Fantasia’s Free Yourself: Finally. . .A Good American Idol Album!

Face it. Fantasia Barrino didn’t need American Idol to become a star. American Idol needed Fantasia Barrino. After crowning 2 winners, Kelly Clarkson & Ruben Studdard, and seeing the both of them release decent but genre-generic debut albums (1 of which rectified herself on her sophomore release), the show once credited with finding the next big things was starting to be viewed as less of a talent competition and more of a karaoke contest.

But Fantasia Barrino changed all of that. The sweet yet sassy, down-to-earth, southern church gal from Alabama, armed with nothing but her big lips and THAT voice, set a new standard for the competition on that show and proved that she was the real deal. She had it all; good looks (c’mon – not the prettiest girl but far from ugly), stage presence, charisma, star power, and THAT voice and she simply commanded your attention every time she opened her mouth.

Her narrowly beating out the chipper Diana DeGarmo for the title wasn’t so much a shock as it was an affirmation that pure talent still can succeed in a fabricated society that thrives upon style over substance. But recorded in a rush period of 3 months, Fantasia’s debut, Free Yourself, still had many wondering if she was going to avoid the AI curse and deliver a 1,2 knockout debut of an album or if she was going to generalize herself and her music and be content with riding on the coattails of generic music.

Fantasia’s uniquely soulful voice is definitely a blessing and a curse for this album. On the one hand, it definitely injects the album with the perfect amount of passion, pleasure, and pain in the right places at the right times. On the other hand, sometimes Fantasia lets her voice get carried away and it oversteps the soulful boundaries into caterwauling, resulting in moments where her voice grates. Good in small doses on the show; kind of a chore to enjoy for 51 minutes straight. But regardless of what the overall album sounds like, it sure does get off to a promising start with opener, and personal favorite, Ain’t Gon’ Beg You. Against the smooth, if a tad predictable, production courtesy of the Underdogs, Fantasia plays the role of a woman neglected perfectly. That soulful rasp works well here, injecting that restrained fury and pain into the vocals and lyrics that sets the song afire and moves you to applaud Fantasia as she walks out the door.

The same conceptual setup works to a classier, more understated (for Fantasia) effect on the Missy Elliott penned/produced title track, Free Yourself. With nothing but elegant harp plucks, lite piano, and plaintive percussion, the song has such a mellow air of sophistication that allows Fantasia to give a more controlled while still soulful as all get-out performance that showcases another dimension to her vocal ability as well as her versatility.

Truth Is is the type of lead single we should’ve expected from Fantasia. A mellow, hook-ish tune about love lost that would sound right at home on urban AC playlists while still having enough appeal to not sound too out of place on pop radio. Similar in execution to Ruben’s ” Sorry 2004″ , while nowhere near as hackneyed or ridiculous, it’s a safe and slightly generic introduction to the artist that is Fantasia that allows her to quickly identify her genre demographic so as to monopolize record sales but a nice record nonetheless. On the flip side, one might not readily imagine Fantasia doing a ” club record” but in order to thrive in a business that’s basically defined by style over substance, adjustments are to be made.

But with Missy Elliott manning the boards, Fantasia proves she can rock the clubs just as hard on Selfish (I Want U 2 Myself). Against a thumping percussive, Indian-flavored dance track and supported by a brief rap cameo from Misdemeanor herself, Fantasia’s raspy growl carries enough sass and appeal on here to keep you shaking your groove thang well into the night.

Said by many to be American Idol’s best performance by any contestant period, Fantasia basically solidified her win the night she performed Gershwin’s Summertime. She commanded the stage that night and took everyone’s breath away. But the magnitude of that performance was more of a once-in-a-lifetime thing which is why her studio rendition found here has less of an effect. It’s not a bad rendition because Fantasia still kills the song, it’s just that it doesn’t really stand out or strike your ear; it’s just sortaâÂ?¦there.

However, the song that probably stands out the most is the ode to single mothers everywhere, second single Baby Mama. Produced by Harold Lilly, the anthemic, victorious production is perfectly suited for backing Fantasia as she rallies all the baby mama’s, like herself, out there and sings their praises for standing alone yet standing tall. The pride and conviction in Fantasia’s voice, along with the song’s widespread appeal, will easily turn this into a bona fide pop hit, as it should be.

Got Me Waiting is a sly little record. I quickly dismissed it initially because, being penned/produced by Jermaine Dupri, it sounded way too similar to previous hits of the year he’d already helmed for Monica and Usher. Not to mention it was originally written for and rejected by Ciara, who shares songwriting credits. But after a couple listening sessions, the mellow groove slowly worked its way into my psyche and the catchy melody and hook eventually suckered me in. Not to mention I realize how much more weight the song carries being sung by Fantasia as opposed to if Ciara had sung it. I realize it’s not rocket science in the way of lyricism but with Fantasia’s vocals and attitude carrying it, you really get the sense that she’s growing impatient and the sense that this record ended up being greater than it was intended to be.

Rodney Jerkins had redeemed himself BIG time by constructing the pulsating frenzy that was ” Lose My Breath.” But he lost major cool points by recycling it for It’s All Good. Not as frenetic as its predecessor, but an obvious rip, it still regains some cool points for Mr. Jerkins simply because of how well Fantasia’s voice blends with the production and how effortlessly she rides the beat while smoothly giving her man the kiss-off.

And You Were Always On My Mind proves that Willie Nelson and R&B make for a decent concoction. The takeoff is a bit shaky, with the acoustic piano, but once the other elements slide in and Fantasia’s vocals get a little fuller, the song starts to take shape and by its end, with lighter in hand, you’re glad the song made a safe return.

In spite of this, I feel Good Lovin’ falters a bit. Missy’s already proven she can blend that soulful old-skool sound with a modern sheen (Angie Stone’s ” U-Haul” ), and the sound is perfect for Fantasia’s raspy croon, but with this tune, it all sounds a little too everyday. As with ” Summertime” , it’s not a stand-out track and just kind of sits there waiting, not begging, to be played by whomever enjoys this.

Most would probably cringe at the thought of Fantasia doing Crunk&B. And initially, so did I. But Don’t Act Right grew on me. Jazze Pha’s crunk beat has enough pep to bounce to while not beating you over the head with it. And even though his emcee skills prove he’s a poor man’s imitation of a knockoff of someone far more talented, and even though this is where Fantasia gets a little too shout-happy and kinda caterwauls toward the end, it’s still an infectious record that won’t be denied by any listener for long.

But the record’s summation would’ve come perfectly in the form of the semi-autobiographical This Is Me. Against such a elegant and airy backdrop, Fantasia, in a controlled vocal performance, basically relates her tale of chasing her dream while keeping her integrity and not being ashamed of who she is. A great message in a great package that would’ve been the icing on the proverbial cake and a nice way to close these affairs; this album is who Fantasia is, take it or leave it.

But we cannot forget I Believe, the champion song and Fantasia’s winning single, penned by Tamyra Gray, the former Idol contestant no one could forget and subsequently did once her debut dropped. None of the previous AI singles really impressed as I felt they all were too theatrical, too dramatic and too schmaltzy. And this single basically fits the same mold. Only difference is Fantasia sings her little heart out and makes you believe right along with here. Still, ” This Is Me” would’ve been the better closer although this record is the affirmation that Fantasia’s album is her dream finally come true.

Like I said, many wondered if Fantasia was going to deliver a 1,2 knockout debut of an album or if she was going to generalize herself and her music and be content with riding on the coattails of generic music. From the looks of it, it seems like Fantasia’s actually walking the fine line right down the middle. Some of the material on here does sound a little generic and nothing on this record is a big departure from the R&B done by Fantasia’s numerous R&B contemporaries.

However, her music never becomes truly tasteless or boring and even if what she’s doing sounds like something heard a million times before, THAT voice, the charisma, the sass, the attitude, Fantasia’s whole demeanor makes you not mind hearing her do it again. She hasn’t broken any new ground and she’s far from revolutionizing music but whatever Fantasia and Free Yourself does, she’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that she certainly didn’t need a gimmick like American Idol to do it.

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