Amy Winehouse’s platinum-selling debut, Frank, released in 2003, when she was just twenty years old, certainly served notice of a considerable vocal talent with a gift for clever songwriting. But nothing could have prepared me for the retro masterpiece she’d follow it up with. I was able to get my hands on Back to Black after it was released in the U.K. in October, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. The album is heavily influenced by ’60s girl groups like the Shangri-Las, and that sound is updated with a hip-hop sensibility courtesy of producers Mark Ronson (Christina Aguilera) and Salaam Remi (Nas, Fugees). But make no mistake: Winehouse is the star here. Her whiskey-soaked voice (when she’s talking about rehab, she ain’t kidding) gives every track a classic feel, and the album contains remarkably insightful lyrics on love, life and relationships. In R&B’s current state, Back to Black is even more important.
The album starts strong with the album’s first single, “Rehab,” before moving right into the big drums and barroom tale of “You Know I’m No Good,” a version of which turned up on Ghostface’s More Fish (somehow, I don’t even really miss the charismatic emcee here). “Me and Mr. Jones,” rumored to be a fictitious gripe directed at Nasir Jones, let’s you know right away you’re not in Motown with the line, “What kind of fuckery is this?/ You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.” It’s this kind of playful inventiveness that makes this album more than just a tribute to sounds past. Nowhere is that more apparent than on “Addicted,” an ode to Winehouse’s greenery vice and a warning to thieving boyfriends. This could pass for a Supremes anthem until you stumble across a line like this: “It’s got me addicted/ Does more than any dick did.”
Song titles like “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game,” “Tears Dry on Their Own” and “Wake up Alone” should give you an idea of where Winehouse is coming from. The album follows a similar jilted-lover story line to that of Mark Ronson’s other collaborator and U.K. sensation, Lily Allen. “He Can Only Hold Her” uses the same Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions musical base as John Legend’s “Slow Dance,” but to much better advantage. (Legend is undeniably talented, but Back to Black takes all the musical cues and themes he hinted at on Once Again and does them better.)
These days it seems R&B’s brightest stars have either disappeared (Erykah Badu), gone crazy (Lauryn Hill) or both (D’Angelo). At the same time, a wholly original, fully finished album from Bilal is put on a shelf and another one from Musiq Soulchild is right around the corner. Meanwhile, calendar girls like Ciara and Rihanna are being passed off as singers. But Back to Black stands in testament to the fact that talent and originality still exist–and can still create buzz. Last month, both of Winehouse’s shows at New York City’s Joe’s Pub sold out (scalpers were reportedly getting as much as $250 per), and the audience included Jay-Z and Mos Def. Winehouse already won the Brit Award for best British female solo artist (and garnered three other nominations), and Back to Black should wind up at the top of many best-of lists this year. Let’s just hope her shaky personal habits leave her in good enough shape to enjoy the praise that’s sure to come.