Syleena Johnson Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Syleena Johnson became a force in mainstream R&B in the early 2000s, landing several chart hits and working alongside such figures as Busta Rhymes, Kanye West, and R. Kelly. But in many ways the singer, daughter of Chicago soul/R&B/blues legend Syl Johnson, has always sounded like a roots woman: her voice is supple and resonant, yet toughened with grainy texture, and it highlights her deep-soul inheritance. Her songs are distinguished by a courageous willingness to express vulnerability—emotional and otherwise—in a genre where postmodernist ironic detachment and blunt aggression often seem to dominate. In 2017, she dropped Rebirth of Soul (Shanachie), a set of classic soul and R&B covers on which she’s supported by Syl’s old-school production and arrangements (read: no synths). The album was far from an exercise in moldy-fig revivalism: the singer breathed new, urgent life into standards, including Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Betty Everett’s “There’ll Come a Time,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” She also recast her father’s anthemic 1969 hit “Is It Because I’m Black?” as an ominous, smoldering meditation, reminding us that the anger and frustration borne of racial injustice still seethes, and that the eruption of what James Baldwin called “the fire next time” may be closer than we think.   v

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