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Melanie Fiona's 'The MF Life' album traveled a hard road

R&B singer Melanie Fiona says that several obstacles initially waylaid her sophomore effort, 'The MF Life,' but the album's arrival is well timed. She plays the Troubadour on Thursday.

March 22, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • R&B singer Melanie Fiona says that several obstacles stood in the way of making and releasing her second album, "The MF Life."
R&B singer Melanie Fiona says that several obstacles stood in the way… (Cameron Krone )

There's no mystery behind the title of singer Melanie Fiona's sophomore release, "The MF Life," when you consider what the 28-year-old Guyanese Canadian songstress went through to make and release the highly anticipated CD.

The album, which finally hit stores Tuesday, was supposed to be out in early 2011. Though its lead single, "Gone and Never Coming Back," was released in January of last year, with "4 AM" following in September, the release of the full album was delayed countless times due to various setbacks.

What made it worse? Fiona was coming off a huge buzz after her 2009 critically acclaimed, retro-soul debut, "The Bridge." "It's the MF life," said Fiona, who will headline a show at West Hollywood's Troubadour on Thursday. "You ride it out and not everything is going to be perfect. But coming off the high of where I was … It's just a little reality check."

One of the problems was the next-big-thing hype. It's a blessing and curse that makes any follow-up project a daunting task.

Then there were the shake-ups at the label that signed her. "There were a lot of internal changes; and there's [now] a third of the staff that used to be there three years ago," said Fiona, who shifted from Motown to Universal Republic after a label restructure last year. "When you're under the major label system, you can't just put your music out, there are channels. It's a little frustrating. Looking back, there was a time when I felt I needed to rush this album."

"But if we would have put it out last year I wouldn't have had the features on this album," she continued. "I wouldn't have the anticipation, I wouldn't have the confidence in myself and the exposure of people hearing 'The MF Life' for the past year. It's the perfect timing."

Where delays often dissipate public interest, the stalls, in fact, gave Fiona more time to tap some hip-hop heavyweights for the meaty collaborations on the record.

Drake harnessed his emo pathos on "I Been That Girl," which he co-wrote with T-Minus; J. Cole and Nas lent verses to the booming, radio-ready knock of "This Time" and "Running," respectively; and T-Pain paired the quiet burn of Fiona's "4 AM" with his hit "5 AM" into a stellar sequel, "6 AM." While longtime collaborator Andrea Martin did most of the heavy lifting of "The Bridge," hit makers such as Rico Love, No ID, Jack Splash and Salaam Remi chimed in with punchy tracks. John Legend and B.o.B. also appear on the disc that balances the sultry vibe of her debut with current grooves.

"I allowed myself to open up to a new sound and introduce myself to the world with this new sound," said Fiona. "[Songs like "4 AM" and other leaked tracks] really got people paying attention to the entire album, and not just the song."

"The Bridge" was hailed as "one of the best debut albums" of 2009 by the Associated Press and Vibe Magazine called it a "contemporary classic" — it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart — and landed her touring slots with Raphael Saadiq, Kanye West and Alicia Keys. But it was largely one of the album's ballads, "It Kills Me," that garnered the attention of mainstream fans.

The song spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard's R&B singles chart and generated a Grammy nod for female R&B performance.

"'It Kills Me' kind of changed it all for me, it had the academy and the industry paying attention," she recalled. "That raw emotion of the song, I think, opened the door for a lot of R&B singers at that point to come back and sing open, heavy, heartfelt R&B records."

She credits the hit with leading her to successful collaborations with Legend and Cee Lo Green — their remix of his single "Fool for You" won Grammys for R&B song and traditional R&B performance this year — and set the tone for the new album.

"I was overwhelmed, humbled and honored," she said. "It's very emotional. But it's like, OK, two-time Grammy-winning artist, people are going to be looking at you. Everything has to be done at that caliber if you want the continued respect."

Fiona said her aim with "MF Life" was to explore the "ideas of love, all of the sides and all of the highs and lows." She achieved that goal with anthemic songs of empowerment, yearning and sometimes gut-wrenching sorrow, easily making it one of the R&B standouts of the year so far.

Curious listeners will likely try to decipher how much of the record might be inspired by her long-term relationship with former "CSI: Miami" star Adam Rodriguez — which was kept under wraps until the two split recently.

Fiona simply hopes that fans will think the wait was worth it. "There's a song on there for everybody … I hope there is something on there that made them go, 'Hell yeah, I've been through that.' I want people to feel like, 'Yeah, I'm living my MF life,'" she offered with an obvious nod.

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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