Syleena Johnson

Imagine this: you’re a Grammy-nominated singer, considered one of the best vocalists of your generation, who has scored major R&B hits and been invited to collaborate with the likes of Kanye West and R. Kelly, yet some folks consider you “underrated.” This has been the plight of Syleena Johnson, acclaimed as one of the finest R&B voices to have emerged during the past decade. Having fought the major label system to allow her true identity to shine forth, Syleena now steps forward with her most personal statement to date, her boundary-stretching fifth album, entitled, appropriately enough,Chapter V: Underrated, due out September 27, 2011 on Shanachie Entertainment. Easily her best all-around album since her second best-selling album, Underrated shows the full range of Syleena’s talent as it moves from the powerful soul-balladry of songs like “Little Things” to full-on club bangers like the first single, “A Boss.” The result is a rarity in the R&B world these days – a true album that flows through a diverse and satisfying complete listening experience. Every song but one was written or co-written by Syleena.

Indeed, the album opens with the defiant title track that segues immediately into “A Boss,” the assertive and dance-friendly anthem for confident, capable women who want a mate who is a true equal; the video clip for this track features NFL star Chad Ochocinco. But the range of the album quickly becomes apparent with “Angry Girl,” a lyrically-provocative acoustic guitar-driven duet with likewise underrated singer Tweet.

“The message in “Angry Girl” is the woman’s voice trying to plead with other women who take their issues out on men,” Syleena explains. “Its goal is to explain that she is ruining men for the good women. It highlights the faults of women in relationships; we point out womanizers but there are women who break hearts as well. I picked Tweet because her voice is perfect for this type of song; she is soulful and her voice compliments acoustic guitar extremely well. I also feel she is a positive role model for women.”

Elsewhere on Underrated Syleena deals with inspirational themes on “Stone Wall,” female sexual prowess on “A Champ” and “Bad Person,” and the ins-and-outs of relationships on “Like Thorns.” Tracks such as “Little Things” and “My Shoes” deliver the powerful “old school” soul balladry that won her early fans, as only can come from a classically-trained singer who happens also to be well-schooled in the deep traditions of soul music and blues, thanks to her father, the legendary Syl Johnson, who as a label-mate of Al Green, scored the definitive original recording of “Take Me To The River.” “Being a trained vocalist is very important to my career,” Syleena notes. “It helps me understand the preservation of my voice and how important it is to warm up and rest. It also complements my writing and melodies. I think the state of R&B could be better and I hope to re-ignite true soul singing and music merged with a new flavor.”

Syleena Johnson grew up outside Chicago in Illinois. Though she got involved with music during her high school years, initially she was discouraged from getting into the music business by her father, who had many disappointing experiences in the industry. Meanwhile her mother become the nation’s first black female police commissioner.

Nevertheless, she contributed as a singer and songwriter to her father’s 1994 album, Back In The Game, also undergoing formal vocal training and studying music at Drake University, where she was active in classical and gospel choirs as well as jazz ensembles. She released an independent album, Love Hangover, in 1999. In 1997, her demo tape was heard by a Jive Records executive who immediately offered her a recording contract. The dissolution of a relationship with an abusive boyfriend provided raw material for her debut major label album, Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness, in 2002, which yielded the hit “I Am Your Woman,” penned by R. Kelly, and led to critical acclaim as an exceptional new voice on the R&B scene. Her follow-up, Chapter 2: The Voice, which featured guests such as Busta Rhymes, yielded the hit “Guess What” and was hailed as one of the best R&B albums of the year. Meanwhile, Kanye West tapped Syleena to handle the vocals on the Top Ten worldwide hit “All Falls Down,” which also garnered her and West a Grammy nomination and four VMA nominations for the video. With momentum building, Syleena released Chapter 3: The Flesh, which featured such guests as R. Kelly, Anthony Hamilton, Jermaine Dupri, Common and Twista – a mark of respect from her peers – as well as the hit “Another Relationship.” Subsequently she also scored a hit with Cam’ron and Kanye West with “Down & Out” and appeared on albums by DMX and Shawnna. But the album did not generate sufficient success for Jive Records and Syleena parted ways with the label, releasing her next album in 2008, Chapter 4: Labor Pains on her own Aneelys Records. The album opened with sounds from the birth of her and her husband’s first child, a son. In 2011 she gave birth to their second son and the demands of new motherhood kept her off the scene for a bit.

The release of Chapter V: Underrated marks not only the reemergence of Syleena Johnson but also the presentation of the full range of her artistry. Though she was only 22 years old at the time of her first hit, she was often marketed to older audiences because of her classic soul style but naturally, as a child of the hip-hop generation, she had much more to offer and explore.