Soul singer Leela James stays true to her roots while trying something new | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Soul singer Leela James stays true to her roots while trying something new 

click to enlarge Leela James

Leela James

Courtesy of Paradigm Talent Agency

When Leela James released her first album, A Change Is Gonna Come (Warner Bros.), in summer 2005, she was widely heralded as the newest incarnation of the classic soul diva from times gone by. This would be a lot of hype for anyone to live up to, but James obviously had the chops to do it. She was right in the vanguard of the entire neosoul trip of that era, and since then, she’s enjoyed fairly steady success. She’s changed up labels a few times, and she’s altered her sound a little along the way; on her previous album, My Soul (Stax), she flirted with hip-hop, adding trap beats and chanted, staccato verses to her traditional bag of tricks. Her latest single, “That Woman,” conjures up the spirit of heavy-metal funk queen Betty Davis—her aggressive vocals land halfway between Davis and Chaka Khan, while amped-up guitars help her fire shots at some nemesis who calls her “that woman” rather than by her name. James has always maintained allegiance to the classic soul sound, but she’s simultaneously sought new ways to present herself, and on “That Woman” she adapts well to the song’s hard-rock vibes—you don’t get the impression that she’s just trying on a new style to see how it fits. There’s no word of another release at this time, but it would be interesting to see if she pursues a similar direction on her next album. If you can be a chameleon but stay true to your roots, then you’re definitely onto something—and James fits the description.   v

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