Two years after Blu Cantrell burst through the gate as one of the great new voices of contemporary urban R&B following the release of her scorching debut, 2001's So Blu, the striking vocal powerhouse has returned with a hot new look and an even hotter new album, the aptly-titled Bittersweet. "My new album is another chapter of my life; I'm getting a little further from the pain and closer to real love," says Cantrell, whose first disc was written and recorded in the wake of an unhealthy relationship that left the singer-songwriter devastated and suffering from a severe bout of depression. "That's why I titled it Bittersweet," she continues, "because I'm still bitter about some past relationships, but I've also experienced the sweetness of love."
Indeed, Bittersweet is one part tear-stained diary and one part survival guide for matters of the heart. "Singing about relationships is almost like therapy for me," says Cantrell, 27. "It helps me stay focused and not allow outside influences to make me lose sight of what I'm trying to do." And no matter whether Cantrell's sharing a personal tale of heartbreak ("Sleep in the Middle") or relishing the joy of love ("Happily Ever After"), she does it all with no-nonsense flair and poise. Take, for instance, Bittersweet's lead single, "Breathe," in which Cantrell affirms that rather than fanning the flames of a troublesome relationship it's often best to simply evacuate and let time extinguish the pain. "That song is a snapshot of a recent relationship," she confesses. "Sometimes you just have to step back and give each other space."
Produced by a top-notch ensemble of in-demand hitmakers, including Tricky Stewart, Shep Crawford, Mike City, Soulshock & Karlin, and Ivan Matias, Bittersweet's infectious grooves, jams, ballads and club bangers not only support, but also enhance and illuminate both Cantrell's voice and her lyrics. The album also features a handful of inspired star-studded cameos by Fat Joe, Sean Paul, Lil' Kim and Ian Lewis from the legendary reggae quintet Inner Circle-all of whom complement Cantrell with their respective signature sounds.
Blessed with vocal chords that convey both power and passion, along with insightful songwriting skills and unparalleled enthusiasm for her craft, it's no wonder why consumers and critics alike were captivated by Cantrell the instant they heard "Hit 'Em Up Style (Ooops!)," her distinctive introductory hit single from 2001. Produced by Dallas Austin, the song's intriguing mix of sassy lyrics and streetwise R&B flavor sprinkled with elements of swinging 1920s-style jazz, spent multiple weeks at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. It also helped So Blu become a Grammy and American Music Award nominated success that landed in the upper reaches of Billboard's top albums chart. Most importantly, it distinguished Cantrell from the throngs of R&B coquettes cluttering the airwaves at the time.
"I knew the first time I heard Blu sing that she was special," says Antonio "LA" Reid President and CEO of Arista. "It's incredible to see her growth from So Blu to Bittersweet," he continues. "She's definitely revealing more of her inner talent and artistry this time around." In fact, she co-wrote four cuts on Bittersweet, including the Caribbean-tinged "Make Me Wanna Scream," the straightforward directive "Let Her Go" and the euphoric "Holding On to Love."
There's simply no denying that Bittersweet is a landmark in the creative journey that Cantrell embarked upon while coming of age in her native Providence, Rhode Island, where she and her five siblings would tag along with their mother, an amateur jazz singer, whenever she performed at local clubs. After growing up surrounded by music, Cantrell broke into the business by paying her dues as a backing singer for the likes of P. Diddy, Gerald Levert and Faith Evans. In 2000, she received the big break she'd been waiting for when she crossed paths with A&R executive Tab and producer Tricky Stewart of RedZone Entertainment in the lobby of an Atlanta hotel. Under Stewart's tutelage, Cantrell began recording a demo and within a couple of months, she was ready for the spotlight.
"Tricky called L.A. [Reid] and told him that he had something for him to hear," Cantrell recalls. "Three days later, L.A. flew to Atlanta from New York with his entire A&R staff to meet me. We all went into this tiny studio and he asked me to sing 'Til' I'm Gone'-a song that I had recorded with Tricky-on the spot and acapella. Something just took over me: I had my foot up off the floor, like I was in church, and I just started singing and pointing at him. At the end of my performance, L.A. asked me to sign, and I've been with Arista ever since."
Bittersweet's matured perspective is likely to strike a sensitive chord with listeners by reflecting the emotional ups and downs of romance that women can relate to and men can appreciate. It's also certain to catapult Cantrell into an even more exciting phase of her already impressive career.
"I tell the truth about love," she says, explaining the secret to her success. "While I don't sugar-coat things, I'm also known for my sense of humor. Through my music, I bring a sense of light to dark subjects, especially in relationships. This album could have been a bunch of dark, vindictive songs. Instead, I wanted to give you real emotions with a sense of fun. I hope the fans enjoy the aural experience as much as I enjoyed creating it."