Teena Marie | Congo Square

Teena Marie - Congo Square

Teena Marie | Congo Square
by Peggy Oliver

With the upcoming release of Teena Marie’s latest recording, there are two notable items that deserve attention. Number one: Congratulations to the singer/songwriter/musician’s thirtieth anniversary in the recording industry. The second and one for the music history books: The new disc – Congo Square – begins a new chapter for Marie at Stax Records, one of the few urban owned record labels in the U.S, signifying the second signing to an urban company for a Caucasian artist. After she first made her vocal presence known on the R&B charts in 1979, she knocked out many outright funky danceable gems and steamy soul ballads for the legendary African-American company – Motown Records – where she was signed by long associate – Rick James. Her early string of hits through the mid-eighties include “I’m A Sucker For Your Love,” “Portuguese Love”, “Lover girl”, & “Square Biz” highlighted by a stunning spoken rhyme breakdown from Marie thanking persons like Sarah Vaughn, Maya Angelou, and others for part of her inspirational fuel. Through her thirty years producing a dozen discs and associations with three other labels including Cash Money Classics – a custom label of the hip-hop mogul Cash Money, Marie has kept the old-school R&B flames aglow with a voice that still shatters glass and a vocal confidence that struts from coast to coast.

When The Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored the California native in November of 2008 for a Pioneer Award along with The Funk Brothers (the Motown house band from 1959-1972) and other recipients, the R&B Foundation chairman Kendall Minter confirmed Marie’s status in the urban music community: “I guess you could really call her a true soul sister.” That supercharged confidence has surely resonated several fold because Marie’s music has been sampled by a number of soul stars: The Fugees, Coko, & Ne-Yo. Thankfully, she has not backed down on her classic soul stance on every recording she graces.

As of recent, Marie has dedicated two projects towards persons of color who have historically made a difference. For instance, the 2004 disc La Dona was named for women in the Latino community who has set examples for others before them. There are several reasons why Marie tagged her latest disc – Congo Square. This historical site in New Orleans has celebrated the African-American musical spirit beginning in the nineteenth century where slaves had free time to make music on Sundays as a get away from the traumatic pressures of daily life. This disc also celebrates the top-notch musicians like Curtis Mayfield, former Stax soulster Isaac Hayes, jazz icons like Sara Vaughn & Louis Armstrong, and of course her mentor Rick James who have affected Marie throughout her exciting musical journey.

Fans who have followed Marie from her Motown juncture to supporters of a newer breed of R&B greats such as Beyonce and Alicia Keys should be pleased with this collection on Congo Square. Picking the highlights for me was a bit of a chore, but here are a few tracks to perk one’s listening pleasure. The first single, “Can’t Last A Day” recalls the Philadelphia International days (The O’ Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes) and Marie chooses an equally passionate duet partner in Faith Evans to fulfill those soulful glory days. On the quiet storm feel of “Baby I Love You,” the absolutely breath-taking hook squeals with delight. “Milk ‘n Honey” serves as a charming ‘like mother like daughter’ showcase for Marie’s daughter Rose LeBeau. Speaking of duets, “Lover’s Lane” has the perfect romantic balladeer partner in Howard Hewitt. “Marry Me” provides a subtle but needed nudge for those who treasure the sanctity in the marriage vows. The jazz-tinged Congo Square honors the lively African-American spirit that still prevails in New Orleans, while “Black Cool” honors the gospel heritage of New Orleans’ musical heritage. Finally, “Ms. Coretta” passes a special thanks to the late Martin Luther King’s wife for raising her family while King was on the battlefield in the name of racial equality.

The only true disappointments are few: “Ear Candy” that is covered in electronic vocal masking and “You Baby” where the staccato background vocals weigh down the song’s pacing. Otherwise, Congo Square continues to prove Marie’s zeal for her music in the last thirty years. Here’s also a hearty thanks to Lady T for sharing her mammoth vocal talents for all the urban music community to enjoy.

Peggy Oliver
The Urban Music Scene