’s vocal dexterity on Better, however, there are still a number of issues with the record; namely the production. Partly because of the different styles of R&B that Michele sings, the production often feels sketchy and sometimes even amateurish, jumping from genre to genre and never fully managing to create tracks that sound unique and interesting rather than middle-of-the-road. Where the throwbacks to late ’90s R&B might be welcome, the attempts to create a more modern sound with digitally manipulated melodies and beats can seem artificial, such as the harsh bass-line on “Be In Love” and trashy synths on “Visual Love.”
Running at 20 tracks, the album is a long one and that means that a coherent theme is never fully developed; Michele excels in the ballads and slow numbers but many of the upbeat tracks unfortunately seem forced, let down by production and over-long because of unnecessary interludes.
All in all, Better is a significant step forward for Michele and definitely a positive one, it just needs restraint in style and ambition and then her voice and writing can be fully appreciated.