From the moment she strolled onto the scene crooning that she was not your average girl in the video, india.arie has cultivated an image slightly different from your average 21st century R&B singer. For one, she plays guitar, placing her in the teeny tiny club of female soul singers who can play an instrument. Second, she’s never had any interests other than following her own muse. Her trend-jumping has been minimal, and you get the feeling that if she ever gets a pop hit (which seems more and more unlikely with each passing year), it will be on her own terms.
She also gets sort of a bum rap for being “precious” or “pretentious” because of her lyrics. She mixes social commentary with sort of a hippie “love one another” vibe and a healthy dose of self-confidence that some see as bordering on egotism. India obviously loves herself…something that makes her perfect for the “Oprah”/Lifetime Channel set and occasionally annoying to everyone else.
If you find India.Arie grating, then her fourth album, Testimony Vol. 2: Love & Politics, isn’t going to change your mind. She still has a tendency to come off as lyrically self-righteous in a way that similarly “conscious” artists ranging from Bono to Common don’t. However, India makes up for it with her rich, buttery Alicia Keys-meets-Tracy Chapman voice (which sounds better than it’s ever been) and a strong collection of songs that’s consistent despite not having one particular standout track. She’s able to blend genres seamlessly, dabbling in various musical styles without sacrificing her signature “acoustic soul” sound.
Most of Testimony Vol. 2 blends together in a smooth midtempo style. India flavors these songs with sounds ranging from a bit of Middle Eastern flair (The Cure, which is NOT a song about Robert Smith’s band) to the stomping blues of Better Way. Her choice in cover material remains interesting, too. After redoing Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter on her last album, India decided to tackle one of Sade’s early-Nineties hits, Pearls (“there is a woman in Somalia…”). Unlike Sade’s ethereal, spare version, India’s cover offers a subtle African sound, fitting in perfectly with the song’s lyrical content.
Even songs that at first glance might seem like commercial concessions are just off-kilter enough that you know you’ll never hear them on pop radio. Therapy uses a slightly slowed-down electronic Miami bass beat which, by itself, would sound perfect next to Fergie on your local hit station. However, the mature lyrics (India needs her man to heal her) and the acoustic guitar playing over the beat ruin any commercial prospects. Other highlights include Long Goodbye, which features India’s strongest singing ever and is a guitar solo away from being an 80s-throwback power ballad. The Musiq Soulchild feature Chocolate High uses a tired metaphor (love compared to a drug addiction), but the two singers overcome the slightly lazy lyricism with an easy chemistry that fits perfectly with the relaxed nature of the song. The album’s only true misstep comes with the Grains interludes interspersed throughout the album, but as far as interludes go, they’re fairly unobtrusive.
India’s never recorded an album that was less than enjoyable, and Testimony Vol. 2 continues that streak. While there’s no standout single here, the album harkens back to the days when albums flowed together as a complete statement, not just a collection of singles. India’s an engaging melodist, and her lyrics are strong even if they’re a little preachy (then again, in this musical climate, it’s refreshing to hear someone singing about love and positivity). With a fourth solid effort, India. Arie assures that I’ll be back for album #5.