Pop audiences may know the late Teena Marie only from straightforward ‘80s hits like “Lover Girl” and “Ooo La La La,” but the real litmus test for how much you’ll take to her hardcore R&B beginnings is that great Mt. Olympus moment on Rick James’s “Fire and Desire,” when out of nowhere she unleashes the titanic wail that would become her trademark and stops the song dead in its tracks. In love with its own brute force, Marie’s singing is more polarizing than her incontestable position as the Ivory Queen of Soul would suggest. Demonstrating little interest in the nuanced delivery and textural variation of the legendary vocalists she constantly name-checked in her songs, she knew she was at her best when she was at her loudest, which means that even a top-tier Teena Marie album can become exhausting when experienced straight through.
It’s hard to listen to born belters as they age and struggle to adapt to their atrophied, increasingly uncooperative instruments. That’s why, regardless of the theoretical appeal of watching this justly revered artist putting her best foot forward in the R&B game after her 2004 comeback with La Doña, her late-career work is more often than not a chore to sit through. By most standards still in fine voice, Marie nevertheless insisted on writing her songs in the usual sky-high key, which eventually forced her to take constant recourse to an alternately thin and abrasive falsetto and an ever more overbearing vibrato. On the posthumous Beautiful, assembled by her daughter Alia Rose, the problem persists, further magnified by an absence of the solid songwriting that appeared in patches throughout her albums of the past decade (most abundantly 2006’s Sapphire).
After leaving Motown four albums into her career, Marie gave up her allegiance to the kaleidoscopic disco-funk and lush quiet storm she mastered under Rick James’s tutelage. So, all these years later, it’s pointless to approach Beautiful anticipating the next “Behind the Groove” or “Young Love.” This doesn’t keep her from winking at past triumphs (as on the brief interpolation of “Portuguese Love” on “Maria Bonita”) and alluding to soul giants (she quotes Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan on four separate songs, and delivers a nice but unnecessary cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love”). For the most part, though, the album is padded with second-rate, synth-heavy production, interminably repetitive grooves, lyrics that veer from sexed-up to schmaltzy, and barely there melodies derivative of previous work. The result is an album that feels outdated, even when it’s hard to pin down precisely what era of music she’s nostalgic for.
In a marketplace that has all but closed its doors to old-school R&B, it seems a shame to fault an artist whose last dash of productivity so clearly emanated from a commitment to the genre as her native language. Much has been made of Marie’s role as one of the few white singers to be fully embraced by the urban audience while remaining mostly ignored on the pop charts, and one can only speculate that her outsider status gave her the distance to mix and match so many strains of black music—not just Rick James funk, but the classic soul she adored, the elements of jazz she picked up from her idol Sarah Vaughan, and the rap she was spitting as early as 1981’s “Square Biz.” It’s remarkable that, when she joined Cash Money Records in the mid-aughts, the matter-of-factness with which she assimilated retro sounds with an up-to-date hip-hop persona rendered her middle-aged white-woman identity barely worth a mention.
All the while, Marie has never sounded like anything other than herself: The keening phrasing, the squawky tone, and the nonstop exuberance all point to her unflagging individuality. But anyone introduced to her through Beautiful would be hard-pressed to figure out what all the fuss is about, since it reflects neither the vocal virtuosity nor the wide-ranging musical adventurousness of her best work. The album has some memorable moments on unabashedly silly midtempos like “Sweet Tooth” and the lightly Auto-Tuned boast track “Rare Breed.” But at its worst, particularly on slow jams “Definition of Down,” “Carte Blanche,” and “The Perfect Feeling,” the songs are plodding, shapeless, and vaguely desperate. When it comes to posthumous Lady T, better to invest in 2011’s First Class Love: Rare Tee, a revelatory compilation full of unreleased material that takes the singer from finger-snapping Motown to stunningly intimate acoustic settings. The difference is striking: Even on the scrappiest material, it’s clear that the clarion call of her voice in all its youthful glory remains the core of her legacy.