Fantasia should take cues from debut title
Neva Chonin, Chronicle Critic at Large
Thursday, November 25, 2004
Free Yourself: Fantasia Barrino.
Evolution is inevitable. So it goes that "American Idol," the Fox TV gold mine responsible for turning pop stardom into a commodity rated by Nielsen rather than Billboard, finds itself on the ratings slide. With the great Ruben Studdard/Clay Aiken showdown over, viewership for 2004's "American Idol" season dropped 14 percent.
Low ratings aside, the contest produced a winner in Fantasia Barrino, a 20-year-old single mother from North Carolina. J Records honcho Clive Davis compared her to "a young Mary J. Blige," and the hype machine cranked into sixth gear. A recording contract and a best-selling single, "I Believe," followed. Now we have "Free Yourself," her debut album. A diva is born, and the show goes on.
First, the good news about the newest manufactured American Idol: Besides having a fabulous name, Fantasia can sing -- not just clamber around the scales and warble hyperbolically, but sing with heart and depth. Her voice smokes when she lets it; her phrasing conveys thought and emotion. No, she's not Mary J. Blige, not even close. But she is the first American Idol who counts as a discovery.
Too bad her first CD doesn't do her justice. As usual, a team of Idol enablers is on board, this time headed by Missy Elliott, Jermaine Dupri and the Underdogs. Over the course of 13 tracks, Fantasia slogs through the usual valley of lousy lovers and hard knocks to emerge on the pinnacle of self- empowerment on the side. Sound familiar? Yeah.
Along the way, she hits all the right notes and yowls beautifully. Still, for all Fantasia's talent and her team of heavy producers, there's no escaping the generic neo-soul of tracks like "Truth Is" and the Dupri-produced "Got Me Waiting": Layered vocals pour like waterfalls, Fantasia's skills are extolled in sundry shout-outs, and faux-vinyl scratchiness lends touches of nostalgic verite. Even the Elliott-produced title track is clinically smooth and forgettable.
There are the inevitable he-done-her-wrong nods to sisterhood, as when Elliott and Fantasia team up to eviscerate a bad boyfriend on "Selfish (I Want U 2 Myself) and Jazze Pha plays the fall guy with a whooping rap on "Don't Act Right."
A few songs stand out. Fantasia reprises the Gershwin standard "Summertime," which put her over the top during the finales and now offers the album's best showcase for her husky, elastic vocals. More surprisingly, her cover of the Willie Nelson hit, "You Were Always on My Mind," invests the original with a soulful tint that adds spice to its bathetic sentimentality. With "Baby Mama," she effectively delivers a funky anthem to single motherhood.
Fantasia has the chops to make it sans hype. But does she have the will? To survive her own fleeting fame, she'll have to break out of "American Idol's" assembly-line mold, and she'll have to do it while the putty's still warm. Time's a-wasting, and evolution waits for no one.