Lady T's latest doesn't live up to her hits

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

May 20, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

I DON'T know why I still remember this so clearly: I'm about 5 or 6 years old, standing in the doorway of my uncle Wayne's bedroom at my grandma's house. He's playing some records, and my aunt Kay, who is pregnant at the time, sits on the bed, flipping through the albums. She stops at one.

"Teena Marie is white?" she asks, holding the LP up to the light.

I move next to Kay and reach for the cover. "I wanna see."

She snatches it away. "Move, Dusty! I didn't know she was white," Kay says, examining the record sleeve. "Maybe she's Creole or something. She sounds black."

Flashback, who's that? Dancin' to the latest ...

Around that time, Teena's "Square Biz" was one of the hottest joints on the block. Kay wasn't the only one convinced that Teena had to be a very light-skinned black chick. At such a young age, I absorbed music -- had heard plenty of Aretha, Patti and Chaka, had sat formally (and uncomfortably) dressed at several rousing Sunday services at Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Ark. -- and I figured that only sistas with wide mouths could produce such a primal, soulful sound.

But Lady T, the ivory soul queen, taught me a lesson very early: Soul knows no color. And now as a grown man and practically a lifelong fan of Teena's, I deeply appreciate her gift and contribution to black music.

After 10 years with no new record in stores, she has returned. The new album is La Dona.

"It's still Teena Marie, so you get the funk, the jazz, the ballads, all that," says the soul singer, 48, who's phoning from Los Angeles. "Of course, we used machines and real musicians. Depending on the song, we would go with more of jazz feel and all real musicians, machines or a combination of both. We blended the old with the new."

The CD is the first release on Cash Money Classics, the R&B division of the Southern rap label that brought us such crunk classics as "Bling, Bling" and "Back That Thang Up." Somehow, Teena says, a copy of La Dona, which she had already produced and recorded with her band mates James Allen and Doug Grigsby, found its way to Cash Money founders the Williams brothers, Ronald and Bryan (better known as "Slim" and "Baby," respectively). The artist says she was a little reluctant when they approached her with a deal. After all, Cash Money isn't known for putting out anything soulful or melodic.

"They told me, 'We're not trying to get you to do us,'" Teena recalls. " 'We want you to do you.' The album was already done, and so we added 'Off the Chain' and 'Still in Love.' "

The latter is the first single, gaining frequent spins on urban adult stations along the East Coast and down South over the past month or so. Riding an old Al Green sample, "Still in Love" is one of those grown-up grooves, a Saturday-night-card-party jam sizzling with Teena's emotive lead vocals and tight, multi-tracked harmonies in the background. It's one of La Dona's high points.

The CD's overall sound is sparer and more economical than Teena's past work. Nothing as lyrically lush or as sonically succulent as "Portuguese Love" or "Where's California."

"It's easier making music now because I've been doing it so long," says the singer-songwriter-musician whose first album, the Rick James-produced Wild and Peaceful, came out on Motown in 1979. "Back in the day, it was all musicians in the studio, and I would sing the lines I would want the guitarist to play. Now, it's, like, three people in the studio making the music, and we call in session players to fill out what we need."

So you get very slick, hip-hop-influenced music on La Dona, an uneven set that, like most urban releases these days, runs a bit too long. Lyrically, Teena -- who has in the past delivered such poetic, deeply felt classics as "Out on a Limb," "Dear Lover" and "Young Love" -- falls short on the new album. At nearly 50, she sounds a little awkward weaving rap lingo ("off da chain" and "on da real") into her songs. And "Makavelli Never Lied," which name checks everybody from Tupac to Jesus Christ (for real; I'm not playing), is pointless. After she had been away from the scene so long, I thought Teena would come back with something a little richer and certainly more nuanced. Instead, it feels like she's playing catch-up to those who were biting off her style anyway.

Oh well. La Dona isn't a throwaway CD; it's just not as brilliant as what we've heard from Lady T before. But the girl can still blow; you can believe that. And her concerts continue to thrill thousands. I've seen her twice in the past three years.

"Since I've been away from the studio, I've been touring a lot and raising my 12-year-old daughter, Alia," Teena says. "I can pack a house without a new record, and that's a blessing. I'm grateful for my career. I've always had people supporting the music."

Hey, even if the new stuff doesn't move us anymore, we have ageless Lady T jams: "Square Biz," "I Need Your Lovin'," "Behind the Groove" and on and on. La Dona will go on the shelf. The greatest hits will stay in the changer.

Teena Marie plays Constitution Hall (18th and D streets Northwest, Washington) May 28. Tickets are $62 and are on sale now through Ticketmaster (410-547-SEAT or www.ticketmaster.com).

For CD reviews, band profiles and concert listings, go to baltimoresun.com / music

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