While hip-hop and trap take over radio stations in today’s mainstream channels, it’s almost puzzling if R&B – as popular as it used to be – still makes an impact in modern music. Even though R&B, short for rhythm and blues, has been classified differently throughout decades, the soulish urban sound labeled as ‘contemporary’ is what usually sticks in mind with people, guided by huge acts like Michael and Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Usher and Mariah Carey – just before and right after the start of the 21st century. A huge flow of popularity during that time era, but seen as more in the background today. The clarification though by some that R&B is supposed to be dead, is however false. It may be just not as visible anymore, but certain popular songs like Kendrick Lamar’s ‘LOVE.’ or singles by either Bruno Mars, The Weeknd or Ariana Grande most definitely fall into the R&B section, just sometimes as a ‘modernized translation’ from the former classic style. In addition, the genre lives on in different shapes, sometimes mixed with hip-hop, trap, or pop music. The classic old school sound however that was carried by artists like Prince in the 70s and 80s, reaching a popular peak during the 90s and 2000s, seems hidden now from urban radios. The singer and actress LeToya Luckett though, rekindled the genre yet again with her 3rd LP ‘Back 2 Life’, to bring back contemporary influences to the late 2010s.
Finding own Destiny
LeToya was first known to the public in the late 90s, being part of the contemporary movement as an original member of Destiny’s Child. Back then known as a quartet, Toya rose as R&B star with bandmates Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and LaTavia Roberson. Presented first with slow jam single ‘No, No, No’, the song was mainstream pushed with a funky uptempo version, labeled as ‘Part 2’, with support of Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean. A self-titled ‘Destiny’s Child’ album served as debut for the four ladies, but 1999s ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ catapulted the success of the then-newly established R&B girl group, selling around 6 million units in the US alone, becoming world stars with ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ and ‘Bug a Boo’.
As everything seemed like a flawless success, internal conflicts within the band changed the dynamic drastically. Unhappiness within the position in the group, more in the background than the foreground, and being displeased with management, was a pulling trigger for not only LeToya but co-member LaTavia as well. Both later decided to write a letter to the record company to ask for management support for Beyoncé’s father and DC manager Mathew Knowles. But what they eventually gained was a cold and quick answer: Replacement of LeToya and LaTavia with new members Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams (who during that time was a background singer for R&B singer Monica). While Farrah parted ways 5 months later as well, also due to internal conflicts, Destiny’s Child continued as a trio – Beyoncé, Kelly & Michelle, continuing success with third album ‘Survivor’ (2001), and final studio album ‘Destiny Fulfilled’ in 2004. While all three of them started solo careers since 2002 and parted ways for good since 2006, LeToya took the out-of-nowhere courage to step out for a second chance in the music business.
While she opened her own Lady L Boutique in Houston and living her life, LeToya was somewhat skeptic starting an own solo career, but with positive energy took the risk, managed to sign with Capitol Records and came back in the spotlight out of the blue with R&B jam ‘Torn’. Her self-titled debut album ‘LeToya’ (2006) was an unexpected success, hitting number 1 in the Billboard Charts, releasing follow-up ‘Lady Love’ in 2009, known for Ne-Yo penned ‘Not Anymore’, ‘She Ain’t Got…’ and groovy ‘Regret’, featuring Ludacris. Gaining success all on her own, the entertainment industry even opened up new doors for her in form of acting: Invited to play the main role in ‘Preachers Kid’ (2010), LeToya found new passion as an actress, continued playing roles the same year in ‘Killers’ with Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, and built up her résumé in roles for TV series like ‘Treme‘ (2011/12), playing ice-cold boss Felicia Price in ‘Single Ladies’ (2014/15), flirtatious Rochelle in ‘Greenleaf’ (2017/18) to playing the ex-wife of former Death Row Records head Suge Knight in ‘Unsolved’ (2018) – a TV series about the events of the murders of Tupac and Biggie – while also scheduled to play Dionne Warwick in a planned biopic about her life.
Back 2 Life, Back 2 Reality
The success of her acting gigs opened new paths for LeToya, but also made her music career slow down. It eventually took 8 years until a new album was released. While work for her third album started many years ago, and originally was planned to be called ‘Until Then’, on and off studio sessions and tight schedules prevented an earlier release. But then, maybe the mixture was not the desired sound before, but reworks and the right timing made her finally say ‘I’m Ready’ – the title of the opener track. The song floats with slow rhythmic jams supported with bass guitar riffs and was posted on YouTube by LeToya a few years prior. Other before released and shared songs like the socially conscious ‘Together’ or the ‘Single Ladies’ soundtrack ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ (with T.I. on the remix) did not make the final cut, but sensual ‘I’m Ready’ may connect better as introduction of Toya’s traditional R&B flavors offered in ‘Back 2 Life’. Thereafter, the title track, shortened for the album version as ‘B2L’, directly makes a connection with LeToya’s music video trilogy of the same name. The album version starts off with a heated argument, played out by LeToya and Thomas Q. Jones – actor and retired American football running back – who plays love interest Omar. While Omar’s childhood friend Cynthia (Jen Morillo) sees more in him than friendship, the warm and loveable relationship he has with LeToya starts to get colder, with both of them falling apart. The scene where LeToya and Omar get into a fight was unscripted, and both act as the song’s introduction and as a theme for the album.
The song, a sample of Soul II Soul’s classic 90s hit ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’, was released as first single and first part of a three-parter, followed in the music video for ‘Used 2’, and ended with ‘In The Name of Love’, which acts as the video for third single ‘In The Name’ but starts off with parts of album track ‘Grey’. Different stages of relationships: In ‘Used To’ Toya plays out a tough role (“I put you up on new/Not what you used to”), then ‘Grey’ discusses how a grey-zone can’t reach solutions, while ‘In The Name’ shows tight romance to the next level in floaty R&B flavors and creative melodies sung by Toya. A big plus in ‘Grey’ is the rap feature (and only feature on the album) by Ludacris, who gives the slow-paced song some extra colors with a fired-up rap and creative lyrical content: “You sinkin’ and I’m just tryna stay afloat/I feel like at times you gettin’ bored, we playin’ a tug-o-war/And you the only one that’s pullin’ on the rope”.
‘Ain’t no realer than this’
When LeToya states that “when I love, I love hard” in the music video for ‘In The Name of Love’, her message cannot be more closer to the truth when digging the album’s content: It’s the good, the bad, the ugly – almost dramatic in ‘World’s Apart’, but then again sensual deep in ‘Higher’. Luckily, LeToya managed to bring out playful moments to cool off from ‘painful’ tracks throughout. A fun listen experience is offered in ‘Show Me’ for example, where danceable rhythms are created with creative bass guitar strings. Giving feelings of a good mood (similar to her upbeat 2010 single ‘Good To Me’) is followed by Toya’s sweeter side like in ‘Loving You’ where she dreams away, linked with highlight track ‘My Love’, where bubbly beats give a happy atmospheric feel.
In addition, ‘Back 2 Life’ appeals with two tracks in particular – ‘Middle’ and ‘Weekend’. The lyrics speak for themselves when LeToya declares it ‘ain’t not realer than this’ in ‘Middle’ – sexual, dark and enigmatic feels of a serious yet passionate tone where a ‘Bad Toya’ is revealed, with urban vibes reminiscent to Rihanna. ‘Weekend’, on the other hand, shines with urban creativity at its finest. The sounds float like a puzzling mystery: Careful and steady, then firing up with loud claps in the pre-hook, while the hook turns on party mode, singing how she’ll be ‘your girlfriend for the weekend’. The lyrical content may contradict the album’s theme, as the majority of the songs from the album rather discuss stages of a serious relationship than having a fling, this can be overlooked though due to the song’s fun approach and clever use of sounds.
The album eventually ends with the piano-driven ‘Disconnected’, one of Toya’s gems as she always wanted a song solely with piano as support. The song then ends with the voicemail recording of her deceased grandmother: ”… If you leave your name and telephone number, I will get back with you as soon as possible. Have a glorious day. Bye.” Her grandpa left the recording after her passing, and LeToya ends with a gentle ‘I love you’ to her grandma, a heartwarming way to end the album.
Traditional Jams, Unique Sounds
Throughout her solo music catalog (and also partly her work with Destiny’s Child) LeToya always followed a certain lane as she stays true to her signature sounds and style. In often cases, judging by her video’s and lyrical content, unfaithful or problematic relationships play a central role in her theme. This sometimes seems repetitive, but then also helpful for listeners. What also attracts attention is how she introduces herself both as a singer and actress, combining her ‘two jobs’ in one, when visuals from her catalog, like ‘Not Anymore’ or the ‘Back 2 Life’ trilogy, feel more like mini-movies than music videos. This makes LeToya an individual in her lane.
The classic jams she offered in ‘Back 2 Life’ are partly produced by Jo Blaq and Warren Campbell, with also penned support by brother Gavin (aka G.Luck) – and help create the desired soul and rhythmic sound, reminiscent to old school R&B – like the look of the album cover that strongly remind of a late 90s artwork from that time era – and helps pulling the listener right back in time with sounds and melodies. It’s like entering the late 90s/early 2000s again. Just like the Soul II Soul’s sample in ‘B2L’, LeToya creates an urban vibe from the early establishment of modern R&B. Eight years of distance from her last album, but the effort is noticeable. Anyone who loves R&B will at least find a song to relate to. Traditional jams but yet sounding unique. LeToya, therefore, makes a stand against the belief R&B would be gone, reassuring with ‘Back 2 Life’ that it never left.