Because I Love It
[Columbia Records; 2007]
Amerie's 2002 debut album All I Have was so startlingly, sparklingly perfect that it was difficult to imagine that she could even make another album. All I Have simply didn't sound like the beginning of a particular artist's story: The album's irresistibility resided in its consummately generic take on r&b at all levels, writer/producer Rich Harrison constructing familiar-sounding but astonishingly voluptuous soul-loop grooves, and lyrically wresting the most exquisite sensations from clichés and universalist platitudes, while Amerie's equivocations between sweet clarity and ragged soul conveyed an idealist snapshot of an entire genre's arsenal of affects.
Despite containing her breakout hit "1 Thing", 2005's follow-up Touch was a weaker affair: A handful of stunners and an ill-advised Lil' Jon collaboration aside, it felt like a retread of her debut in broader, less nuanced brushstrokes. Having now parted ways from Harrison, on the more successful Because I Love It Amerie attempts to fashion for herself an individual persona, a quest that carries her further away from the attractions of her debut. Because I Love It's big, risky strategic manoeuvre is a plush, post-coital riposte to Ciara's recent electro-pop revivalism, with many of the songs here investing in a deliberately frothy eighties sound that smears together Prince, Jam & Lewis, and the SOS Band.
As with Ciara, Amerie's tying herself so resolutely to the retro mast pays mixed dividends. She pulls off this gloriously inconsequential sound on "Crush" and "Crazy Wonderful", combining sugar-rush explosions of fizzy synth clouds with charmingly twee vocals. The danger for her is that in trying so hard to clinch this new style she leaves little room to assert her own individual qualities: most worryingly, the self-consciously fun "Some Like It" is a gruesome pastiche, assembling dozens of hooks and reference points, but with no heart to pump life into them.
This sense of making staged set-pieces rather than songs carries over into more familiar territory. The enjoyable but overrated "Gotta Work", an energetic funk number that liberally samples Sam & Dave's "Hold On I'm Coming", verges on empty formalism: one senses that its signifiers have been pressed into service primarily to remind listeners of how much they enjoyed "1 Thing" or J Lo's "Get Right", and coalesce into a song only as an afterthought. She does better when she doesn't try so hard: The more clipped disco-funk of "Take Control" might be closer to "anonymous" r&b (one could just as easily imagine it coming from Nicole Scherzinger or Christina Milian) but it's also a much better song; the enjoyment comes from listening to how Amerie still makes it her own, the song's own excitement strained through her expressive, almost hesitant phrasing.
Perhaps the secret ingredient which enlivens Amerie's best work is her quality of earnestness: The best songs here are a trio of dead-serious ballads in the second half, all of which relinquish the urge to score points with savvy listeners. "When Loving U Was Easy" verges on Idol material, its sobbing accusations culminating in a gloriously indiscreet, almost painful climax worthy of Fantasia or Kelly Hudson. Meanwhile "All Roads" is garishly coloured, widescreen utopian wonder, somewhere between Mariah Carey and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'".
Best of all is the fragile, frustrated "Paint Me Over", a contender for Amerie's finest track to date, and a timely reminder of her longstanding secret weapons: the interplay between the breathy delicacy of her solo lines and the accusatory perfection and strength of the multi-tracked chorus lines. "Chorus" in both senses of the word: Amerie's finest moments flow seamlessly between the lost and befuddled Amerie singing alone, overwhelmed by the mysteries of love, and the righteous auto-harmonizing Ameries, whose clarity of vision is accompanied by exuberance or vengefulness. I prefer the vengeful moments: no r&b singer can make the listener feel as judged as Amerie can, like the world itself has risen up in anger against your uncaring ways.
All three of these songs extend the album's dominant palatial 80s sound, but in a subtler and less self-conscious fashion, more focused on being vehicles for Amerie's emoting. Sonic revivalism in r&b usually works best when it sounds breezy and incidental-- think of the gorgeous effervescence of Cassie's sweet mid-tempo numbers, or Teedra Moses's own, less self-conscious evocations of Prince and Jam & Lewis. Perhaps it's simply that you have to believe in these songs to take them into your heart, believe that the riotous drum breaks or frosty synthesisers being deployed are a true extension of the singer's own feelings. The balance between success and failure rests on the tension between the style, the singer and the song: Amerie is at her best when the three levels become indistinguishable.
-Tim Finney, August 28, 2007