Duality * John Michael * R&B * February 26, 2016
This one is going to be short on introductions.
When we reviewed his last album, we remarked that John Michael had improved in his songwriting a lot from even his most recent mixtape. We were eager to see what he would offer in the album that was due to be released a few weeks after we posted our thoughts. Would he be able to continue to improve or would it feel like a backslide? Only one way to find out…
1. Duality – Not quite an intro but not quite a full song, the album starts off with the poetically-lyriced title track. About the ebb and flow (duality) of his, and all people’s, existence, the song has a very stream of consciousness feel to it. It feels like we are following Michael through working something out, whether it be a relationship that is changing or his own, personal struggle. The production of the track belies the complexity of it, sounding very simple and somewhat like a music box. The vocals here are fairly minimal when it comes to flourishes, keeping the tone subdued and even for most of the track. Perhaps not the strongest opening, but a good one for setting the tone.
2. Unapologetically – This is a track that will get to a lot of people where they live, especially people of color. Speaking on his pride in his brown skin and blackness, this song focuses on both Michael’s humanity and the right for those who are outside of the “default” to be different while also not succumbing to a negative racial stereotype. The jazz production is a nice touch for this track as it is African-American creation and flows well with the previous track. The vocals have a nice flow while still keeping the minimal flourishes that seem to be becoming a stylist choice for this set. The track ends with him speaking a few lines of poetry about himself, what can set him apart from others of his age group, and reminding us of either Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or Langston Hughes A Dream Deferred (from which the play takes its title). A standout track.
3. Celebration – The subject matter transition is a little jarring, but this upbeat track does a good job in maintaining the production flow that has been set up here. About celebrating the goodness of love and life in general, this is the fun side of John Michael. This song is a little more vocally dynamic than the previous ones, but it’s the use of autotune that threw us as it seems almost completely unnecessary and doesn’t aid the singer’s vocals at all (in the first instance, we actually had to rewind the track to make sure we were hearing what we thought because the effect is so minimal). The Cane verse fits the theme of the track just fine, but comes in a place that makes it feel like it’s artificially extending the song’s runtime. Still a good track, though, and worth a few repeats.
4. Perfect Reason – If you are John Michael fan, this is the song that you have been waiting for in this set, both in mood and vocal styling. Giving us the first babymaker of the project, this slow jam does a good job of setting the mood for a night of love. Lyrically, this is par for the course of slow jams, focusing on taking this moment and letting the feeling be the reason for the night. Vocally, Michael shows out without overdoing it, adding strong runs and strategically placed, stabbing breaths that recall a session of lovemaking. A strong track.
5. The Bay – Another track about getting the freak in, this one is more upbeat than the previous one, though it still follows the production unity that has existed throughout the album so far. The lyrics are pretty straightfoward here, but veer more towards the ratchet side of love and has more of club feel in its writing. The inclusion of Too $hort seems to boil down to a sample (that we can’t place) and not an actually verse, which might actually work in the song’s favor as the only place it feels like a verse could be inserted would be towards the end and would artificially extend the track’s length. Michael’s vocals get back the that even keel that has dominated the album so far, but it comes off as swagger and not disinterest. Worth a few listens.
6. Raise It Up – This feels like a rejoinder to Celebration in sections, in so much that it has a celebration vibe, but there is also an element of boys running the streets and looking for some one night fun instead of one of monogamy. The Real MC verse is well placed and fits the theme well. The lyrics for both artists are full of confidence, but not in an obnoxious way that can sometimes plague tracks of a similar ilk. The vocals here a pretty minimal, with both Michael and Real MC putting in more rap bars than sung ones. The problem for this track comes with the production, which is very similar to the preceding tracks and is starting to make the songs bleed into one another and lessening their impact. The song is fun, though, and worth a few listens.
7. Lurkin – This track has Michael trying to pursued the object of his affection to give him a look and a shot at her love. While he uses the opening line from the hook of KP and Envyi’s Swing My Way, this song feels different in its execution than that one, despite the similar theme. The vocals on this one are rich and have the singer doing his balancing act of show out and level tones, which works best for him. The lyrics are pretty straightforward and the song ends with the singer making a call to a woman, seemingly as he steps out of the club. The song doesn’t really assert itself against some of the better tracks of the album and, with the production similarity issue, can feel skippable if you’re going to listen straight through.
8. Cheater – The story of this track, about the aftermath of an infidelity session, is good one and focuses on a side of cheating that we often don’t get. The end of the previous track leads into this one, and some of the story details are told through a phone message the singer leaves for his lady (we think). The vocals on this track are strong and convey the emotion of the situation well. The production has that similar feel to the other tracks, but the strength of the lyrics and the vocals helps overcome that. Our biggest complaint on this one is that the message in the middle is a little hard to hear due to the layering of vocals in that section. Still, despite this misstep, this is a strong track.
9. Enough Love – This track feels like the opposite side of the previous track with Michael being the aggrieved party in a broken relationship. He switches between being angry about the transgression to somewhat blaming himself. The lyrics of the song are emotional and Michael matches it with a vocal delivery that is absolutely heartbreaking in a way that can have you on the verge of tears. The production flows along with the rest of the album but there seems to be a difference here that makes it stand out more against some of the previous songs. A standout track.
10. Pick Up The Phone – Starting off with sampling After 7’s Ready or Not, this track gives us a welcomed brake from the production similarity. About Michael telling the woman he’s interested in that he is willing to give her the love that her significant other doesn’t if she would just call, the transition between this track and the previous one is not as jarring as you might think. Despite the first blush feeling that he is advocating cheating after two emotion songs about the destructive aftermath of it, this give the other side and how, in the moment, these situations arise. Michael’s vocals are strong here and he shows out more on this track than just about any other to great affect. A strong track and a candidate for the next single (if it’s not already).
11. Inevitable – This was the bonus track from Like A Drug and what we said there holds here. A mellow babymaker, this song feels very stream of consciousness in its content, depending almost entirely on Michael to provide the emotional connection through his performance. About the promise of a night of good love, the production is the star this time around. While Michael does a good job of conveying the sexy, the beatwork provides the overall mood and asserts itself very subtly throughout the song. Worth a few listens.
12. Junior – When we saw the name of this track, it immediately made us think of his track That’s Our Baby, but the theme is very different. All about baby-mama drama, Michael is telling the mother of his child that he has split from that they have no chance to reconcile and all he wants is to be good father to his child. This is another production choice that is a standout on how different it is from the bulk of the album but similar enough to keep the flow. The lyrics here a good and convey a real situation in a believable way without going over the top on putdowns. His vocals are superb and give the feeling of annoyance well. It’s a strong track that ends with Michael talking about how happy he is to have gotten to this point in life through music and giving the hints that this, may indeed, be his last album (time will tell).
What we get from John Michael on this album is that he continues to grow and develop as a singer/songwriter. The conclusion that we came to in our review of his Like A Drug album still stands; we would like for him to work with other producers to help him vary his style a little and some other songwriters to broaden his depth of feeling, but this still feels like an improvement. This is one of those occasions that we wish we gave reviews in quarter-note intervals as we would give him a notch up in the songwriting department for the story that seems to be wound through this LP and displaying the duality promised in the title by having songs seem to pair in theme but oppose each other in execution (Celebration and Raise It Up, Cheater and Enough Love, Perfect Reason and The Bay). If you enjoyed Like A Drug, you will find enjoyment in this and, at $5.99 on Amazon, it is worth the price.