It's Personal. From the understated sway of album opener "Only One" through the jazz-inflected title track, it is obvious that Angela Johnson is in complete possession of her powers.
Those just discovering Angela Johnson should be forewarned that catching up on her discography before exploring It's Personal might lead to contagious listening.They Don't Know (2002), Got to Let It Go (2005), and her A Woman's Touch (2008) producer project comprise an essential trilogy of soul. While all the albums offer memorable listening excursions, each release marks some kind of growth for Angela Johnson, whether incorporating distinctly Latin stylings into the musical palette, producing other artists, or refining the funk elements from her two albums with Cooly's Hot Box (also must-have's, incidentally). Undoubtedly, It's Personal will be the launching pad for another album in a career that only moves onward and upward.
The album cover of It's Personal is the perfect pathway to the music. In fact, it's the first occasion in Johnson's solo career where she stares squarely into the camera lens for the cover image -- not a sideways glance, profile pose, or downward gaze. Tellingly, the confidence in her eyes translates to the grooves. "What you see is what you see," she says on "Indie In Me." That sentiment could easily serve as a caption for both the cover shot and Angela Johnson's singular writing, recording, and production style.
To borrow lingo from another format, drop the needle anywhere on It's Personaland you'll be treated to something good. The first stop for listeners who prefer to approach albums with a personalized sequence is "Better." Released online in 2009, it easily places in the Top Three of "Indispensable Angela Johnson Productions." Her vocal prowess soaks the track, conjuring smokey embers in the verse, then a bell-clear ring in the chorus. The malleable tone of her voice alternately dips and soars. Her beats and keys anchor the production, yielding a funky workout by Jason Kriveloff. Tamar-kali joins Johnson on background vocals, effortlessly navigating the key changes. Add in Tarrah Reynolds on violin and "Better" leads the way in hair-raising soul.
"Hurts Like Hell" transfers some of those quintessential Angela Johnson attributes -- multi-layered vocal vamp, jagged yet chunky beats, climbing bass line -- to the dance floor. It's six-minutes of rhythmic perfection, embroidered with more originality than most cuts that you'll find in the iTunes Top 10. Angela Johnson does not need a blonde wig, contrived theatrics, and goth eye make-up to make you "just dance."
"Can you play me something I haven't heard before," she queries in the lyrics to "On the Radio." Dedicated to a time and place when radio boasted an embarrassment of riches, the track contains musical elements that haven't been previously deployed on an Angela Johnson album. Key to the song's infectious arrangement is Josh Milan, who produced and co-wrote the track with Johnson. Milan's shifty drum rhythms invite the hips to sway. Just try resisting the urge to move...
"All In Me" suggests a different kind of invitation, one that slows the pace down from "On the Radio" but is no less intense. Indie soul star Darien joins Angela Johnson on a scintillating duet that reveals a natural chemistry just waiting to be explored further on a subsequent album. Once again, Johnson calls upon the talent of Tarrah Reynolds and Marika Hughes to add violin and cello parts, respectively.
One of the wisest decisions Johnson consistently makes throughout It's Personalis the use of authentic strings, horns, and reeds. The title track, for example, benefits from the high-caliber musicianship of Pamela Fleming (trumpet), Jenny Hill (flute, tenor sax), and Lauren Sevian (baritone sax). Esteemed players surface elsewhere on the album. Note Shelton Garner's blistering guitar solo on "Indie In Me" and the vocals of Maysa Elon (Johnson's daughter) on "Day." (Maysa also serves as inspiration in the sweet, heartfelt lyrics of "For You.")
Of course, the voice of Angela Johnson glues all the disparate parts together, making It's Personal, unequivocally, one of the very best albums to arrive in this new decade. "You bring me joy," she sings on "Better." These words are actually the only point of contention I have with the album -- it is Angela Johnson that brings us joy!