R&B flower child Lynee' Michelle spreads a message of peace, love, and happiness
"I grew up five blocks up the street," says R&B singer Lynee' Michelle one afternoon in the Mount Clare house that she shares with her 7-year-old son. And though she's not far at all from where she was raised, she credits much of her outlook on life and music to time she's spent in the world outside West Baltimore, whether in the city's suburbs or on another coast. "I was born in Monterrey, California, but I grew up in Baltimore. But I really feel like I've been cultured a lot, because my family went places and did things."
Now 27, the tall, statuesque Michelle makes a living recording love songs and sexy dance tracks, but has built her career from within Baltimore's male-dominated hip-hop scene. Her roots in that community go deep: Her uncle, Wayne Mallory, was a DJ in one of Baltimore's earliest hip-hop crews, the Numarx, in the 1980s. And the duality of a girly-girl who can hang with the guys also appears to be a running theme in her life.
"I was brought up a little different," she says. "I used to wear dresses to school, 'cause I was a lady. Now at the same time I was always a tomboy--if I had to choose from playin' with the girls on the steps, playing with the baby dolls and the Barbie dolls, then the boys came out across the street"--she laughs--"I start climbin' trees with them, bangin' on stuff, makin' noise, makin' music, and tryin' to rap."
A little of that girlish playfulness is still evident in Michelle's manner as an adult, as she doodles on the cover of a notebook while excitedly describing her childhood. Ultimately, though, it was singing, not rapping, that became her passion. In 2007, she linked up with local hip-hop label Arsonists Camp Entertainment, which has made itself known for a female-heavy roster, including rappers Ms. Stress and Si-Notes.
This past Valentine's Day saw the release of Michelle's debut album, Love, Lynee Michelle. True to its title, the album plays like a personal letter from the singer, a song cycle that details love in all its many forms.
Love, Lynee Michelle is the moment the singer's been working toward tirelessly the last few years. Throughout stints with other labels and a 2006 mixtape, Michelle worked with local rappers such as Mike Malachi and Dreko, as well as Baltimore club producers DJ Booman and Debonair Samir, both of whom contributed tracks to the album. Along the way, she picked up modeling jobs and gigs singing on other artists' songs and recording demos for songwriters. "I'm grindin' for real, any kind of way I can get my money--let me rephrase that," she stops herself carefully, backing up to clarify that she cares about the quality of the projects she's involved with more than any paycheck. "I use my discretion," she stresses.
Despite the thematic unity of the album, Love covers topical ground beyond the usual romance and breakup songs, which Michelle says is all part of her outlook on life. "Where did we get off the subject of love?" she asks. "I may be like a 2009 hippie, but I'm a peaceful person, and I want peace, love, and happiness, I just wanna see people do things positively, and I think if there's anything my presence can do to help contribute back in that way, that's what I think I'm here for."
The song that best articulates that philosophy is the album centerpiece "Girl Don't Sell Yourself," an anthem of self-love and self-respect that features a group of children, including her son, piping up on the inspirational chorus. "There may be something else you wanna hear, but I don't care, that's something that felt really true to me and needed to be heard," she says, noting that she plans to shoot a video for the track soon.
In the meantime, however, the album's breakout hit appears to be "Slow It Down," the DJ Booman-produced track that features one of the Baltimore club veteran's fast breakbeats alternating with a more relaxed, sensual groove. Although the song has received spins in local clubs and Michelle has gotten out-of-state attention for the track while touring, she's still waiting on 92Q to pick up the song. One of the album's ballads, "Let Go," has also received some encouraging buzz, but Michelle is more hesitant about promoting it as a single. "It's really pretty," she says. "Everybody really likes it, but I don't know if I should break a slow song first."
Michelle writes and co-writes all her material, but for the most part leaves it to producers, such as Arsonists' head Gary "G-Major" Wright, to come up with the backing tracks. On the song, "Love," however, Michelle shows off another one of her talents in this quiet, moody tune that broadens the sonic palette of the album. "I play the guitar a little bit," she says. "I'm not that good. I'm really proud, though. I play on track nine, that was all me." Other highlights include "Shuu," a popular holdover from her 2006 mixtape, and the sultry "Take Me Out Dancing," which features an acrobatic high note that may be Michelle's finest moment as a vocalist to date.
Michelle's bubbly, talkative personality and lovey-dovey worldview belie the fact that her balancing act, as both a single mother and a musician, hasn't made for the easiest path in life. "It's kinda hard because, my son, he has autism, so him and music, it's a lot of work to do," she says, lamenting that just going out on the town to promote herself requires a babysitter. "I am happy, but I made myself a happy life by being appreciative of what I have, my circumstances and surroundings. Because why be mad? Why should I walk around being mad? I had a hard life, I really did, and I learned a lot. So from that I wanna teach and motivate other people through my music."
As Michelle continues to foster her career and begin work on her second album, she's been pushing Love everywhere she can, selling the album in local stores and on iTunes, and promoting it with live shows in and outside Baltimore. Releasing an album independently and working it on a grassroots level is the kind of thing that bands and rappers do all the time, but it's a bit atypical of R&B divas, who tend to get record deals and backers lined up before putting any music in front of the public. But that's the way Michelle likes it.
"I don't really care if I do or don't get signed," she says. "I really don't--as long as I make my livelihood in music, doing what I love to do."
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