For all her bumbling awkwardness and insincerity on American Idol, Mariah Carey did offer up one unfailingly honest barometer of her approval: an upward flick of the wrist that might best be described as a “gospel hand.” The primary target of her benediction, of course, was a contestant made in the spitting image of the soul singers Carey and countless other pop divas have spent their careers emulating. Boasting raw vocal talent and musical intelligence in equal measure, season winner Candice Glover blends all the elements that appeal to fans of traditional R&B balladry. Not only does she possess a titanium-strength instrument capable of the octave leaps that were once the genre’s bread and butter, her style also calls to mind the inventiveness of Jazmine Sullivan, Brandy, and contemporary gospel titan Kim Burrell, whose tightly constructed melismas have exerted enormous influence on the current generation of R&B singers.
A great voice can change the temperature in a room, and even in her most amateurish moments, Glover could raise goose bumps with the tiniest detail—some nuanced deployment of rasp, a seamless flip from power belt to delicate falsetto, or the way her bellowing alto opens up into a brassy brightness in her upper register. When she was really on fire, she could ebb and flow along with the house band with the confidence of a master, never once getting buried beneath the overwrought orchestrations that often drowned out other contestants.
Glover’s remarkable run on Idol, the most consistently impressive display of technical virtuosity on the show since Kelly Clarkson, makes her new album even more of a buzz kill than the typical post-Idol victory debut. Rush-released in a hopeless attempt to circumvent pop-culture amnesia, Music Speaks contains only a few songs that withstand repeated listens, but the greater shame is that these songs fail to capture the electricity of Glover’s live performances. And while part of the problem may be that Idol’s minute-and-a-half song excerpts have accustomed us to processing music as a series of instant gratifications and big, dynamic moments (a format that it would be foolish to replicate over the span of an album), the more obvious culprit here is the sheer laziness of most of the production and songwriting.
The insistently chirpy “In the Middle” not only obscures Glover’s rich timbre behind a layer of sonic gauze, it also features an embarrassing moment of musical ignorance when she starts scatting after a lyrical reference to famous non-scatter Billie Holiday. Even worse, the Mike WiLL Made It-produced ballad “Passenger” lays a remarkable array of clichés (“my everything is you,” “you’re my truth”) against a dreary melody that makes romantic love sound like the world’s most powerful sedative. By the time the album starts winding down with a reprise of Glover’s Idol game-changer, a riff-ridden cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong,” it comes as no surprise when the producers crash through the vocal’s exquisite intimacy with the cheapest-sounding synthetic drums imaginable.
A handful of songs remind us of the pleasure of listening to her voice unvarnished. First single “Cried,” a Jazmine Sullivan-penned ode to the liberating power of the lacrimal glands, keeps the backdrop to a minimum, all the better to hear the colors in Glover’s voice as the chorus swells and stretches. “Same Kinda Man,” which would have been at home with the upbeat, horn-driven tracks on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, features Glover’s most effervescent performance, confirming that hers is a talent that deserves to be backed by strong instrumentalists.
The most surprising highlight on the album, though, is the slow jam “Kiss Me,” which presents a more sensual side to the singer’s buttoned-up image. Clearly Drake-inspired in its melodic limitations, lyrical repetitions, and echo-y production, it’s a flimsy piece of songcraft, but one that’s well served by a sinuous bassline and Glover’s chiffon-like harmonies. It’s an indication that there’s much more to this talent that remains untapped, and one can only hope she escapes the pitfalls of being a non-songwriting R&B singer in an inhospitable pop scene and finds collaborators who know what to do with a good old-fashioned powerhouse.