Chrisette Michele — “Epiphany (I’m Leaving)”

Released: 1.27.09

Peak: #89

Though jerks like me initially knocked neo-soul for its retro reverence, those new R&B traditionalists actually expanded their peers’ range of vocal influences. In the ’90s, contemporary R&B singers were already looking backward, but they’d largely settled on two terrible role models for non-geniuses to choose — Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. And so the men whined and the women wailed. Not that it seemed any wiser for neo-soul’s two most promising women to emulate the cream of female jazz vocals. And yet, Erykah Badu developed into a versatile observer of social and romantic decay from within the husk of Billie Holiday’s reefer-cured skepticism, while Jill Scott successfully transplanted the girlish insouciance of Ella Fitzgerald from the upscale jazz club to homelier surroundings.

In music, as in life, Ella has proved the better role model. On her debut, I Am, Chrisette Michele proved the finest of the post-Ellas, going so far as to thank Fitzgerald by name, along with “Miss Billie,” “Miss Sarah” (Vaughn, of course) and (oh well) “Miss Natalie Cole.” Before you get the wrong idea, the song in question, “Let’s Rock,” also sampled Run-D.M.C., and though Michele wrote her own material, pros like Babyface and John Legend were looking over her shoulder. She also has credits on the second-best song on her follow-up, Epiphany, “Blame It on Me,” an acid taunt disguised as a reasonable breakup number that showcases Michele’s range and restraint — for once, a singer who recalls Aretha’s harried way with a vowel rather than her inimitable quest for anti-gravity.

But while I’m all for self-expression, Ne-Yo offered an even better outlet for Michele’s sly sarcasm with “Epiphany.” After another night alone, Chrisette blithely coos, “I think I’m just about over being your girlfriend,” her epiphany sounding, like so many such breakthroughs, a long time in coming. She sounds happily surprised not only with this realization, but with the results of her voice coming into contact with a lyric and tune. And you can tell a producer knows he’s got a great vocal melody on his hands when he echoes it instrumentally, as Chuck Harmony does here, with a piano hook that never wears out its welcome. “Epiphany” is a song that makes clear that it’s quite pleased with itself without ever sounding smug.

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