Although she's flown under the radar of the mainstream music world in recent years, Teena Marie has still managed to cultivate a career that most singers would envy. Over a career that's spanned more than 30 years, she's consistently managed to put out very good - sometimes great - music and has cultivated a very loyal following of devoted fans. And on her 13th studio album, Congo Square (released in the U.S. by Stax Records on June 9, 2009), Teena shows that although she may be getting older, her passion for music, creativity and voice are still as strong and powerful as they were during her peak in the 1980s.
Teena Marie has been around long enough and has enough of a track record that reviews of her music make little difference one way or another. Her vocal style's so consistent that people who feel her music probably always will, no matter what music critics say. And conversely, people who don't care for her work probably never will, either. But for those devoted Teena fans out there, here's the verdict: Congo Square
is one of her best albums in quite awhile. In terms of overall creativity, it's better than her last album, 2006's Sapphire,
and is less gimmicky than the album before that, 2004's La Dona
, which tried to remake her into a female version of Ronald Isley's "Mr. Biggs" character.
If there's anything else that separates this album from her other work over the years, it's that Teena is relying less on love songs and writing more substantive material. The album's filled with quality songs that fit Teena well, unlike some tracks from her last two albums, which sometimes felt like she was being shoehorned into a role that didn't quite fit her. Throughout Congo Square Teena not only straddles the line between the modern and classic, she also shows that of all the white singers out there, she's probably the most in tune with African-American culture. Among the evidence: the album's title comes from an historical area in New Orleans where slaves were allowed to dance and sing on Sundays, plus she has songs on the album called "Harlem Blues" and "Black Cool." And another track, "Ms. Coretta," is an ode to Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The album's first single, "Can't Last A Day,"
a duet with Faith Evans, is vintage Teena without sounding too '80s. The same can be said for the straightforward "Baby I Love You" and "Ear Candy 101," a sultry upbeat jam where Teena sexily sings come-ons like "Maybe I can be your queen if you play your cards right, maybe you can be my king if you keep your love tight." She sounds so perfectly natural singing the words that you'll completely forget that she turned 53 three months before the album's release. And like "Ear Candy 101," Teena similarly manages to modernize her sound on the duet "Milk N' Honey," which features Teena's daughter, Rose LeBeau. "Milk N' Honey" takes advantage of the Auto-Tune fad by using the pitch correction software to add an overly electronic touch to the vocals. Unlike some other aging singers who have recently used Auto-Tune as a production flourish to make their sound seem more modern or hip, Teena's conservative but distinctive experimentation with the tool actually does enhance the song. Which is a great relief since other mature artists using Auto-Tune - including Prince, Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder - have all sounded anywhere from a little odd to completely ridiculous at times.
Overall, the production matches the vocals well, the vocals themselves are always strong and the song topics and lyrics are well done. And since Teena produced and arranged the album herself, the praise is a testament to not only her singing skills, but also her expertise in other areas of the recording process.