Lady Tee. The Ivory Queen of Soul. For over 30 years Teena Marie has defied musical labels and boundaries, crossing over to R&B like few other blue-eyed soul artists. In addition to old-school jams such as “I Need Your Loving,” “Square Biz,” and “Portuguese Love,” she collaborated with mentor Rick James to create classics such as “I'm A Sucker for Your Love” and “Fire and Desire.” Marie's latest album, Congo Square, marks her debut on the historic Stax label (now under the Concord umbrella). While songs celebrate New Orleans's jazz and blues influences, they also pay tribute to her adopted soul heritage.
Congo Square refers to an area of the French Quarter, and the title track most explicitly refers to its jazz and southern soul roots (also courtesy of pianist George Duke). “Black Cool” also cites the music, food, and atmosphere of the Big Easy. However, Marie seems aware of the importance of being on the Stax label as well, as she acknowledges 70s-era soul on tracks such as “Marry Me,” which recalls Deniece Williams or Stephanie Mills. While sporting a hip hop beat, “You Baby” contains some horn breaks that mimic classic Stax soul. “Milk and Honey” name-checks great artists from jazz and R&B history with a smooth assist from Marie's daughter, Rose LeBeau.
One element jumps out at the listener: Marie's voice hasn't lost any of its soul and emotion. Amazingly, she sounds just as she did when “In the Groove” and “Lovergirl” were released. If anything, Marie has continued to enrich her voice by adding jazz nuances to much of her material, such as “The Rose 'N Thorn.” Her emotional delivery effectively conveys the romantic longing of the torch ballad. “Harlem Blues” features Marie using her voice's full range and ability to smoothly integrate jazz and R&B.
Like on 2003's La Dona, Marie fares well when collaborating with R&B and hip hop artists. MC Lyte guest raps on the album opener, “The Pressure,” where Marie sings with her typical sexiness and sass. Shalamar alum and solo singer Howard Hewitt duets with her on “Lovers Lane,” a steamy track that recalls some of her earlier work with James. On the first single, “Can't Last A Day,” Faith Evans accompanies her vocals, their two voices blending beautifully. While “Soldier Boy” contains some, at times, heavy-handed lyrics paying tribute to servicemen and women, her delivery — along with old-school legend Shirley Murdock — rescue the song from having clichéd meaning.
Marie wisely includes subtle hip hop touches on many of the tracks, particularly the slowjam, “Baby I Love You.” “Ear Candy” does please the senses with its strong bass and her soulful vocals gliding over the beat. “What U Got for Me” allows Marie to use the higher end of her range, not always heard in all of her records.
At 16 self-penned tracks, Congo Square borders on being a bit overlong. Tracks such as “Ms. Coretta,” where Marie attempts commentary on history and current events, are less successful and probably could have been omitted. A slimmer album containing solid R&B (with a hip hop slant) would have showcased Marie's talent even better. However, this is minor criticism when considering the strength of most of the tracks.
On Congo Square, Marie proves to be a vital soul artist who has never stopped crossing music genres. Listening to her unchanged voice transports fans back 30 years, but also illustrates the timelessness of her style.