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Review: Corinne Bailey Rae, 'The Heart Speaks In Whispers'

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Corinne Bailey Rae, <em>The Heart Speaks In Whispers</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks In Whispers

In "Tell Me," the neon-charged fourth track on Corinne Bailey Rae's inspiring third album The Heart Speaks In Whispers, the British-born singer-songwriter sets her sights on a new generation. "This is for the dreamers," Rae wails over a two-step beat as her friends and collaborators Paris and Amber Strother shout support behind her. "Let's make our own scene." Rae is hardly the first to essentially dedicate an album to those with stars in their eyes: She might have been thinking of her fellow Northerners in The Stone Roses declaring one more for the dreamers in 1994's "Daybreak," or of J. Cole, who once sampled her first hit "Like A Star," calling for the revenge of the dreamers in 2014. What Rae adds to this idealists' songbook is a feminine take that blends dreaminess with nuanced awareness of the heart's hesitations and the need, in life, for clarity.

Male dreamers are often hailed as visionaries, their gutsy impracticality a sign of courage and insight. Women dreamers become reduced to attractive cartoons, flighty and vulnerable, the gamine heroines of vaguely countercultural fantasies. The Heart Speaks In Whispers, co-produced by Rae and her longtime collaborator and husband Steve Brown, fights against this split by presenting a woman's imaginative flights within fleshed-out jams and delicate, jazz-informed ballads examining the subtle trajectories emotions can take.

Rae collaborated with the Strother sisters, two-thirds of the innovative L.A. soul group KING, in six of the album's tracks. Working with them and other musicians connected to the thriving black bohemian scene in Los Angeles, she found a community of players who make the boundary-defying, epic music toward which she's long been striving. The Heart Speaks In Whispers is a more assertive and pop-wise work than her moving and challenging 2010 album The Sea, and more expansive than her charming 2006 debut, which earned Rae several hits and prizes. It has the feel of an adventure, full of fellow travelers ranging from star bassists Pino Palladino and Marcus Miller and funky drumming legend James Gadson to the foundational R&B songwriter Valerie Simpson (who co-wrote the heartrending "Do You Ever Think Of Me?") and Moses Sumney, whose choral backing lends resonance to Rae's meditation on surviving sorrow, "Caramel."

What places The Heart Speaks In Whispers in the elite category of transcendental genre-busters from Minnie Riperton to Erykah Badu are those big-sky songs that play as a continuation of the Prince-style revolution KING announced on its striking debut earlier this year. (Rae and the much-lamented superstar were friends, and he worked with KING.) "Green Aphrodisiac" recalls the Purple One's pastoral work on Diamonds And Pearls, while "Horse Print Dress" takes up the playful seductiveness of songs like "Peach." Rae uses her light vocal tone ingeniously throughout The Heart Speaks In Whispers, sidestepping the clichés of oversinging in the new gospel of "Walk On" and infusing gravitas with gentleness in the slow and steady "Hey, I Won't Break Your Heart." After his death, many fans pointed to Prince's legacy of work with female artists. Rae realizes it here — a woman, not a girl, dreaming in her own colors.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.