Teena Marie’s death back in December of 2010 came as a surprise to her fans who didn’t even know the soul legend was ill. Like lots of musicians, Marie’s unreleased work has been assembled and released after her death. Beautiful is a suitably-titled album that is a fitting finale for a legendary career that defied expectations and boundaries.
Marie’s sound on Beautiful harks back to her peak in the 1970s. The songs expertly blends modern technology with throw-back soul – the sort of songs that get called “baby making music.” Despite there being a sufficient amount of synths, drum machines, and electronic flourishes, it’s still a very warm record, with sexy horns, sultry background vocalists, and funky guitar work. Capping these ingredients is Marie’s distinct, soulful voice – a trilling wail with jazzy inflections.
In the 1980s, Marie was not only a major presence on the soul charts, but she also was a major dance artist – there are no club thumpers on this set – the closest thing is “Luv Letter” that rides on a brisk beat and wah-wah guitars, and recalls the midtempo ditties popular on urban radio in the mid 1990s. The production on the song is a bit thick and glossy, but thankfully her distinct voice doesn’t get lost in the music.
And even though diehard fans will yearn for a post-millenium “Lover Girl,” the collection of bedroom ballads is a find. “Love Starved” will recall the Isley Brothers at their most sensual, as the singer waxes rhapsody over pillowy synths about an ideal lover. There’s a timeless quality to the song, and the laid back approach to her performance makes it feel as if time stops when it’s playing. Even better is the old fashioned “Beautiful (For Alia) which not only boasts the ubiquitous horns, but there are churchy organs and backup singers that will remind baby boomers of the Sweet Inspirations. And best of all “Wild Horses” lets Marie perform a soul-belting power ballad that is the highlight of the album.
As good as Beautiful is, it does suffer a bit because its artist died a couple of years before its release. As a result some of the songs feel as if they’re a bit dated – one especially, “Definition of Down,” with its electronic strings and skittering beats sounds like a Destiny’s Child castoff. And there’s too much sonic gloss that imparts a slight feeling of monotony, that comes alive mainly because of the singer’s fiery singing. It would’ve been great if Marie experimented with the neo-soul movement, and hopefully there are some alternative-urban tunes buried away in some vaults waiting to be released.