You might not have caught The Soul Train Awards on Centric last night. In a flurry of Sunday night programming (plus Liz & Dick Lifetime!) it would’ve been easy to skip the award show dedicated to awarding the best in hip-hop and R&B. If you did choose another route, here’s your tl;dw (That’s “too long, didn’t watch.”) rundown: Cedric the Entertainer hosted, Anthony Hamilton did “Lovely Day”, Leah LaBelle did Teena Marie’s “Square Biz”, Fantasia paid tribute to Aretha with “Don’t Play That Song For Me”. There was a New Edition tribute (in which Bobby Brown failed to thank his departed former wife Whitney Houston?), Keyshia Cole performed “Enough of No Love” from her new album Woman to Woman, and X-Factor winner Marcus Canty did Luther Vandross‘ “Never Too Much”. On the hip-hop side, 2 Chainz was there. Naturally.
Perhaps in the strangest moment, Tyrese‘s “Stay” won Song Of The Year, despite being released independently from his album, Open Invitation. It beat out John Legend, Trey Songz, Estelle, Wale, AND Usher–making it a true underdog. Tyrese most likely knew this, stating in his acceptance speech that today’s R&B is “insecure, since everyone is doing house and techno music” (a weird nod to Usher, perhaps?) But tonight, he continued, “Real R&B is winning”.
And now for the best performances…
Whatever you do, don’t call Leah LaBelle an overnight success. While it’s true that she walked into an audition for LA Reid last year and was given a deal with Epic Records on the spot, she’s been putting in work to become an artist for the better part of the last 10 years. A former Berklee College of Music student, LaBelle was a contestant on the third season of American Idol back in 2004, but even with the support of Paula Abdul, wasn’t able to advance past the semifinal round. She kept grinding, though, posting covers of artists like Beyoncé (“Sweet Dreams”) and Frank Ocean (“Thinking About You”) on her MissLabelle1 YouTube Channel, eventually catching the eye of superproducers Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri.
The trio of music industry heavyweights — LA, JD and Pharrell — have been working on material for Leah LaBelle’s debut album (release date still TBD) for close to a year now, and the stunning LaBelle decided to give the new songs a live trial-run during a 6-song showcase in front of 200 or so sweaty onlookers at New York City’s Tribeca Grand Hotel last night. Before she took the stage, each one of these gents took some time to explain what they see in LaBelle, where LA explained that “She has soul. She has real soul, like real, real bonafide singer soul, like you don’t hear. And you especially don’t hear this from girls that are so cute.”
You would expect that kind of praise from a born promoter like LA, but once LaBelle hit the stage, she more than delivered on that promise, both in the voice and looks department. There’s no use tiptoeing around the fact that LaBelle is gorgeous —the moment she hit the stage, we witnessed a hundred or so jaws simultaneously dropping to the floor— but to LA’s point, her vocal chops are legit, and she’s got that charismatic “it” factor as a performer. Truth be told, she kind of reminds us a bit of a female Robin Thicke, in that her sound is perfectly suited for the urban market in a way that feels both wholly authentic and completely organic.