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India.Arie soars with SongVersation

Soul-folk songbird returns with a story to tell

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When India.Arie nears the end of her fifth album, SongVersation, a choir lets out a solemn and meditative chant. Then a thought springs into Arie's mind: "I am not the pieces of brokenness inside." SongVersation is Arie's first new music in four years, after a time when the Atlanta soul-folk songwriter was open to art but discouraged by commerce. Open Door, her collaborative album with Israeli songwriter Idan Raichel, was scrapped because they couldn't agree on business terms. And although her 2001 debut single "Video" declared that she only needed her guitar, label executives insisted that follow-up efforts feature slicker production to suit urban radio.

After singing of inner peace in 2009's Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics, Arie confessed: "I was thinking, maybe I should leave the music industry." So she left, and with each passing day, forged greater distance from the label expectations she'd met at age 25. With SongVersation, she returns with her earthy voice unscathed and guiding principles intact, which could cause some to think she hasn't changed. But upon first impression, the album is a reminder of how Arie's music has mostly been about attitude, not a story.

Arie's lyrics exist primarily to invigorate others, but have been called "New Age-y" by Rolling Stone. At worst, they're littered with clichés — why "Chocolate High" will never compare to "Brown Skin" (as in, "up against my brown skin"). Her lead single, a twinkling R&B number, compares kisses to "Cocoa Butter," while "Break the Shell" suffers when she compares life without pain to "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

SongVersation does contain some of Arie's most precise and eloquent lyrics yet, and as the album progresses, it becomes clear why: She still encourages seeking empowerment from others if not from within, while breaking down precisely how to do it. In sunny piano track "Just Do You," Arie ticks off the possibilities: a story to write, a treasure to dig up, a picture to paint, a dollar to make. In the boisterous, reggae-inflected "Thy Will Be Done," she lists specific requests to see God and to create art that heals. Before the pounding "Brothers' Keeper" breaks into an interlude of vocals and bongos ascending like a heart swelling with pride, she finds different ways to ask whether or not she lives up to the title.

Only once does Arie sing with the kind of personal details that would pop up in interviews. Halfway through the stripped-down "Life I Know," she notes that she isn't a mother or wife yet. "We were born to one more, and no I'm not meant to live alone," she sings, with just a flicker of self-doubt. Turns out, SongVersation does tell a story.

Arie still has her voice, her acoustic guitar, and influences ranging from Stevie Wonder ("Nothing That I Love More") to Brandy ("This Love") and Turkish pop star Sezen Aksu, who helped enlist and record Turkish musicians and instruments for SongVersation. But the album's progression — its confident entrance, followed by signs of wear — invokes the carefree nature of "Video" ("My momma said, 'A lady ain't what she wears, but what she knows'"), before sifting through her shortcomings. With a roof over her head, her guitar, and friends, what more does she need? SongVersation says that she requires just one more thing: a well-rested mind. She shows this with a renewed sense of confidence in "I Am Light." Meditation brings serenity, and encourages people to reflect on and accept feelings, thoughts, and emotions, no matter how useful it seems to shut them out. So does SongVersation.

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