Released in July, Tell It Like It Is, by singer/songwriter Stephanie McKay, is an excellent soul album for today. Drawing on the sounds of classic soul, 1970s funk and old school hip hop, McKay’s second solo album is a successful attempt to reflect and relate to the world that ordinary people find themselves in. Speaking about her album, McKay makes it clear what she is trying to do: “It used to be that albums from the past, particularly soul albums, would tackle life’s issues and problems – as well as the fun… It’s what I grew up on. So it’s nice to put some of that feeling back in my own work.”
Born and raised in New York’s Bronx neighbourhood, McKay speaks of a home where “a brother…was always playing 70s soul and funk like Earth, Wind and Fire and the Ohio Players, while my mom was in the other room listening to Al Green and Barry White”. This comes through on the album. Listening to the track “Jackson Avenue” you can almost believe you were part of a 1980s Bronx music scene of block parties, sound systems and, as the song says, “Never too much playing all night long”.
McKay wrote the track “This Letter” after reading a newspaper column filled with letters written by wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters of soldiers fighting in Iraq, and it captures successfully their worries as they wait for loved ones to come home from a war about which “the president says it’s just begun”.
The album’s title track is trying to deal with the challenges of everyday life, as viewed by McKay from her home in Harlem. So it confronts the reality of what a teenage pregnancy can mean and the threat of gun crime for young black men. She chose to tackle this after witnessing a fatal shooting on her way to the store: “I knew then that the album would have a social message, more than anything I’d done before.”
Other tracks, like “Money” and “Oh Yeah”, relate to the kinds of pressures put on people by the need to make a living and get by, and the constraints this puts on individuals who find that the “boss’s on my back again… I just want to spread my wings and fly”.
Stephanie McKay has worked with Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Amp Fiddler among others, and on the album sings a beautiful broken-hearted soul duet with Anthony Hamilton.
Stephanie McKay toured recently, and next time she comes here it is well worth going to see her perform.
This is a great soul album, written and sung by someone who has something to say. “There were so many things that I saw as a New Yorker. 9/11 was just one of them. The frustration of so many people coming together to stop a war, trying to get a straight answer out of the government – hence the title Tell It Like It Is.”
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