In the dozen years since Fantasia Barrino claimed victory on “American Idol,” the singer has more than proved her mettle. She’s sold millions of records, released a New York Times bestselling memoir, won a Grammy, anchored a hit reality series and become a Broadway star.
And that success didn’t come easy.
Money woes, behind-the-scenes drama, label tension and a relationship entangled in sordid accusations of homewrecking and sex tapes excited tabloids and gossip blogs.
Then, amid a battle with depression and intense public scrutiny, she tried to take her own life by downing sleeping pills and aspirin in 2010.
Barrino survived, got her personal and professional life back on track and released a celebrated comeback record, 2013’s “Side Effects of You,” which saw her writing more of her own material and exploring a mix of genres she dubbed “rock soul.”
It’s that triumph over adversity that has long steered Barrino. But despite bouncing back after her life and career were on the brink, the R&B star found herself, again, at an impasse while recording her new album, “The Definition Of …”
“I’m at that place in my life now that if I can’t do what my heart is telling me to do, then I won’t do it anymore,” the 32-year-old singer confessed during breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel.
With her new album — released late last month via RCA Records, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart — the singer wanted to show she was in control. And after “12 long years .... and a lot of ups and downs,” she finally was.
“What [labels] have done is they have watered down the artist. Everybody has an opinion. This person thinks you should dress like this. This person thinks this is what your music should be like because this is what’s selling right now,” she said. “What you’re doing is ... prostituting the artist’s gift, and I couldn’t have that anymore.”
After coming off her role in the jazzy, Cotton Club-era inspired Broadway revue “After Midnight” in 2014, Barrino headed to the studio to work on the new album.
Early sessions saw her collaborating with a hit-maker whom Barrino “really, really, really loved,” but things ultimately didn’t work out.
Barrino didn’t name the collaborator, but plenty of footage on her social media showed her in numerous sessions with R. Kelly at the beginning of the album’s recording.
“Sometimes, when you work with producers who are artists, it’s very hard,” she explained. “They are doing their thing … and things got a little chaotic.”
Frustrated, Barrino called her longtime label to get the album back on course. The album’s progress, or lack thereof, made her realize she needed to make a bigger change.
“I needed to switch up my feet and switch up my team,” she said. “And that’s what I did.”
Wanting a fresh start after a year of creative differences and stalls, Barrino signed with new management, Primary Wave (CeeLo Green, Melissa Etheridge) in December.
Restarting the album was her new team’s priority, with managers taking her to veteran label executive and producer Ron Fair, whose credits stretch from Christina Aguilera and the Black Eyed Peas to Mary J. Blige and Keyshia Cole.
The pair even discussed doing a jazz album inspired by her role in “After Midnight” and a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra from earlier in the year.
“Ron isn’t afraid to take chances. He’s somewhat a rebel, like myself, and he doesn’t take no for an answer, like myself,” Barrino said of Fair, who executive produced the album. “He started paying all these YouTube videos of jazz and then detoured and started playing the O’Jays, and I knew then that he got it. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in the direction I was originally going.”
Recording at Fair’s Los Angeles studio, the producer helped Barrino stretch her self-proclaimed “rock soul” — “Tina Turner mixed with James Brown mixed with Prince,” she says of the sound — beyond contemporary R&B and funk. Her new album incorporates jazz, country, gospel, pop and, most important to her, live instrumentation.
Originally titled “A Pot of Soup” to reflect the mix of sounds, Barrino thought about all the licks she’s endured throughout the years and decided to confront them with a new title and a bold, artful cover that saw her face covered in chrome paint. “It’s the very thing I used to run from — and that’s me.
“At this point, I feel like I’m every woman. I’ve been through a little bit of everything,” she continued. “I’m the definition of strength.”
“It’s hard for women … [especially] in the industry. If you look at some of the greats, they either couldn’t keep a good relationship or they were in an abusive one,” she continued. “It was almost like the man was trying to tear that spark out of them. I went through a lot of that. I’ve been spit on. I’ve had a black eye. I’ve dumbed myself down to try to make a relationship work.”
The album’s “Wait for You” sees her trying a hand at dance pop, the bluesy “Lonely Legend” recalls the ethos of Tina Turner and “I Made It” is the inspirational anthem gospel fans have been waiting to hear from her.
Elsewhere, she floats between off-kilter down-tempo (“Stay Up”) and country (“Ugly”).
Barrino credits this newfound career confidence with the work she did rebuilding her life. During “After Midnight,” she said, she decided to make a commitment to herself — even buying herself a ring.
“I married myself. I know that sounds corny,” she laughed. “For seven months, I fasted [from sex]. I didn’t date. I didn’t drink. I didn’t go out, if I did, it was just jazz shows. I wanted to cleanse myself and let go of all of those bad relationships that I was still carrying. At night, I prayed to be sent someone who could help build me because I was broken.”
Soon after she met businessman Kendall Taylor while out with friends. The two bonded over their faith and family, and after a brief, intense (and celibate) courtship, the couple quietly wed last summer. “We talked until the sun came up, every day. We talked so much, that it felt like lovemaking. That’s when I knew, this was different.”
With her personal and professional life in a much better place, “everything about Fantasia is a totally different woman” and she couldn’t be happier. It’s a welcomed change for someone whose narrative has been so dotted with tragedy over the years.
“I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve been doing it for 12 years, but I haven’t been doing it the way I wanted to,” Barrino admits. “I’ve got a long way to go. And I’m not going to allow the industry or people to take me out.”
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