Happy 15th Anniversary to Amel Larrieuxs debut album Infinite Possibilities, originally released February 15, 2000.
Nearly twenty years ago, a fundamental paradigm shift occurred within contemporary soul music, signaling what would arguably become the most vibrant and artistically fruitful period the genre has experienced in the past two decades. Having achieved mainstream popularity in a remarkably short amount of time, the new jack swing era of the late 1980s and early 1990s reached its inevitable stagnation point by the mid-1990s. In its wake, a new musical movement surfaced: neo-soul.
At its core, the neo-soul philosophy encouraged artists to reverentially embrace the musical traditions of the past, while simultaneously cultivating fresh, modern sounds through their commitment to innovation and experimentation. And while some critics have understandably bemoaned the neo-soul term originally coined by former Motown Records president Kedar Massenburg as a gross oversimplification of the musical styles that emerged from the mid 1990s into the early 2000s, few critics can dispute the importance of the musical transition that took place. Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and DAngelo are the most universally recognized artists that helped neo-soul flourish both creatively and commercially during this period. The overwhelmingly positive response toward DAngelos recent renaissance and Black Messiah LP not to mention the continued success of his fellow trailblazing artists, particularly Badu and Scott proves that the artists and aesthetic principles that fueled the early neo-soul flame are still relevant to, and beloved by, music fans worldwide.
One singer-songwriter that perplexingly never attained the same level of critical and commercial ubiquity as her aforementioned peers, but absolutely deserved to, is Amel Larrieux. I suspect that most of us familiar with Larrieux can vividly recall the first time we heard her angelic voice, gracing the fantastic 1995 single “Tell Me” by Groove Theory, the group that she co-founded with Mantronix member Bryce Wilson. A modest success that same year, the duos self-titled debut album would be the only LP released during its ephemeral career. But for my money, Groove Theory is unequivocally one of the best “one-and-done” LPs ever recorded and one of my very favorite albums of all time. (More ink will be devoted to the greatness of Groove Theory in a subsequent Long Play Love post later this year here on soulhead, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled.)
Though Groove Theory is sonically adventurous and its production top-notch, the driving force behind the albums undeniable appeal is the subtle power of Larrieuxs resonantly soulful vocals coupled with her refreshingly earnest lyrics. No surprise then that her vocal contributions were in high demand during the few years following the albums release. In addition to a pair of non-album Groove Theory songs appearing on the soundtracks of 1996s Sunset Park (“Its Alright”) and 1997s Love Jones (“Never Enough”), Larrieux provided background vocals for The Roots hypnotic “Concerto of the Desperado” and “One Shine” from their 1996 Illadelph Halflife LP, and also featured on the lovely “You Will Rise” and “Gaze” from Sade-offshoot Sweetbacks eponymous album released the same year.
When a few more years passed with no new Groove Theory material to speak of, Larrieuxs ever-expanding legion of fans grew increasingly restless. Fortunately, Larrieux had the perfect remedy for our impatience, in the form of Infinite Possibilities, her debut solo album released in early 2000, following her formal departure from Groove Theory. Co-written and co-produced in true DIY fashion by Larrieux and her husband Laru Larrieux, the albums kaleidoscopic sound defies easy genre classification, incorporating a magnificent mélange of different musical styles, from soul to jazz to hip-hop to world music and more. Its crisp, chilled-out sonics provide the optimal backdrop upon which Larrieuxs vocal dynamism shines even brighter than it had before she embarked upon her solo career.
Infinite Possibilities ten-song suite offers further proof that Larrieuxs voice is truly a uniquely flexible, multi-dimensional instrument, oozing warmth and unforced beauty. While Larrieux effortlessly commands more modern-sounding, beat-heavy soul joints (“Get Up,” “I N I,” “Searchin for My Soul”), she also thrives within the more traditional jazz-indebted compositions (“Down”) and straightforward, stripped-down pop ballad fare (“Make Me Whole”). “Weather” is perhaps the most remarkable showcase of Larrieuxs vocal agility and her penchant for avoiding monotony through the use of improvisational scat singing, among her many other vocal tricks and talents.
But what ultimately makes Infinite Possibilities so enthralling and unforgettable is not her voice alone. Indeed, her songwriting skills are just as captivating as her vocal chops, with introspective lyrics that revolve around the persistent thread of personal resolve and reinvention as the antidotes to adversity, in its many shapes and forms. Embodying an understated elegance and sophistication that never even remotely approach pretentiousness, her songs of empathy, hope (which is, coincidentally, the Arabic meaning of the name Amel), and redemption are capable of inducing the sweetest of daydreams and elevating the spirits of even the most troubled of souls. Personally, each time I listen to the album, my mood instantly illuminates, my mind clears, my soul replenishes, and I feel more reassured than ever that I (and we) can as Prince once remarked get through this thing called life.
In the fifteen years since Infinite Possibilities release, Larrieux has blessed our ears with four more LPs, all distinct and thrilling listening experiences in their own right. Appreciated together, the five albums are proof positive that Larrieux has practiced the self-empowerment that she preaches in her songs. While some of the artists who enjoyed more widespread global fame during neo-souls early years have faded into obscurity or are only heard from infrequently at best, Larrieux transformed the unfortunate demise of her once-promising group into a productive, prolific career that will surely continue to evolve and excite in the years to come.
Larrieux is unquestionably one of the most gifted singer-songwriters working today, worthy of discovery by those who may still be unfamiliar, and cherished by those of us who have championed her music for two decades now. For the uninitiated, theres no better way to begin your exploration of this fine artist than by giving Infinite Possibilities a proper spin. And for the rest of us, its high time to revisit this stunner of an album, and fall in love with its many seductive charms all over again.
My Favorite Song: Weather
“Sweet Misery” (2000)
“Get Up” (1999)
“I N I” (2000)
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