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STACY BARTHE’S ‘BECOMING’ PREMIERES ON NPR FIRST LISTEN
“At 17 songs, BEcoming is weighed down by the sheer heft of its subject matter, but when taken as a whole, it feels like a powerful and necessary purge. It’s not a ‘happily ever after’ kind of record so much as one dedicated to the idea of ‘to be continued’ — and, hearing Barthe joyfully belt out ‘Born To Belong,’ it’s hard not to be grateful for that.” – NPR
War IV Love
To create the slow-burning, genre-bending blend of R&B and soul heard on BEcoming, Barthe worked closely with executive producer Malay (a longtime collaborator of Barthe who’s perhaps best known for his work on Frank Ocean’s Grammy Award-winning channel ORANGE). Also teaming up with producers such as Benny Cassette (Kanye West, Sky Ferreira) and DJ Camper (Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown), Barthe relied almost entirely on live, organic instrumentation rather than programmed beats, samples, and loops. With featured artists including John Legend (who also serves as an executive producer) as well as Common and newcomer Ro James, the album achieves a timeless spirit but bears an urgency that makes even its quietest moments steeped in intensity and passion. And on each track, Barthe’s warm, masterful vocal work enchants and soothes despite the undeniable pain at the heart of her lyrics.
“The album’s about my old self dying and about becoming the new me,” explains Barthe, who likens the metamorphosis captured on the album to a larva shedding its cocoon and emerging as a butterfly. “I used to weigh 380 pounds,” she continues, “so I’ve been cocooning all my life—waiting to become.”
In chronicling her experience in losing the physical weight and gaining a new outlook on life, BEcoming hones in on three essential elements of Barthe’s transformation. Focusing on self-reflection, the first part of the album includes the breathtakingly stark piano ballad “Me versus Me” and the escapism-as-survival anthem “In My Head” (“The stories I make up in my mind/Make a little more sense than what’s going on out there”). BEcoming’s second section, meanwhile, delivers a potent message of inspiration. “Hey You There,” for instance, encourages embracing truth and shooting down self-delusion with razor-sharp lyrics like “When you get the courage to be yourself/You can stop lying to everybody else.” And with its nod to the Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 classic “Mas Que Nada,” the samba-tinged “Live for Today” finds Barthe matching Common’s dynamic guest rap with wary but wide-eyed lyrics about overcoming old fears (“All you can do is live for today/And pray for another”). Finally, the last segment of BEcoming looks at love’s many dimensions and offers up such songs as “You Wonder Why?” (a sultry take on heartache that feels as lush and elegant as a classic Sade record) and “War IV Love (a hypnotic, percussion-driven serenade featuring the vocal refrain “I’d suffer war if it meant victory was our love”). Other standouts on BEcoming include “Flawed Beautiful Creatures” (the theme song for season two of BET’s Being Mary Jane), on which Barthe turns thoughtfully breezy and full of hope. And on lead single “Angel” (a fresh yet faithful Anita Baker cover), John Legend joins Barthe in a sweetly starry-eyed duet.
No matter which emotion she’s embodying, each song on BEcoming shines with an unshakeable authenticity that’s got much to do with the deeply confessional nature of Barthe’s songwriting. “Everything on the album is something I’ve actually lived through,” she says. “For me the songs are like a diary.” The process of building that diary-in-song began soon after a December 2010 incident in which Barthe tried to take her own life by swallowing dozens of pills from her medicine cabinet. In recovering from her suicide attempt, Barthe initiated what became a three-year-long weight loss effort and simultaneously began her transition from songwriter to artist with the making of BEcoming. But despite all the change and renewal of the past few years, Barthe acknowledges that she’s “still not comfortable in my own body.” That’s why, she explains, BEcoming’s luminous artwork presents an incomplete butterfly as it moves from the hatching of the caterpillar egg to the spinning of the cocoon to the insect’s autumn migration and winter hibernation.
Creation-as-catharsis has long been crucial to Barthe, who came up with her first song at age eight, initiated her own musical education by studying jazz and hip-hop on the radio, and quickly claimed Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone as her idols. Although she kept up with her songwriting all throughout high school (and often used her lyrics to deal with what she describes as “problems with my mom and her abusive boyfriend, being made fun of, and all the other stuff I was going through back then”), Barthe headed to St. John’s University to study pre-law instead of pursuing a career in music—partly because she didn’t believe she could sing.
But while interning at Jive Records in college, Barthe crossed paths with producer Hit-Boy (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar) and soon relocated to Atlanta to work with him. “That’s what really started me on my musical journey,” she recalls. By the time she was 22, Barthe had inked a publishing deal with Universal Music; a year later, she had her first major placement with “Blur” (a track from Britney Spears’s 2008 album Circus). Over the next few years Barthe racked up credits with a wide variety of artists (including Cheryl Cole, Brandy and Estelle), but eventually grew restless with writing for other artists. So after independently releasing two EPs (2011’s Sincerely Yours, Stacy Barthe and 2012’s In The Inbetween), she signed to Motown Records as a recording artist in 2012 and put out the EP P.S. I Love You by the following May.
Though each of her previous releases is built on the honesty and vulnerability that infuses her latest effort, Barthe notes that BEcoming is her first carefully conceptualized, fully realized body of work so far. And while the process of baring her soul in BEcoming’s lyrics offered some sense of release, she’s quick to point out that the album wasn’t created with her own emotional state in mind. “I made this album for anyone who’s ever felt hopeless or broken or so down that they don’t know how to get back up again, and who’s tried to get through that,” Barthe says. “I did it for everyone who needs to hear it and heal.”