Album Review: Journey to Freedom by Michelle Williams

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Three weeks ago, Michelle Williams invited the world onto her Journey to Freedom with the release of her fourth solo album.  The long awaited follow up to 2008’s Unexpected has been in the making for the last few years and was promoted with the singles “If We Had Your Eyes” and “Fire” in 2013, as well as the 2014 smash “Say Yes.”  The last saw Michelle reunited with fellow Destiny’s Child members Beyoncé and Kelly as they put their twist on the traditional Nigerian praise song.

With a 6 year gap between her last album and Journey to Freedom, expectations were high for the project, and Williams did not disappoint.  Journey to Freedom was symbolic in more ways than one for Michelle.  Not only does the lyrical content of the album deliver inspirational messages and deal with her personal quest for freedom, but Williams also took risks sonically to break free of the expectations of what her music “should” sound like if it were to be considered gospel.  Finally, no doubt part of the significance of this emancipative journey rests in the fact that is her first release away from Columbia Records and Music World, Mathew Knowles’ management company.

As a result, Journey to Freedom serves as a milestone in Michelle’s career, both musically and professionally.  Her visibility has never been higher.  Michelle has been working feverishly to promote the project and it has paid off.  “Say Yes” is approaching 10 million views on Vevo, and while it has not (yet) sold as much as her previous releases, there is a buzz surrounding the album’s release that is both exciting and refreshing.  As she has said many times, Michelle knows “her lane” and she is doing quite well within it.

Musically, she has repaved her lane, though.  Every song on Journey to Freedom finds Michelle exploring new sounds.  She expressed her reluctance to dabble in some of these new sounds, but ultimately took the risk, and it paid off quite well.  Not only does the album sound nothing like her previous work, but each song feels uniquely different from the others, yet still cohesive.

Perhaps that cohesiveness can be attributed to the fact that Harmony Samuels produced the entire album.  Sometimes this sort of approach can yield a very “samey” sounding album, but that is not the case on Journey to Freedom.  There are songs that harken back to ’90s R&B, like “Need Your Help” (complete with Eric Dawkins on vocoder) and “Just Like You” (which almost sounds like the instrumental was pulled off a Mary J. Blige album), and are purely irresistible jams.  Both feature impressive vocal performances, but one of the album’s most vocal demanding numbers is “If We Had Your Eyes,” the album’s very soulful lead single.  The album version features Fantasia.

Then, there is the Nigerian-inspired “Say Yes” which boasts a club-ready, electronic, and Calypso sounding beat to compliment the equally fierce Destiny’s Child reunion.  Similar to “Say Yes,” ironically, is “Yes” (or, as I like to call it, “YAS!”) which melds R&B and EDM sounds and is almost like something you’d expect from Usher or Chris Brown.   Also fitting into the category of Gospel “turn up” music are “Fire” and “Fall,” which features chart-topping Christian rapper, Lecrae, and singer Tye Tribbett.  If you stripped “Fall” of it’s vocals and lyrics, it’d sound like a sibling to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love,” a comparison that Michelle herself made in her Breakfast Club interview.  While some might criticize Michelle for placing praise music over such a hard, hip-hop sounding beat, it indeed works and is one of the album’s standout tracks.  As she has expressed many times: it shouldn’t matter how the music sounds, because the goal is the message.

Another album highlight, “Everything” sounds as though it is trap-inspired with it’s pitched down vocals.  However, the track’s production also echoes Drake’s signature atmospheric and melodic sounds.  It sounds right at home alongside, for example, Kelly’s “Red Wine” and Beyoncé’s “Mine,” both produced by Drake’s two go-to producers, Boi-1da and Noah “40” Shebib respectively.

One of the album’s more relaxed, mid tempo moments can be found in “Free.”  This R&B jam would fit right in on Destiny’s Child’s last album, Destiny Fulfilled, and ironically shares its title with a track from it as well.  The very melodic “Free” features a more subdued vocal from Michelle, and works quite well to make it one of the album’s best cuts.

Michelle tries her hand at crossover R&B with “Beautiful,” a self-described love song to Jesus, and “In the Morning.”  Both of these tracks are guitar driven yet still sound unmistakably R&B.  “Beautiful” has an acoustic guitar at it’s core, while “In the Morning” is driven by an energizing electric guitar riff.  “In the Morning” is yet another standout song for it’s uplifting and inspirational message, stellar production, and soaring vocals.  Moreso than “Beautiful,” “In the Morning” leans a bit more towards being pop-rock.  However, it is the next track that takes that sound all the way home.

The album’s shining moment is the lone ballad; the touchingly personal “Believe In Me.”  Reminiscent of Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” “Believe In Me” teeters on being classified as country.  However, its almost heartbreaking lyrics make it stand out from any comparisons.  “Believe In Me” gives us the most honest look into her journey and sounds almost like a journal entry or prayer.  It is so introspective that it is almost as if she’s singing to herself in the mirror.  The song opens with her singing, “They see greatness, I see failure.  I wanna know what they see in me.  They see beauty, I see everything wrong.”  Her honesty here is to be admired, as she evaluates herself and her fame.  Though, the intention of the song is not a pity party, and it ultimately isn’t sad.  Rather, it is uplifting she ends the song by singing, with confidence and passion, “Yes, I believe in me again; now I believe in me again.” 

Worth an additional note is the album’s sequencing.  It is rare that an album is sequenced so perfectly, but Journey to Freedom flows so wonderfully both sonically and thematically.  For example, “Need Your Help” is the perfect opener, and flows wonderfully into “Yes.”  Or, when “Believe In Me” is followed by the optimistic and uplifting “In the Morning” that almost reaffirms the final message of “Believe In Me,” it’s magical.  The reflective “If We Had Your Eyes” follows, and “Say Yes” closes the album with a final moment of celebration and praise.  With her Destiny’s Child sisters by her side, Michelle comes full circle on the album closer.  By ending the album with “Say Yes,” it’s almost as though she’s letting the haters know that Jesus already said yes to this masterpiece – so any hate, any negativity, any no’s, are moot points.

However, calling this album anything but a masterful body of work would be a challenge.  With Journey to Freedom, Michelle Williams fearlessly delivered.  It is an album comprised of uplifting messages, soaring vocals, and impeccable production.  The wait indeed was long, but so worth it.  Hopefully the follow up is just as good… and not another six years down the road.  I doubt Michelle will ever disappoint.  With each album she’s improved, and it seems as though she’s found a supportive and fruitful home at her new label, eOne.  Always expect the unexpected with Michelle; she has already hinted at her next album not being gospel.  In the meantime, get slain in the spirit as you experience Michelle Williams’ Journey to Freedom.  What are you waiting for?  Download it on iTunes now!  While you’re at it, enter our Michelle Williams Time Capsule contest to win a copy of EVERY Michelle album to experience the complete journey.

Grade:

90/97

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