Elle Varner – Perfectly Imperfect
RCA Records; 2012
Day & A Dream Rating: 4.5 out of 5
BUY: iTunes | Amazon

Elle Varner is the new “good girl” of RnB. That’s a fact. Whether or not that’s an image she’ll choose to shed over the course of her career, remains to be seen. But it’s been very refreshing to see a good girl amidst a sea of so many “bad b*tches” in the modern music industry. We knew something was different about Elle Varner the minute her first single, “Only Wanna Give It to You,” hit the internets and, later, radio in the middle of last year. At once, Varner managed to embody the best of both worlds – a nostalgic sound and feel and yet it was still modern. The star power of J. Cole, who had himself just come off a relatively strong outing with his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story, certainly helped the single, but make no mistake, “Only Wanna Give It to You” was Elle’s song from start to finish.

In much the same way, Elle Varner’s debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, embodies all of those same qualities – it manages to bridge a gap between old school and new school, and the album is most certainly Elle’s from start to finish, as its only feature is Jermaine on the aforementioned track.

It’s obvious that, even though she’s an R&B singer, Elle has a strong appreciation for music in general, but especially for hip-hop, and that was definitely communicated to duo Warren Felderand and Andrew Wansel (aka “Oak” & “Pop,” respectively) and Jimmy Varner, the primary producers of the album. Elements of hip-hop appear on “Only Wanna Give It To You” in the form of funky record scratches. Before radio murdered overplayed it, “Refill” benefited greatly from its frantic violins that gave it heavily dramatic flare (a dramatic flare that perfectly fit the single’s soap opera-esque music video). The meshing of a trombone and violins on “Stop The Clock” is skillfully executed. And “I Don’t Care” is in the same vein of “Only Wanna Give It to You,” calling to mind the sound of late 80s/early 90s R&B.

Over the course of eleven tracks, Elle Varner takes us inside the mind of an ordinary girl, a dreamer perhaps. Deeply personal admissions of insecurity pop up on “So Fly,” which is deceptively upbeat in sound but hides beneath the surface a frustration with societal standards (and with one’s own questions of measuring up); and the sultry “Not Tonight,” on which Elle pouts because she’s too shy to approach a guy who grabs her attention in the club, sounding a lot more seductive than she’s supposed to in the process. And “Stop The Clock” is an incredible aural experience of a break-up song, one that should take over airwaves all this fall (but which hopefully won’t get “Refill’ed out” by radio and VH1).

But even the “good girl” has her moments of being bad – to borrow Elle’s own words on “Sound Proof Room,” “I’m surely a lady/ But I’m not a stranger to badly behaving sometimes.” “O What A Night” is a surprisingly infectious track on which Elle sings about indulging in a few drinks too many during a night out with her girls, crooning on the chorus, “straight shots of Patron and a slice of lime/ And I got myself too drunk to drive” and getting more than a little clever in the song’s outro by saying, “I hate to be a quitter/But I’m thinkin’ bout my liver/ And the liquor that I give it is gon’ kill me even quicker.” It’s a stark confident contrast to the uncertain girl singing on “Not Tonight” and “So Fly.” And the aforementioned “Sound Proof Room” is a cousin of Chrisette Michelle’s “If I Had My Way” – it’s Varner on the prowl, practically purring about what she’d do to the object of her affections over the tapping drums that interrupt the song’s funky sound in the hook.

Varner’s debut has a few moments of weakness, however. Elle’s pipes aren’t that powerful (yet?), so her voice sounds strained on certain songs. This strained voice causes tracks like the emotionally charged friend-box anthem “Damn Good Friends” and the smooth “Leaf,” to not be as great as they could’ve been.

As its title implies, though, Elle Varner wasn’t seeking perfection on her debut album – she merely only wanted to tell her story. If nothing else, it’s certainly closer to perfect than it is to imperfect. Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect album is by far a resounding message that real R&B isn’t quite down for the count, and that, yes, the good girl can be sexy, too.