Album Review: Chlöe – In Pieces

[Parkwood/Columbia; 2023]

Most major stars start young and evolve with time. From Rihanna to Beyoncé to Usher to Madonna to Michael Jackson, over the years a lot of the greats change their style of performing, writing, singing, and presenting themselves, reaching unique forms of greatness that in retrospect make it hard to grasp that they weren’t always that way, and harder even to acknowledge they weren’t as good.

How then, do you steward a talent like Chlöe Bailey? Freshly out of the sister duo Chlöe x Halle, as a soloist she has yet to fail to show she has true skill whenever she picks up a microphone. Be it taking on the classics like Nina Simone and Minnie Riperton, or showing what she can do with her own songs, Bailey consistently proves herself skilled in every avenue. She pulls focus, she doesn’t blend in, she has every making of a pop star. The question is, is it enough? If the age of talent show TV has taught us anything, it is that it takes more than talent to make a record. Has she got what it takes?

Bailey’s sheer intensity makes that hard to determine. After playing sexy pop starlet for three scrapped singles, she truly started the album cycle with the single “Pray It Away”, laying down grand expectations for her debut album. That promise is mirrored on In Pieces‘ dramatic intro of harmonies and horns. The song captures the star quite well: It is a sonic oxymoron that simultaneously shoots for emotional vulnerability and is carried by the singer’s all-encompassing confidence. It fails to land as either a plea or an anthem because Bailey plays both too well. It is overproduced, and overperformed to scale. This myriad of excesses reaches for the stars and lands at perfectly adequate. You can’t dismiss it, it’s too much to dismiss, but you can’t love it, it’s just not quite there.

“Too much” is a mode the artist is rather fond of. Party jam “Body Do” is approached with a level of diva seriousness that shows she paid good attention to her mentor’s Coachella set. It’s undeniably fun for the listener, you’re just left unsure whether it’s fun for the singer. Even with the breezy afrobeat production of “I Don’t Mind”, Bailey affects her voice as if delivering a dramatic monologue. She commands the sound, never failing to give her all in a performance just because she can. By “Worried”, the music simply can’t keep up with her. Her sing-rapping captivates the listener with great one-liners like “my favorite part ‘bout business is when you mind your own”, while the chorus is a true ear-worm – yet the production doesn’t rise past competent.

Eventually, however, the artist does seem to relax. The interlude “Fallin 4 U” is the first moment when she seems to rely on her charisma, which is what anchors her through the 00s pastiche “How Does It Feel”. The characteristic mid-aughts melodrama gels well with Bailey’s habit of treating music like acting, and her collaborator, actual 00s star Chris Brown, pulls his weight without going overboard, balancing the song out and creating one of the album’s best pieces. The melodrama seamlessly carries over in the transition to “Feel Me Cry”, a more minimal song where the singer and the song are truly one, sharing a single passionate affectation that comes across beautifully. Following that, the pair of “Make It Look Easy” and “Looze U” make for particularly intimate moments where Bailey’s ability to convey pain through song really gets a chance to properly shine. In a body of work devoted to building her credibility as a pop star, this mellow middle part of In Pieces adds to her credit as purely a singer.

The pop star still stands central, however, as “Told Ya” featuring Missy Elliot quickly reminds us. The choices in sound, performance, and collaborator are so reminiscent of Ciara that it’s almost a tribute, which is by no means a bad thing when one is shooting for 00s fun. Missy Elliot brings in the effortless pure style you expect of her, and a beat switch up towards the end makes this one of the album’s more attention-grabbing moments. The marriage between Chlöe Bailey and the 00s reaches its pinnacle, however, in the following “Cheatback”. The acoustic guitars furnish the perfect backdrop for Bailey to show us the range of her rapper/singer-songwriter/actress skillset with a perfect sense of drama that makes this song a verbal assassination worthy of 00s greats. With a Future verse that has the decency of not getting in her way, Bailey makes this the album’s centerpiece and a moment that truly proves what she brings to the table as an artist.

Bringing it all to a close are the piano-based interlude “Heart On My Sleeve” and the titular ballad. A song like “In Pieces” demands a singer at the level of Chlöe Bailey, but I dare say a singer at the level of Chlöe Bailey doesn’t demand a song like “In Pieces”. It’s not impossible that Bailey really wanted to make a song like this, but such a by-the-books ballad in a pop album reeks of box-ticking, and the run from “Feel Me Cry” to “Looze U” proves Bailey can deliver emotional vulnerability and vocal dexterity without sacrificing compelling musicality. In such a labored album, such a simplistic closer feels underwhelming.

In Pieces is certainly a memorable listen, and we’re left to see what kind of returns this grab bag of radio hits will yield, but it does not answer the central question: What to make of Chlöe Bailey. Sure, she made a good album, but also an album that sounds like it wants to be a lot more than it is. Despite having released three albums with her sister, it feels like a debut more than anything else she’s made. Though freer than the critically acclaimed Ungodly Hour, it is also less focused. Her performance rises to greater heights, but her music doesn’t always rise with her. Still, it is a work laden with potential, and I have no doubt this is just a step in the journey toward musical greatness that matches the talent that is already there.