The world tends to check out on R&B singers. Through no fault of their own, they can go through announced hiatuses, establish other avenues to make money, and so on and so forth. But unless you consistently feed a microwave culture of thinking, you become an afterthought lost to the world's ennui. Letoya Luckett is a far different story in this matter. She cannot be attributed to being a lesser talent, given her platinum 2006 album LeToya; if one were to go back and delve into obvious history, she’s the soprano on Destiny’s Child’s most impressive effort, 1999’s The Writing’s On the Wall. She’s royalty to a distinct register and yet, can always come around like a surprise.
So when “Back 2 Life,” a slow yet flashy ballad that sampled Soul II Soul’s 1989 hit “Back to Life (Howeva Do You Want Me)” appeared on urban radio earlier this year, it felt right. Here was Luckett, a woman who had gone from being a member of the world’s final relevant girl group (and the last Black one to truly break through) to actress and divorcee hashing out relationship issues on productions that found the perfect symmetry between edge and heartache. Then again, Luckett made a watershed moment with “Torn” over a decade ago, a similar “should-I-leave-him-or-not” anthem that was slower and even softer. It was clear with “B2L” that the perfect lead single was for Luckett to waddle the murky river of indecisiveness and weigh all of her options before making a decision.
In reality, that’s how she came to find her voice even more.
Back 2 Life is Luckett’s third studio effort, almost a decade removed from her last effort on Capitol Records. It’s a full-blown chase back to the ‘90s, where smoldering ballads rooted in questions of security were the norm. There’s a struggle in that, but it also invites an open vulnerability to be addressed. “I struggled with even the thought of being a solo artist," Luckett told Rolling Stone earlier this week. "I'm terrified, I'm all by myself, nobody's here! I would let people go out, find records; I would just record it if that's something everybody in the room felt I would sound good on. This album, I was like, I'm taking control.”
There’s a lot more to bite into with Back 2 Life than previous Luckett projects such as 2009’s Lady Love. We often ask our artists to bring pain into their work, to make them appear and feel as normal and scarred as possible. The irony is not lost on Luckett that the only other woman she shares urban radio play with right now is Mary J. Blige. And Mary, currently embroiled in a nasty divorce, just released an album where the pains of separation seep throughout. Luckett is fresh off a divorce herself. Back 2 Life allows her to play different roles, that of aggressor (“Weekend”) or woman not looking for cluttered relationships (“Grey”). She’s felt the cold end of a relationship that danced through plenty of red tape and “what-ifs”; there’s no point in going back: “Where do we go now?/ Do we keep on walking into grey, don’t know now.”
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Feeling “real” is the big chase for a number of R&B singers’ best works. Usher's Confessions, although generated mostly by Jermaine Dupri’s infidelities, allowed Usher to latch onto to the emotions of guilt and regret. Divorce albums from Marvin Gaye (Here, My Dear) and Bill Withers (Still Bill) allowed their creators to not only allow us in on their emotional torment but gather up our own interpretations. How hurt is too hurt? How pained is too pained? How much catharsis can one go through in their art before walls that were once misgiving found to be more solid? Luckett attempts to figure this out like anyone would — song-by-song, moment by moment. Shimmering at times, hazy and modern in others, Back 2 Life finds staples to hold certain pages together. “You know what I hate about you, you know what I’ma say before I say it/And I can be a mess around you, you love me even though I’m complicated,” she sings on “My Love,” a mid-tempo number with shaky keys and relaxed melody. Still, Luckett as a ballader is how we got to this point.
“World’s Apart” could be the perfect title for a reason for divorce, beyond the common phrase 'amicable split.' Luckett moves in a state of assurance, if not a rocky place of assurance. “I love you. Trust me, just trust me,” she huffs with the stains of heartbreak along her lips. With denial all over the track, the drums and piano waltz of “World’s Apart” let Luckett show out. Love can’t be continued if the lies pile up too high, the transgressions too rooted in faulty logic and statements. “Love don’t live here anymore,” Luckett sings, channeling Rose Royce’s walk-away anthem of the 1970s. Being cutting and up-front about losing it all, it leads you right to the middle ground of heartache: Frayed, beaten and yet determined to get it right.
As fans continually search for R&B that makes them feel anything beyond lust, Letoya Luckett walked through the fires of life and came away a little singed. A little bruised as well. It resulted in the most satisfying and freeing release of her career.