Kelly Clarckson fights to emerge from pop shadows

If you’re searching for the “Meaning of Life” lend an ear to Kelly Clarkson. Unleashing her soulful spirit in her eighth studio album, her first since her split with RCA Records, Clarkson’s newfound freedom at Atlantic Records has revealed a slight style shift from cookie-cutter pop to the realms of R&B’s past, the type of music she has mentioned always wanting  to produce.

“Whole Lotta Woman” is a bonafide rendition of her 2003 hit single “Miss Independent,” inspired by the high-energy personality and vocals of Tina Turner.  Clarkson’s larger than life, Texas-style attitude is proudly plastered all over this track; making it is nearly impossible not to dance around a room with a hairbrush microphone in hand as this confidence booster plays. 

Even though Clarkson’s self-proclaimed new persona is a soul woman, the songs on “Meaning of Life,” are still heavy on the pop influence. Her single “Love So Soft,” which served as a teaser prior to the album’s full release, has a familiar pop groove with mere undertones of soul; credited to an appearance by Earth, Wind, & Fire.  

Despite her previous problem at RCA Records and the genre they pressed towards, other tracks including “Heat” and “Didn’t I” contain both isolated and great emphasis of horns heard in soul music. But going the extra mile to achieve that powerful soul-woman vibe Clarkson is confident she produced did not translate. Quite possibly, Clarkson and her producing team tried too hard to sound R&B that it backfired and turned the some of the songs more pop. However, a track that does not highlight the Texas attitude, ignores the confines of pop, and gives subtle hints of the golden ages of R&B is “Cruel.” This song is simple, elegant, and does not hide Clarkson’s natural talent underneath brassy, loud tones, but enhances it through a soft melody and her ability to add on soulful runs. 

Even with a name as household as Kelly Clarkson, that does not aid her in album sales as much as one might believe. In fact, they have decreased significantly since her 2011 album “Stronger,” which sold 1.1 million, to her 2015 album “Piece by Piece,” only selling 300,000, according to Billboard.

Clarkson has never been about “selling out”  to increase her popularity or sales, but it does not help that the booming, retro influenced sound she focused on in “Meaning of Life” is not chart topping material when compared with the modern, radio compatible hit pop songs of today. 

Despite these challenges and not yet having a huge hit off of her new album, Clarkson still has some promise with her romantic track, “Move You,” and sensual track, “Slow Dance,” that can compete with the wedding aficionado, Ed Sheeran. 

Even if the soulful dial was not turned up as much as expected, listeners and fans who have followed her throughout her 15 year career will find “Meaning of Life” enjoyable but, more importantly, feel how more passionate Clarkson is in herself and her improved sound.