Her name is Laurnea, and she's an amazing, progressive song stylist and composer whose distinctive, hauntingly passionate voice and soul-affirming lyrics defy traditional r&b/pop categorization. The heart and soul-affirming lyrics that pass through her gifted golden pipes make indelible impressions so strong they'll surely last a lifetime. Which brings us to Betta Listen, Laurnea's appropriately titled Yab Yum/Epic Records debut album.
Betta Listen, partially recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in London, is a glistening collection of exceptionally well-crafted original songs. And although she is the album's primary composer, Laurnea shares co-writing and production credits with such top urban hitmakers as Speech (Arrested Development), Kwesi (a/k/a DJ Kemet), Omar, and Raphael Saadiq (Tony Toni Tone); additional tracks were written and produced by Yab Yum producer Jon-John Robinson.
A serious listen to Betta Listen confirms Laurnea's estimation. Highlight tracks include "Sun Don't Rain," a beautifully sung and bountifully arranged future classic; "Happy," a fierce jazz/funk foray into love's ecstatic possibilities; and "Can't Let Go," a heartfelt declaration of devotion with prominent acoustic guitar and heavenly backing vocals. "Today" is a svelte blend of silk and satin soul; "Infatuation," a saga of insatiable sensual stamina; while "Gone" features one of Laurnea's most straight-ahead, jazz-inspired performances.
Always inclined to follow her own lead, Laurnea's entry into the solo recording spotlight offers refreshing contrast to the seemingly endless string of similar-sounding r&b/hip hop "divas" being force-fed the public these days. Her music challenges yet champions the listener, never underesti-mating one's intelligence or taste. Her stylized musical approach ÷ an irresistible R&B/jazz/soul hybrid ÷ offers serious heartfelt images amplified by an understated but always effective vocal delivery.
In addition to the release of Betta Listen, Laurnea looks forward to the Spring '97 release of the M-G-M movie Hoodlum, directed by Bill Duke (Deep Cover, Sister Act 2) and starring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, and Vanessa Williams. In the role of a '30s nightclub singer, Laurnea performs the big band jazz classic "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," accompanied by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. (This isn't her first time on the big screen: Laurnea had a cameo role in Spike Lee's acclaimed School Daze.)
Laurnea Wilkerson was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Los Angeles; currently, she resides in Atlanta. Her late, beloved mother Velma Brock once sang with the legendary Sam Cooke; four of her five daughters were also singers. Laurnea remembers vocalizing since the age of nine; nevertheless, she insists, "I never dreamed of making it a career ÷ it's just something I did, in addition to being a dancer." (In her teens, Laurnea became the lead dancer of a critically acclaimed, nationally touring drill team.)
"In fact," she adds, "although I grew up singing in church, acting in a few plays, and even doing secular gigs, for a long time I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with my life."
"Acting is something I love," Laurnea explains, "but music is my first priority. The process of making Betta Listen was an exhilarating creative experience for me especially when a song, once it was recorded, went beyond the result I'd anticipated."
A former member of England's pop/r&b group Loose Ends, and later a pivotal part of Bobby McFerrin's famous "Voicestra" ensemble, Laur nea was recruited by McFerrin to record the singing voice of Dorothy for Ringling Bros.' acclaimed touring production of "The Wizard of Oz On Ice." Her concert tour credentials include sharing stages with Jeffrey Osborne, singing background on the Patti LaBelle/James Ingram tour, and performing with Arrested Development. In addition, she has sung on tv commercials for J.C. Penney, the Cotton Corporation, South- western Bell, Burger King and Coca Cola; appeared in four films, including Spike Lee's classic School Daze; and played Whoopi Goldberg's younger sister on the ABC-TV after-school special, "My Past Is My Own."
Betta Listen is a sensational breakthrough album, but longevity is the key to a hit-making present and a chart-topping future. This is one young artist whose clear vision and multifaceted talent will surely serve her well in the long run. "My music is my legacy," Laurnea assures us, "and giving it to the people is what I knew I had to do before leaving this planet for the next phase."