Jessie Ware’s ‘Tough Love’: Album Review

Christina Lee | October 21, 2014 5:30 am
British soul singer Jessie Ware can be modest. “I’m never going to be a pop star like Lady Gaga,” she once said, as if the idea was too far out of reach. Plus, while her voice is just as powerful as fellow UK star Jessie J (no, really), Ware’s 2012 debut Devotion was proof positive that she won’t require back-up dancers anytime soon. Devotion may have marked her transition from featured vocalist for electronica producers like SBTRKT to solo artist; however, Ware kept her voice low among the album’s dripping tempos, airy ambiance and simmering drama.

That was fine – after all, the “Wildest Moments” singer earned easy comparisons to Sade, a major influence and the epitome of smooth operator, while helping reestablish that R&B has long been more exciting and forward-thinking than Chris Brown ever made it seem. Still, while Devotion portrayed Ware as someone who keeps her composure, follow-up Tough Love (out today, ) demonstrates that, actually, she’s got some nerve – and that, too, is really exciting.

With Devotion, Ware’s confiding tone often brought the space down to size, as if imagining herself as a small club, if not her bedroom. Meanwhile, Tough Love begins on a literal high note. For its introductory, title track, Ware’s go-to producers BenZel (Top 40 super-producer Benny Blanco and the experimental, rap-minded Two Inch Punch) urged her to sing an octave higher than she usually does, so as to sound more vulnerable as a result.

That’s just one example of how Ware has mindfully scaled up her sound: “Cruel” transforms her dealing with a love’s finicky behavior (“Do us both a favor (tonight) / If you want it, do the real thing / You need to make your mind up (just try)”) into this epic R&B odyssey. Later, the mostly-unplugged “Say You Love Me” transforms into gospel not when a choir enters during the song’s last minute, but during the second verse when Ware sings with added verve.

Sade’s no longer Ware’s most obvious influence. “Want Your Feeling” transports her back to disco’s heyday, before Saturday Night Fever hit theaters. With a few tweaks, the quaint “Keep On Lying” could easily belong to vintage pop throwback act She & Him, with its sunny arrangements matched with a damning ultimatum (“If this isn’t love / then I don’t want to know”). As for highlight “Kind of … Sometimes … Maybe” – well, it’s older-fashioned sexual seduction, where featured artist Miguel whispers (“Do you miss me?”) to egg on Ware, despite all her reluctant protests (“You keep asking me twice if I miss you at all”). This isn’t like Big Sean‘s put-on and shameless Ying Yang Twins impression in Ariana Grande‘s “Problem.” Here, Ware actually shivers in response, and unlike with Devotion, she isn’t settling for dancing alone.

Ware is a more commanding presence on Tough Love than on Devotion. Sure, it helps that with these sharper songs, she has found some grey area between artful R&B and Top 40 territory, where she sounds more inviting than before — thank collaborators like Blanco and “Say You Love Me” co-writer Ed Sheeran. What’s just as important to recognize, though, is how Ware has changed her outlook since her solo debut.

“Baby, in our wildest moments / We can be the greatest, we can be the greatest / Baby, in our wildest moments, we can be the worst of all,” she sang on Devotion‘s best-known track, while already sounding resigned. By comparison, Tough Love sounds like Ware swooning and summoning up some courage at the same time.

Idolator Score: 4/5

— Christina Lee

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