india.arie managed to carve out a niche for herself in contemporary R&B by playing the role of the “neo-soul hippie” as it were. From day one, her music has promoted nothing but sheer peace, love (of self, others, life and everything under the sun) and understanding. Surprise, surprise that such an M.O. has worked to her advantage. She’s sold a few million, won a couple Grammys, and collaborated with some of the most legendary figures in the industry.
But in spite of all her success, there has still been the constant complaint of her music being a bit too “happy”, “preachy”, and “pretentious” for its own good. And while that may be true from time to time, those adverse musical side effects are purely incidental and unintentional. With india, what you see is most definitely what you get and her new album, Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, is audible proof that she doesn’t plan on apologizing for it anytime soon.
As noted in the preface of the album’s liner notes, the album is basically a chronicle of the aftermath of a failed relationship. Sorted and sequenced almost as if it were an opera, the album has three “movements” lessons learned from “Loving”, lessons learned from “Living”, and lessons learned from heeding the advice of india’s “Great Grandmother”. And despite how pretentious and nauseating one may think iIndia’s music to be, there’s at least one lesson everyone can relate to.
Directly following india’s overdramatic reading of the Serenity prayer is proper album opener, These Eyes, which doubles as the album’s “angry breakup” song. Though it may not be as raw as “Caught Out There” or as intense as “?”, the subtle pain and resentment in india’s vocals speaks volumes and is only heightened by the melancholic atmosphere (check for india’s trumpet skills).
After the initial anger wears off, then comes the period of confusion and contemplation which india addresses with her interpretation of Don Henley’s classic The Heart of the Matter. The urbanized arrangement lessens the grit but keeps the emotional gravity intact and enhances India’s desperate search for answers and resolution. Then comes the period of closure and acceptance, chronicled on the gorgeous Good Morning. With just her guitar and some well-placed strings and lite percussion, india comes to terms with the end of her relationship and proceeds to commence writing the next chapter in her life.
Private Party is that first breath of fresh air and burst of new life and sees india reveling in her newfound freedom and independence over a smooth yet funky stutter-step groove. And There’s Hope is pretty self-explanatory; india wakes up to the things that mean something in life and vows to no longer take them for granted. Simple premise + funky groove + catchy lyric = hit single (on the urban side at least).
And thus we transition from lessons in love to lessons in life and kick the learning process off with India’Song. Boasting a lush arrangement of guitars and percussion, india speaks on shaking the stigma of her hometown’s past racial indiscretions in favor of enlightenment and freedom. Yeah, right here is where the unintentional pretention starts to kick in but all is quickly forgiven due to the sheer prettiness of the record. Same goes for Wings of Forgiveness which would be classified as preachy overkill sans the breezy production and shout-outs to Mandela and Gandhi.
In a surprising turn of events, india calls in a backing vocal assist from Rascal Flatts to enhance her countrified ode to the revolving seasons of love on the summery Summer (no pun intended). From the mandolin down to the washboard and acoustic guitars in the center, now one will know what happens when you cross country with neo-soul.
I Am Not My Hair is the album’s self-love centerpiece and appropriate lead single. While the original incarnation was rather bland and uninspired, Akon’s re-working (which is billed as the original) does the song and subject matter much more justice. Basically justifying her decision to chop off her ‘locks and rock it bald by arguing that the importance of what’s underneath the dome far outweighs what decorates it, india finally created a self-love gem akin to the brilliance of her debut single, “Video”, and worthy of some genuine recognition from fan and non-india fans alike.
Then comes some sage advice from india’s Great Grandmother and the subsequent lessons india learned from applying it. Better People is easily the album’s most saccharine and plain cheesy moment due to the overly-poppy production and india’s insightful but boring lyric about how bridging the generation gap between the young and old would restore order in this chaotic world.
But india definitely redeems herself thanks to a good ol’ fashioned jam session with Bonnie Raitt on the stimulating I Choose. A poignant tale about living your own life, the lyrics take backseat to the robust arrangement and infectious atmosphere. A prefect finale to the record since it’s a rare instance where india makes you feel good instead of telling you how to feel good.
One can complain all they like but it’s really hard to fault india.arie for being such an optimist. Despite living in such a jaded, callous, bitter and cynical society, it’s refreshing to hear that there is someone out there who still places complete faith and hope in life and love and who honestly believes with all their heart that all the pain and sorrow and heartache will be made worthwhile one day.
You may not always enjoy her music but india.arie must be applauded for keeping alive the hope that a happy ending may be possible after all.