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Review: Kiesza Channels ’90s House Divas on ‘Sound of a Woman’

The singer's debut album is peppered with some of 2014's most nostalgic pop songs

It takes, at most, five seconds of Kiesza’s “Hideaway” to realize that something transformative is happening. The staccato siren noise that signals the Canadian singer’s arrival blips quickly and sharply. Then her soulful vocals suddenly fill the hollow space as her keyboard keeps the song from tilting completely a cappella. Around 30 seconds in, “Hideaway” blossoms into an acidic ’90s-inspired fever dream, incorporating all the melodies of a modern EDM track into the shell of a song like CeCe Peniston’s 1991 jam, “Finally.”

How refreshing it is that Kiesza’s debut album — Sound of a Woman, released earlier today — does so much criss-crossing between her influences, when major-label interference could’ve taken it astray. With the success of “Hideaway” as a single, the singer could’ve taken the safe course of action with a 12-song formulaic repeat. Instead, what the former Canadian Navy code-breaker — talk about a career shift — serves up is one of the most elastic albums of the 1990s, both 20 years too late and also totally in time.

In interviews, Kiesza — born Kiesa Rae Ellestad — counts Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, and Sade as sources of inspiration. For a good slice of the album, those sorts of soul/R&B voices take hold. On “So Deep,” a sultry slow-jam if there ever were one, Kiesza warps her vocals on the hook. It’s a gender-bending “duet” that’s interesting without forcing its politics. “Break me into pieces / You can choose the color of my fate / Long as we can keep this / You can have it all again,” she coos to her late-night lover who responds with the sorta dirty, kinda sweet, “Taking my love / Baby I’m so deep now.” Then, inexplicably (unless you’re following its narrative trajectory), the song explodes into a tambourine-heavy anthem. It’s a risk that pays off, one that allows Kiesza to play up her richly expressive vocal range.

The only thing Sound of a Woman truly suffers from is a lack of editing, which drags the project down at times. The production on “Piano” is gorgeous, as are Kiesza’s emotionally charged vocals, but the song’s chorus — “Come put your hand on my piano” — is a metaphor stretched to its breaking point. Similarly, “Losin’ My Mind” smoothly pales in imitation to “…Baby One More Time,” until guest rapper Mick Jenkins bursts in with a verse filled with disses directed at Lamar Odom disses and talk of a midnight rendezvous. Similarly, “What Is Love” is a nice acoustic wink to Eurodance star Haddaway’s original 1993 dance classic, but it abruptly disrupts the album’s flow and should’ve instead been saved as a bonus track or B-side.

Thankfully, the album has more than enough tentpoles to keep things consistently engaging. “The Love” starts off slowly but Kiesza clearly knows how to give the people what they want, teasing a massive beat drop 30-seconds in that arrives with the strength of a thousand house divas. “Bad Thing” drips with confidence, and also lets Kiesza’s vocals carry the song. Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ jumps in for a rapid-fire verse. “Don’t get too attached / Cause I adapt to change,” Bada$$ spits, clearly unaware of how quickly Kiesza can adapt to her own changes on Sound of a Woman.

Appearing on opposite ends of the album, “No Enemiesz” and “Giant In My Heart” take the “Hideaway” formula and build it out in every other musical direction from there. “Enemiesz” is one of the year’s best pop songs, slapped together from Kiesza’s booming vocals and reverberating “ah-ooh-ooh” bellows atop layers of insanely catchy Europop melodies. On the other end of the dance floor, “Giant In My Heart” plays up feelings over sweat. “Give me all the magic / Give me all the magic that we made,” Kiesza sings in a rat-a-tat attempt to reclaim her identity.

Were it still the ’90s with that decade’s glut of house-pop, it’d be entirely feasible that Kiesza might not make the same impact with Sound of a Woman as she hopefully will in 2014. She shows the insight to carve a lane out for herself in pop music that apparently nobody else felt the need to journey down. Remember how a few years ago all of the major pop stars turned to Calvin Harris (and knockoff producers, if the price wasn’t right) for their singles? Don’t be surprised if, in 2015, the radio starts to sound a hell of a lot like the sound of this particular woman.