I knew only one thing about india.arie before I listened to this record, her idiosyncratic stylization of her name. I thought she was older for some reason, and I didn’t know anything else. So this came as a pleasant surprise.
Arie has a good sense of melody, which is probably necessary given how much of contemporary R&B she’s willing to forgo. I would imagine the idea of an “acoustic” soul album – it’s not acoustic, of course – would be a really hard sell to labels without really strong songs.
But the appeal really is the lyrics: like a number of other women R&B singer-songwriters who emerged in the ’90s and around the turn of the millennium, Arie has a distinct, positive lyrical voice. “Video” feels like the thesis statement for the album, rejecting the way women look in hip hop and R&B videos in favour of a more naturalistic look and a sense of personal worth that does not depend on looks or wealth.
This album is called Acoustic Soul because of Arie’s gimmick, which is that she plays acoustic guitar, an instrument virtually unknown in ’90s R&B. (With the notable exception of every nylon-string guitar solo in a slow jam.) Though there is programming and there are plenty of amplified instruments, her rhythm guitar is often fairly prominent in the mix and there is a different “naturalistic” feel to the performances – even though it’s pretty clear this is not a live band (her backing vocals, for instance) it sounds like a live band a lot of the time. This, of course, is a complete rejection of the way R&B was being made at the time by anyone outside of the Neo Soul movement.
But, like nearly every single ’90s R&B album (and I’m starting to wonder about the aughts…) it is just too damn long. There are only a couple of interstitials – because of course there are interstitials – so that it’s more that there are just too many songs, and they’re too long. Few of the 13 songs are under 4 minutes and more than a couple of them outstay their welcome. If they jammed them out more – i.e. if there was a little more variation within these tracks – and if there was more stylistic variation on the record, I wouldn’t care. But, after an hour, it gets to feel pretty one-note.
Still, she’s clearly a talent. And she has a distinctive voice and sound.