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This sampler exposes some of the highlights featured on the Leela James debut LP, A Change Is Gonna Come. While only five songs deep, it’s easy to see why Essence has touted her as being part of “music’s next wave”.

Soulfully wise beyond her 26 years, Ms. James is definitely on the right course here. With a raw, down-home vocal style evocative of Tina Turner or even Janis Joplin, it is with her emotionally potent delivery that she stirs your soul to the bone. She exudes the same soulful essence that Anthony Hamilton has recently blessed us with: a gift to authentically showcase southern soul sensibilities through their music, with true-school song structures and gritty-voiced deliveries.

Thematically, all five songs contain an element of longing. The beautifully mastered sampler starts with “Music”, the ubiquitous throwback track wondering where all the soul has gone. Surrounded by haunting organs and sweet guitars, Leela’s vocals demonstrate that soul is alive and well. Only by her own deeply heartfelt performance is she able to escape the monotony usually caused by this recurring theme. Next, “My Joy” is a stripped-down bluesy masterpiece, within which an ex-lover is being put on blast. So powerfully sung, the California native stretches and soars on this “Untitled” sound-alike, complete with a syrupy vocal bridge to lift us higher.

On “Rain”, Raphael Saadiq lends his talents producing an off-beat, stuttered blend of claps and bass. Once again, the songstress is feeling the effects of a man who isn’t holding his own. Aside from a few cloudy and overly ambitious chords throughout, she uses the jumpin’ rhythm line to break out and shine with her own rays of sunlight. The final two cuts are both produced by Commissioner Gordon. The first, “When You Love Somebody”, interpolates “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” by the great Donny Hathaway. It is a heart-wrenching ode to the crazy things we do when in love, but the listener can’t help but think of the untouchable Hathaway, which is truly unfair for this debut artist. The second Gordon contribution, “Mistreating Me”, is the standout on this sampler. It is perfectly paced, with softer drums and a fully live instrumental performance. The song gently plods forward to a beautifully sung pre-chorus. The best writing on the disk is found here, accompanied by a powerhouse production and vocal performance from Ms. James.

With a little more focus on some varied themes, original production ideas, and a more thorough emotional output on the forthcoming album, this rookie may be able to ensure that, indeed, A Change Is Gonna Come.

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