The typical album format for female R&B artists has been set in stone for so long now that Beyoncé turned it into a faux concept-album template: a few up-tempo, risqué-leaning jams offset by a few down-tempo, melodic ballads. It's an approach that caters to both the dance floor and the grown-folks love jam, but it also tends to make R&B albums sound a little same-y without break-out radio singles. So kudos to local songstress Ebone Marlowe for taking a page from Maxwell and going with an album filled entirely with a lively mix of mid-tempo soul. So while that means Collage, her self-released third album, never explodes out of the speakers with trunk-rattling beats or slows everything down to cozy late-night silk-sheets sounds, it recognizes that R&B isn't all about getting down or getting off.
And that doesn't mean that Collage is tap-water tepid. "Norma Jean" gently spices a rustling bass and beat pattern with twinkling textures and Marlowe's seductive voice, singing about romantic longing. She's not interested in belting things out, overeager to showcase acrobatic melisma or a snarling range. Like her album, she favors a consistent, casual coo, a choice that makes the album feel less desperate to impress with vocal pyrotechnics and more interested in sustaining a good vibe. "Norma Jean" also features a featured rap, from Joe Delux, that not only isn't pure ego-tripping but actually dovetails with the song's narrative. Imagine that.
Liner notes state the tracks come from a few one-named producers--Jeff, Legin, Game, Joe Delux--but Collage doesn't sound like the result of too many cooks, keeping more in tune with Marlowe's soulful attitude. Even when she turns to a R&B cliché--the ladies-doing-it-for-themselves celebration--on "I Love Me More," the result is modestly disarming. Marlowe doesn't attack some unnamed man who did her wrong, but sails along at her unruffled pace and reclaims her independence as a simple matter of fact, offering "Something's telling me I better go ahead and try to live my life." Better still is the bubbling organ groove "Come Home," an interlude of sensual chat that challenges you to come correct to her soulful shit.