“Paul McCartney got it wrong/ I ain’t never want no song,” the Portland-based belter sings on “Black Bird,” over a strutting, bluesy big-band arrangement a few songs into her sophomore album. “They may try to break my wings/ They only love me when I sing/ I ain’t no slave, I ain’t no queen/ I’m just a black…bird.”
Well, that is certainly one way to get attention. Then again, when it comes to turning heads, Warfield learned from the best. Once a leading light of Portland’s R&B scene, she got scooped up by Prince in 2009, shortly after the release of her debut, Embrace Me, and indoctrinated into the New Power Generation—from her description, the equivalent of musical boot camp. No wonder, then, that The Unexpected sounds less like a protracted follow-up than a re-emergence. Warfield exudes both a veteran’s confidence and a newcomer’s desire to be heard. Even in the album’s more tender, pleading moments, the message is clear: “Underestimate me at your peril.”
And there are certainly those who would doubt Warfield’s ability to jump-start a career at age 34, playing a brand of soul closer to En Vogue than being en vogue. His Purple Majesty himself served as executive producer, along with penning two songs, and the sound of The Unexpected is similar to his early 2000s comeback records: classic R&B with rock-’n’-roll edges. Prince loans out the NPG horn section, which follows Warfield through the album like a Greek chorus, blending with wailing guitar solos. At times, the energy is canned by the studio slickness that plagued those latter-day Prince albums: The pumping “Why Do You Lie,” though still a highlight, doesn’t pack quite the wallop Warfield brought to her Jimmy Fallon performance in January.
But even when the
production falters, Warfield never does. It’s a testament to her
greatest skill as a singer: She’s a powerhouse, yes, but she never lets
her pipes obscure her personality. On The Unexpected, she
displays her full range: playful on “Lena Blue” and “Catch Me If You
Can,” sultry on “Your Show,” defiant on “Freedom,” vulnerable on “Come
Back.” Can Warfield, who has sold out shows in New York and appeared on
national television, actually become a national star? Here’s what’s
truly unexpected: She already is one.
HEAR IT: The Unexpected is out Tuesday, Feb. 18.