When Tweet debuted as a solo artist in 2002, the future appeared bright. "Oops (Oh My)," a ribald track about finding sensual pleasure with no help from anyone else, quickly became a Top 10 crossover hit. In the song, Tweet — born Charlene Keys — melts at her own touch while a magnetic beat from Timbaland throbs in the background; Missy Elliot also makes an appearance, achieving maximum impact with just a few lines: "I was lookin' so good, I couldn't reject myself."
The success of "Oops" helped Tweet's Southern Hummingbird achieve platinum status. But after the first big bang, Tweet languished. Her next album, It's Me Again, failed to spawn a hit, effectively putting her solo career on hold. Charlene, which arrived at the end of last month, marks her first full-length in more than a decade.
When It's Me Again didn't live up to expectations, Tweet found herself struggling to maintain equilibrium. "Business-wise, the album wasn't doing good," she tells Rolling Stone. "There wasn't a lot of support. My personal life was spiraling out of control — I was drinking and smoking every day, and I wasn't really living life."
As a result, she "conked out:" "I was totally discouraged," she explains. "I didn't even want to hear music. I was in a bad place. Bitter." She cut herself off from many friends and collaborators, and instead focused on her faith: "I totally committed myself to getting my spiritual life together. I re-dedicated myself to God." She credits her devotion with ridding her of bitterness and helping her regain control and stability. "I'm an open book to tell just what He's done," she affirms. "I'm a walking billboard."
After tending to her spiritual side, falling back in love with music was a gradual relearning process. "I started to listen to everything that inspired me before I was Tweet," she recalls, mentioning the Supremes and Ike and Tina Turner. "On top of that, I started running into a lot of my supporters," she continues. "They said, 'Your music has touched me so much. We need you back.'" In 2013, she inched into the market again with the Simply Tweet EP. Last month, she released Charlene.
On her new album, Tweet completely ignores the sound of contemporary radio R&B. The secret about "Oops (Oh My)" is that it's actually an outlier from the rest of her catalog; she has always been a classicist at heart. Other songs from Southern Hummingbird were significantly less interested in looking towards the future: "Boogie 2Nite," for example, reached back to disco, while "Smoking Cigarettes" was a wafting soul ballad.
It's vintage tunes like those that provide the template for Charlene. This approach is not likely to earn her a lot of love on the airwaves, but she doesn't mind. "That's just the programming of it," she says. "That won't stop my focus." Tweet is not alone in reacting against the ubiquity of hip-hop-indebted R&B. Her interest in tradition aligns her record with recent releases from the trio King and the romantic ballad master Babyface. She characterizes the genre's current mindset dismissively: "All of the instruments got thrown out of the studio. Someone just put a programmer in there and said create music with some samples and call it R&B."
The principal sounds on Charlene are Tweet's voice — airy and frequently piled in fizzy, multi-tracked cascades — and clearly enunciated guitar lines, often courtesy of Charlie Bereal. Tweet worked for years as a backing vocalist, and she weaves choruses of herself around her lead vocals with great care. These extra strata take a variety of forms: everything from drill-bit-sharp injections of "shoop" in "Somebody Else Will" to a series of wistful echoes in "Magic."
The clear precedent here is Seventies soul. The bass parts mostly feel like they're played live, and the drums, even when they're programmed, are arranged as if trap had never been invented. Tweet likes to linger over beats made partly with hand percussion; when this texture rubs up against dawdling, bluesy guitar, as in "Won't Hurt Me" and "Addicted," the result brings to mind Curtis Mayfield's 1975 masterpiece There's No Place Like America Today.
As Tweet re-emerges by re-immersing herself in the work of artists who first earned her affection, she has reunited with the collaborators who were integral to her early career. "These are the same producers that did the first record and the second record," she says, a group that she met over a decade ago in a Los Angeles studio when she was adding backing vocals to Missy Elliott's Miss E … So Addictive album. "It's Charlie Bereal, Jubu Smith, Nisan Stewart and Craig Brockman — I could never do a record without them. We're stuck together."
And a Tweet record wouldn't be a Tweet record without a contribution from Timbaland and Missy. The producer adds a vintage hip-hop sheen to "Somebody Else Will," the most energetic moment on an otherwise even, hushed record. Missy slurs her way through the intro, warning a lover to shape up. For Tweet, getting back into the studio with her old partners-in-crime was easy and natural. "It was like we'd never left," she says. "We were like, 'Oh, my god, why did we wait so long?'"