Lalah Hathaway: Honestly
A bright, full moon lit the mix of high-end boutiques and eateries that lined Abbot Kinney Boulevard. It was a typical first Friday, November night in Venice, a trendy section of Los Angeles, steps away from Venice Beach. Food Trucks galore, more people than the dense sidewalks could handle, a long line of cars at the valet and it still felt like summer.
As people milled around the sidewalk and spilled on to the street outside of one of the high-end boutiques that turned out to be an art gallery, aptly named Lalah Hathaway’s “HONESTLY” Gallery, I stopped and smiled. I knew that behind the crowd, the oversized picture window and the guard that stood watch at the door that Lalah Hathaway herself was inside.
27 years ago when Lalah released her eponymous, highly acclaimed debut album in 1990, new-jack swing was at its height and the only artists that stuck to the contemporary soul sound were older established artists who were at least a decade plus into their careers. Stepping out of her Fathers famous shadow, Lalah successfully blended the elements of soul, jazz and gospel while placing herself at the forefront of contemporary soul among legends.
After a string of collaborations with everyone from Joe Sample to Robert Glasper, a slew of solid R&B hits, a Grammy sweep, reviving several R&B classics to modern covers, and her lauded Live album, we arrive at Lalah’s latest offering, Honestly.
When I got to the door the guard wasn’t at ease, even after I gave him my name and he waved me through. I smiled and I thanked him. He gave me a head nod. As I walked in, I was taken by the warm excitement that filled the air. The bright lights and ultra-white walls were canvased by words in pink letters, pictures of the album art, and bursting bright T.V. screens. Before I could fully take everything in, there she was standing in front of me. It was as if she had just jumped off her album cover on the wall – she was dressed just like it. Black pants, white shirt, long flowing locs that were a deep, royal purple, sporting her army fatigue jacket, ready for the good fight. She was more beautiful than I remembered. She was calm, sure of herself and full of life. Lalah was happy.
When Apple Music alerted me that ‘Honestly’ was available for download a day ahead of it’s release, Christmas had come early. I eagerly went to play it and not only was I surprised, I turned up my speakers to the highest volume and let out the loudest “YAAAAAAAAAAAAS” anyone has ever heard. Lalah Hathaway was blaring through my speakers.
Not only was she blaring through my speakers, sonically, it was something new, fresh and different, something welcomed. A departure from the jazzy arrangements that shaped her career in exchange for an edgier, modern sound minus the live instruments, a departure that not only solidified her place in the current R&B landscape, but one that allowed her to expand her influence to a younger generation that may have known her through their parents, but not able to relate to her music – now they can.
As I listened to ‘Honestly’ in excitement and with pride, I couldn’t help but notice how on point Lalah’s vocals were and how she has maintained her voice better than any modern artist in the last two decades (listen to her 1990 debut and Honestly and tell me what you hear) not only that, she has created consistent music, given stellar performances while starting trends that a lot of other singers emulate (steal) while she almost never gets the credit for the artist that she is.
Lalah and I smiled and stared at each other. As the room filled with an electric like excitement, I stood in awe, as I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of Lalah Hathaway. It was like the first time I had met her 13 years prior at one of her first shows in L.A., at the Vault 350, right after her then album, Outrun The Sky was released. Just like that night, I couldn’t think of what to say – not even I love your album. I giggled and the only thing I could ask was, “How did it feel to curse?” “Good,” she replied with a very sure smile. “Take a look around.” She said, before she walked back to a slew of cameras vying for her attention.
The gallery was a 3-D, live version of her album - the inspiration and the drive behind the birth of ‘Honestly’. I was immediately drawn to the first written piece on the wall that for me framed the entire album perfectly.
“I come from a family of people who spoke out.
There’s an absurd comedy to this moment in history,
Many will be remembered for what they didn’t do and I don’t want to be one of those people.
I feel like we all have a responsibility to report what we see: to tell the truth.
I have said what I am saying now in the way I am saying it because we are in dire straights.
I don’t want to look back at this point from 2021 and wish that I had said something today.
‘Honestly’ is really about experience and about life, but it is my hope to use these stories and the potential of art to tell about the bigger story.
To show the truth.
This record was probably the easiest I’ve ever made and I believe that this because I now understand I am only beholden to myself and to the truth, for most of us, it s a great and profound day when we reach that point.
The synergy between myself and Tiffany Gouché (The producer of the record) helped me to channel the honesty you hear.
I didn’t hold back anything and I feel proud of myself for that.
I believe people feel that artists are meant to be the town criers, the ones who make life relatable for people as a whole, but that often puts us on a weird pedestal.
People often feel like they are looking at art and artists from the outside rather than interacting with art and being a part of it.
It might be a heady concept for people to consider, but really…
Really…we are all artists.
Just by living our everyday lives we are all contributing to art and what art means.
I wish people would really take the time to honor the art in their lives, and the truth in their lives – they feel so parallel.”
After I read that piece from Lalah herself, I immediately understood the album better than I had the night before when I initially heard it. From the opening song, the stories, the perils of love and life are perfectly encompassed, just enough to make you think, be inspired and to fuck around and have your life changed. She even tastefully talks about sex (and I don’t think I’ve EVER heard her do that before) and will have you ready to give all of yourself to someone just as she wanted to on ‘Call on Me’. As I jogged the lyrics in my head, I had questions about the stories in the songs. Who had done it? Just as Lalah asked in her song ‘y o y’, it became clear, through the parallels in my own life that Lalah is singing about – the truth that she has always conveyed, the reason why she resonates so deeply with people. Songs like ‘Honestly’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’ are the why she inspires so many people.
As the night went on, people filled the gallery and took in the exhibit in awe. I looked around the room and saw so many people in touch, engaged, smiling, sharing the gift of love through music. The DJ spun the first single, “I Can’t Wait” that turned into a sing along and a dance session. I tried to secretly tip out the door to leave, but right before I could, Lalah appeared again out of nowhere and sort of blocked my path. I was caught, I knew I would see her again a few days later at her next event, but her quick conversation and her calling me “The Black Santa Claus” upstaged my plans to leave early that night. We snapped a picture and I ended up mingling with a few people I had known from over the years.
When I saw her again a few days later at her in store performance at Amoeba records I was proud of her and just like I am at all of her concerts, I wanted to yell out, “Saaaaaang Bitch!” but I didn’t. The live arrangements of ‘Honestly’ added an additional layer to the record that gives it a whole ‘nother life and will most certainly remind fans why she is Lalah Hathaway and why we love her so much. Watching the crowd, watch her perform was nothing short of spectacular. Seeing people sing along, lift their hands and shout like they were in church is something that you can only experience for yourself.
After her performance, I stood in line to get my CD signed and listened to some of the conversations of people while I waited. “She is amazing,” “No one can sing like her,” “I love her music,” “I love her new song.” I was grateful that people appreciated her as much as I did. I was glad that raw truth and honesty in music still being created and ingested. When I got to the front of the line we smiled at each other again. My intent was to surprise her…but instead it was like two old friends meeting again. She signed my CD that I couldn’t wait to get home and add to the other 7 that preceded it.
One of the most confusing aspects of ‘Honestly’ had nothing to do with Lalah at all. It was troubling and a bit baffling for me to see so many critics and some fans alike taking issue with the direction Lalah took. Her voice was the same, if not better, she was more open lyrically than she had been in her previous vocal diary ‘Self Portrait’ and sonically she didn’t remain complacent. Lalah has always been an honest artist, carving her own lane, doing things her way - never an artist of the moment, she defines time. I urge anyone who has an issue or a dislike with ‘Honestly’ to see Lalah perform the next time she comes to your city, so you can be reminded why you LOVE her and to really FEEL what you’re hearing.
In a world full of R&B copycats, Lalah took the current R&B sound and set it against her rich, soothing, encapsulating vocals and made a classic piece of R&B that most people won’t appreciate or understand until 5 years from now because they are too pre-occupied with the flavors of today that won’t be here when Lalah will still be, setting trends, collecting Grammys and still sounding like she did in 1990.