There aren't many with more pedigree in Maine's hip-hop/R&B community than Kristina Kentigian. In 2004, as K Soul, she and the rest of Ill Natural released one of Portland's first true commercial hip-hop albums, Well Worth the Wait, and since then she's amassed a resume of guest spots as long as your arm. Her credits include a spot with Spose on his latest; the last two Trails releases; Mike Clouds's debut solo effort and both of Moshe's solo albums. She's got a nice transition verse on Alyssa Marie's "Push," taking the hand-off from Lady Essence and passing it along ably. Even Grant Street Orchestra's new album has a Kentigian contribution, helping them celebrate their break-up.
But she's never been front and center.
As an R&B/jazz crooner, she's usually tasked with sultry transitions or warming up a chorus. She has been a presence, but she's never really been the focal point.
Now, however (and you saw this coming), she's out with a solo debut full-length, and you can be sure you won't be able to miss her. The 16-song-plus-a-remix effort, The Beginning Again, is just over an hour straight of Kentigian out front, with a four rappers supplying a single verse each on five of the tracks.
In fact, I'd hazard you haven't heard anything like this before, at least locally. Like many a hip-hop album, all of the music is digitally produced, with producers like Educated Advocates' Mike Be, Shupe, Slop, and Jason Keith — plus The Lin and former Ill Natural bandmate Jason Caron, the two of whom recorded all of Kentigian's vocals. These are repeating beats, for the most part only a couple of bars long, but instead of rapping over them, Kentigian does her R&B/jazz thing, like a singer/songwriter version of Sade, in that the lyrics are more verbose and personal.
The result is a little disconcerting at first, because you're waiting for the chord change at the chorus and it never comes — Kentigian just sings different words, sometimes a different melody, at the point where the chorus comes, but most of the time the music just keeps on keeping on. Couple that with 16 tracks that mostly stay in the same general pacing, vocal range, and delivery, and the songs can definitely run into one another if you're not listening hard. It's background music that's easy on the ears, but sometimes lacking in moments that grab your attention.
The effect is like a continuous slow burn of building tension without any of the release via crescendo we've come to expect as pop-music listeners. Really, there's a pretty frequent juxtaposition of halting, staccato beats and the smooth and rounded edges of Kentigian's delivery. She doesn't crack or strain, singing with a steady strength that's like a skyscraper's foundation.
That's why the raps are pretty vital for the album's enjoyment. The first comes in "Mr. Wonderful," with Swann Notty playing the role of the wishcasted title character: "We shine together/Divine/The light is right in us." It's a playful, confident song, if saccharine: "I'd really love a real man." Lady Essence gets off a nice one, too, a little more integrated into the song as a whole with a couple of samples mixed into "Stay True." Those make up the majority of the sonic deviations, though.