Let me begin by saying that I do not claim to be a music expert. I do sing. I was trained in the art of bravado, voice control, breathing, and riffs and runs, especially as they pertain to the world of gospel and R&B–and I played a smidgen of piano back in the day. With that said, I know plenty of people who pride themselves on their musical knowledge and aspirations, their industry expertise, and their talent for writing music reviews, and I am none of those people. I am, however, a music enthusiast. It is from this place of sheer enthusiasm that I feel the need to testify about the greatness of Elle Varner, and specifically about her debut album Perfectly Imperfect.
My first exposure to Elle Varner came by way of her lead single “Only Wanna Give It to You.” (I’m pretty sure I had heard of her before that because she was a BET Music Matters artist, but honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention then.) My first impression was that I loved her voice. It was different, kind of like Chrisette Michele meets Macy Gray with a tad bit of Alicia Keys thrown in at points, but still uniquely her own. It was one of those situations where I had heard the song quite a few times, liked what I heard each time, yet I’d never heard the song in its entirety. So pretty soon I found myself googling something along the lines of “who sings the song about bees, honey, and new shoes?”
So, then I had her name. Not long after that I realized that she would be opening for Chrisette Michele at the inaugural event of a new concert series in Cramton Auditorium on my now alma mater’s campus. So being the huge Chrisette fan that I am, I had to go, and a friend of mine joined me. Elle came out with nothing but her guitar and a microphone and killed it. Of course she sang “Only Wanna Give It to You,” along with the album closer, and honest and fun track about her struggle with body image, “So Fly,” as well as what would go on to become the smash hit “Refill” –which I fell in love with immediately, by the way. That night, I downloaded her amazing mixtape “Conversational Lush,” told all my friends to do the same, and from that moment forward I was a diehard Ellephant–yup, you read that correctly.
But if it was her unique voice that initially caught my attention, it was her lyricism that made me a true fan. As one Washington Post reviewer says, yes, everyone struggles to sing along to the hook on “Refill” and the vocals (and the fiddle) are amazing, but to me, the song is pure poetry. When I first heard it, I thought, “you’re likening the depths of your feelings for this person to being drunk? “Oh, the metaphors! How perfect and genius.” I felt the same way about the shoe motif in “Only Wanna Give It You,” once I figured out who she was, that is.
That smooth poet-like lyrical genius continues throughout the album, particularly in songs like “Welcome Home” and “Leaf,” where the relationship metaphors abound. I thought Adele’s 21 was a young heart’s musical manifesto, but Perfectly Imperfect has the beautiful simplicity and vulnerable sentimentality to pose right next to 21 in its B-girl stance on the shelves of contemporary music history.
For me, what makes the album truly great is that Elle captures the moments that so many of us can relate to, like possessing the necessary bravery to take a risk on love. “Maybe in another life/I could be the girl/ who walks up to the guy/ and tells him/tells him how she feels inside/but not tonight…” she sings on “Not Tonight,” one of the songs that makes it into my three-way tie for favorite track on the album. I’ve ranked “Damn Good Friends” and the previously mentioned “Welcome Home” as my other two favorites, but that’s really not accurate because I honestly love the ENTIRE album from start to finish–and I don’t say that often.
Having the courage to sing about her imperfections on songs like “So Fly” makes her both an anomaly in the music industry and extremely honest and relatable to many listeners. “…Now in my 20s all that matters is sex, cars, and money/I ain’t got none of the three/so basically, I am invisible to all of the fellas, and I sit at home jealous/there was no Golden Ticket in my chocolate today…” she regrets. (My bad. Y’all don’t know about that life, huh?) Seriously though, who, besides India Arie maybe, admits that in this music age where it’s all about being the baddest chick?
Honestly–even if you are the baddest chick–when was the last time you heard an album and thought, “oh my God, she’s actually singing, she’s singing my life, AND I’m not ashamed to have my 6-year-old little cousin sing along to this!” ? That was a serious question….I’ll wait.
Perfectly Imperfect is perfect because it’s real. It’s a musical chronicle of the failures, successes, emotions, moments, and memories that make up our lives. No, you may not jam to it at the club–except maybe to the hip hop-esque baseline of “Only Wanna Give It to You.” However, you could play the narrative about a night of partying, “Oh What a Night,” when you get home and feel like reminiscing. More importantly, don’t we have enough club bangers? What we don’t have enough of is good music that actually sells and is played on national and international airwaves.
As I said earlier in my Twitter frenzy about the album, I haven’t been this excited about an R&B album since Chrisette Michele’s Epiphany–which I bought both digitally on iTunes and a hard copy in stores–and I’ll be doing the same thing for Perfectly Imperfect. You should too. Seriously.