Listening to ‘80s R&B diva Teena Marie’s latest LP Congo Square, I couldn’t help but think repeatedly, “Now, this is what Prince’s last four or five albums should’ve sounded like.” In his quest to return to accessible pop and R&B, Prince’s questionable strategy was to scale everything down, including his ambition. The result has been largely tepid music that seems to be actively suppressing something better, something more insistently musical. In contrast, Marie’s album, which was in part inspired by her newfound connection with her New Orleans roots, is unforced, breezy, and utterly comfortable in its own skin. While she doesn’t shy away from co-opting trendy production flourishes (yes, she Auto-Tunes in “Milk n’ Honey”) and slightly less trendy collaborations (MC Lyte, Faith Evans, George Duke), there’s something extremely settled and comforting about Congo Square that makes up for what it loses in pop-culture primacy. At its worst, it veers disconcertingly close to the well-produced, Grammy-friendly blandness of John Legend and Herbie Hancock. The frictionless harmonies of “Harlem Blues” hardly flatter the strain of music they’re meant to evoke, and the drippy sentiments of “Marry Me” (“I’d like to hear the Wedding March played sweetly”) are done few favors by the anonymous slow-mo groove. But at its best, the album exudes sophistication, professionalism, and a slow-burning heat. “The Pressure” isn’t a cover of the rollicking Sounds of Blackness trailblazer, but it works up a pretty decent head of steam. “Baby I Love You” is a fantastic throwback, a mid-‘80s synthy ballad on the order of Juicy’s “Sugar Free.” And “The Rose n’ Thorn,” while leaving all currency behind to indulge in a little lounge-lizard torch-singing, showcases Marie’s still pliable pipes. That Congo Square will strike most listeners as harmless, impersonal, but easy listening (in the best sense) when it was apparently created as a very personal statement probably means it fails on some level, but Marie’s unforced confidence exists outside of the success-failure continuum.
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