The legendary arranger-writer-producer Quincy Jones has an extensive arsenal of go-to aphorisms. One concerns the difficult business of matching the right tune to the right singer. “The song is the power,” Jones told Rolling Stone last year. “A great song can make the worst singer in the world a star. And a bad song can’t be saved by the three greatest singers in the world.”
This is cruel but mostly true, even if you write your own songs, and it comes to mind when listening to the new Tamia album Passion Like Fire. Her voice is always resplendent; in fact, Jones himself was so smitten with Tamia’s tone that he picked her to feature on his 1995 album Q’s Juke Joint. But the songs on Passion Like Fire don’t always hold up their part of the bargain.
Tamia co-wrote half this record with help from Lil Ronnie, an R&B veteran, but these two never gel. The instrumentation in “It’s Yours” shades too close to Beyonce’s “1 + 1,” while “Lost in You” raids from the Tamia classic “Officially Missing You,” and “Today I Do” strains too hard to be a future wedding staple. You’ll do better with the Salaam Remi-produced lead single “Leave It Smokin,'” which employs a serviceable Soul II Soul-like shuffle. It has been at Number Two on the Adult R&B chart for over a month, reaching nearly nine million listeners through the airwaves last week.
Passion Like Fire improves when Tamia reconnects with Shep Crawford, the man behind monster-ballads like Sisqo’s “Incomplete.” As a writer, Crawford loves frothy drama; as a producer, he’s mastered the simple tricks, like keeping a verse unadorned so a busy hook lands with satisfying oomph. Most important, Tamia and Crawford have a fruitful working relationship, best demonstrated by the 2001 hit “Stranger in My House,” which still inspires fervent sing-alongs at shows.
Crawford introduces himself with “Tell Me How” — is that a smidgeon of Mary J. Blige’s “I Can Love You” during the bridge? — but the real ringer is “Better,” an instructional guide for maintaining a successful relationship. Tamia gently chides her partner with “there’s another way to get the things you want from me,” before she explains how he might make amends. Lean, half-rapped verses blossom into a grand chorus: a wall of momentous synth chords, a screwy, half-buried bassline, and swooning, multi-tracked vocals. “The song is the power,” and here Tamia gets it just right.