Free Yourself
by Fantasia, pop/R&B (2004)

Trying to have a career after American Idol is a cautionary tale in itself. The bizarre mismanagement of the careers of Tamyra Gray, Ruben Studdard, and the evergreen punchline Justin Guarini proves that the brains behind the concept have no clue about actually running an artist's career. At the time of writing, Kelly Clarkson has moved from Christina Aguilera rejects to Avril Lavinge rejects. Only Will Young is the exception to the rule that if you are a winner, you must suck, but he's lucky because he came out of the closet during the show and won the title of the first Pop Idol anyway despite the show people doing everything they can do ensure that the inane teenybopper Gareth Gates clinch the title instead. By ignoring him and letting Young do what he wants while they focus on grooming Gates' career, they end up with a huge flop in Gates and a superstar in Young.

But it's not just the management that is the hurdle that the Idol alumni must overcome. The Idol phenomenon is such that it inspires ridiculous, boundary-free zeal in so many of the irrational people that tune in, and there really are so many of these people. There are fans who will hold a lifelong grudge against the winners because their favorites lost (see also: "Claymates") and there are also fans who love the winners but will never buy anything these winners come out with unless these winners are singing and doing exactly what they want these winners to do. That's what happens when you allow people to believe that they have a right to say what goes on in an artist's life because they ordain the artist as an Idol - there are many Fantasia fans who boycott her debut CD Free Yourself because it isn't some Etta James soundalike like they so badly want it to do.

But what do they expect? A company that runs the career of Westlife, Baby Spice, Posh Spice, and Ronan Keating to release a CD filled with Etta-Jamesian songs with a touch of Aretha? Who on earth will buy that CD?

Then again, who is buying Free Yourself? The problem with this CD is that it showcases nothing that makes Fantasia an irresistible performer with star power on the show. Filled with banal and trite mainstream R&B anthems with riffs and hooks blatantly lifted from more accomplished names (Got Me Waiting is Usher's U Got It Bad redux, for example), there is nothing here to persuade a casual listener to take the CD home. At best, the songs are mildly catchy (Truth Is and It's All Good) and at worst, the songs just go on and on like some crappy Ashanti ditty that will never end. The exceptions are the Missy-Elliot produced Selfish, if only for its use of strings and Indian chants, and Baby Mama, a truly over-the-top in-your-face tribute to single mothers that is begging to be made the theme song of a satiric African-American sitcom produced by Spike Lee. Any song with the line "I see you get the support check in the mail/You opened it and you're like, 'What the hell?"" has to be good.

Indeed, it is on Baby Mama that Fantasia shows what makes her a star on the third season of American Idol: she positively simmers with ferocious defiance as she half-raps, half-sings the actually (hilariously) awful lines of the song with gusto, as if she is walking barefoot and leading a parade of single mothers on a strike across America and they won't stop until the government makes the improvements they need to live. Fantasia shouldn't be singing a Missy Elliot tune or trying to be some nondescript mainstream R&B sultry diva. She should be cheek-to-cheek with Erykah Badu in a duet about bag ladies and the strange quirks of humanity while boboing to a Wycleff Jean-produced track.

Instead, she is tossed hand-me-downs from the reject bins of accomplished artists that fail to showcase her voice, sass, or passion. Instead of allowing her to, er, free herself, her management chains her up and forces her to blindly follow the trends of today's music. That will be fine for some personality-free young lady like Kelly Clarkson but Fantasia deserves to be more than another casualty of bandwagon-hopping.

But, having said all that, I must admit that Fantasia manages to sell the generally mediocre album very well. She can sing better than the current alumni of Idol winners. I only hope that she can outgrow the politics of the show and its fans to become the artist she deserves to be. Damn it, I knew Diana Degarmo should have won that stupid title!

Rating: 76

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