Growing up with her music (ahem) on the radio, I’ve come to the conclusion that Donna Summer has one of the more powerful voices in the game. Some limit her to being nothing more than the queen of disco, but she has always been diverse in her work, even within a disco context. It may seem reaching that Summer is making an effort to release brand new music in 2008 (her first album in 16 years), but listening to Crayons will make you realize that she is capable of releasing new music that is able to measure up, if not surpass, a lot of other music out there today.
The first few songs prove that she can be an incredible dance artist, or at least provide the emotions that one wants to feel while dancing their worries away. She’s always combined strength, compassion, and sensuality in her voice, which is what you can hear in “Stamp Your Feet” and “Mr. Music.” “The Queen Is Back” is a letter to her fans letting them know she has never been too far in the distance, while the title track (featuring Ziggy Marley) sounds like she can run circles around Rihanna.
In truth, perhaps Summer or her producers want a song that will catch the ear of Rihanna fans so they will be fooled into thinking its the young star. It is this and a few other flaws that make the album not as strong as it could be. Some of the songwriting seems very “by the book,” and when she makes a brief but obvious iPod reference, it seems like nothing more than looking at new technology as an attempt to stay relevant. The reference is not needed. Fortunately these cliches are limited to the first half.
The second half of the album is proof that Summer is an artist who is still creating something new and moving, as “Drivin’ Down Brazil” shows. The song sounds like something you’d hear if she was sitting in to do vocals for Da Lata, Thievery Corporation, or Shinichi Osawa, and I hope people will reach out to her to collaborate, as she sounds incredible over the sound of bossa nova. There are some songs with a reggae flavor and one that is a blues track. She even goes back to the days of “The Wanderer” where she gets a chance to rock out, something that paved the way for other black female artists to do (at a time when rocking out was considered the move of the devil.) She’s not so much embracing other genres, because she has always made this a part of her musical mission. Instead, it’s a continuation of the exploration that she has made her own for years, and vocally she sings effortlessly and without strain. It’s also nice to hear an album without heavy use of the plague known as Auto Tune. It’s nice to hear something that’s… dare I say it, real?
Crayons is not just a dance album, not just an R&B and not just a soul album. It’s a 12-song collection of songs by an artist who has always wanted to defy the limitations of the categories people have put her in. To say she’s a pop artist who has kept to her dance music roots, or an R&B vocalist who has never been afraid to embrace pop is simply holding her back. If there is a core to her way of singing, it’s there, but as always she goes out of her way to move in, out, and around that core, perhaps to let people know it’s more exciting than to stay in one place at any given time. Summer truly deserves the same kind of respect Bettye Lavette, Sharon Jones, and Marlena Shaw receive today, especially as someone who has managed to keep head above water for 40 years.
– John Book