Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fantasia: Side Effects of You (2013)



The calculation of Fantasia's Side Effects of You is not cynical, but a testament that this brilliant singer is acutely aware of the audience to whom she is singing, nearly a decade after she rose to fame. Like so many artists who essentially came of age under a microscope with a spotlight attached, Fantasia has begun to court what some A&R executive years ago decided was an "adult" audience, except she's good at it -- that is to say, this record, her fifth, is what's known as "tasteful." What a pity that this is so often a debit. Side Effects may lack the freshness of the best and sprightliest R&B of our time, but it's about as well-crafted and pleasurable an album as money can buy in 2013.

The superficial key to the record's appeal is that Fantasia's eclectic performance style and the production by Harmony Samuels (who handles all but one cut) dabble heartily in the trends, radio-friendly and otherwise, of the present period but also feels, as does Fantasia, a kinship with the now-classic '90s hits of Mary J. Blige, Babyface, Toni Braxton, TLC and even En Vogue (whose best song, "Don't Let Go (Love)," is specifically referenced on "End of Me"). The result has an almost casually broad appeal, best indicated in the album's very first moments: through a cloud of modernist white noise emerges a perfect integration of atmospheric, vaguely paranoid R&B with Samuels' actual banger and Fantasia's florid invocation of her influences. Extrapolating a bit, even the mainstream pop-embracing single "Without Me" has a stretched and skewed hook, eschewing its natural sweetness for the stark sound of an unforgiving club floor.

The more interesting way of putting this -- and its actual impact on the music -- is that it as a whole is a glittery and glamorous affair but also chilled, almost methodical. Fantasia and her producer never stop aiming for the massiveness of beat; even the slow-jams that coat over half the album are designed to slam rather brutally, and suggestively. If you know even a little about Fantasia as a person, you can sense why she's attracted to the kind of tension that makes her mask a disturbing anthem of escape and getaway like "If I Was a Bird" with pretty little keyboard trills and doublespeak. She receives no writing credit on the bold, heroic, amply romantic "Lighthouse" but it contains one of my favorite lines in any pop song this year: "I'll always be the same for you / I'll never ever change for you," which when you really think about it is a challenge to conventional sexual politics as fueled by wordplay as the Kinks' "Lola" or Smokey Robinson's "Whatever Makes You Happy. That speaks somewhat to a theme. Fantasia also doesn't seem to have handled any of the music or lyrics for the title cut, which is probably a credit to her as it stretches its prescription-drug metaphor to its absolute unintentionally amusing limit, but that's where she and the epic sweep and rawness of her voice come in: she makes the thing mean something, desperation, loss, the sensation of being entirely alone. When she sings of taking three pills a day to help her smile, it strikes you to the core even if she's only kind of going there.

That's still dark shit, although not really dark shit by the standards of pop music if you spend much time with it, and it's hardly Phil Spector -- it takes no pleasure in its pain except as a means to escape into the rich emotion of a towering vocal. Side Effects touches on lighter matters, like the sonic nostalgia of "In Deep" and the excellent "Lose to Win" (which picks up the "Adorn" torch for early '80s non-Minneapolis R&B appropriation), but its undaunted strikes against misogyny mark a strong contrast against, say, Blurred Lines or even Big Boi's albums. Or even the work of Janelle Monae, who for all her brilliance tends not to hit these matters head-on or with quite Fantasia's determined fierceness. The mere presence of "Girl Talk," nothing more than a skit that consists of Fantasia chatting with a few friends, places the bro-filled attitudes of the average pop record in stark relief by mere virtue of having women talking about making sure their dudes understand how important their careers are. Of course, they're still talking about dudes, but the point stands. And all this can finally erupt in the total apocalypse of feeling on "End of Me." Her confidence absolute, she dismisses with demons with aplomb and grace in a genre that unfairly tends not to be taken seriously on such points.

The fast ones here have an impeccable relentlessness well suited to Fantasia's nuanced, cooled-down vocals. Within a minute she's righteously announcing herself as lady, woman, mother, daughter with no cutting down of any named role, and an expectation that every part of herself is to be accepted, loved, desired when relevant. Big KRIT -- remember when we were really excited about him? -- shows up but seems beside the point. The story is, again, Fantasia's ownership and control of her own desire, especially on the drilling, invasively snappy electro "Change Your Mind" and the terrific "Get It Right," which sees her exercising some splendid Mary Wells-style raspiness.

Nevertheless, the album never quite betters its second track, "Ain't All Bad," a relentless circa-1997 groove and the rare great song that keeps getting greater, nastier, goofier but not dumber ("never eva eva eva let you go oh oh oh oh oh"). Yeah, yeah, a great production that splices a chopped-up, tricky verse with a sweet and silky chorus, but its cabaret bassline and theatricality are pure schlock in the best way -- as divinely impressive as when Fantasia is just belting out grievances in the show-stopping manner of Fiona Apple. The final effect is all pop-hypnotic, just fabulous. Fantasia's not sold that many records or garnered a spectacular level of post-Idol attention outside R&B-devoted circles, but she's wearing the crown of a massive star and it suits her well. She's major whether we're listening or not.

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