Amerie blew up back in 2005 with her smash single 1 Thing, a complete R&B knockout with a great beat and smartly understated vocals. While since, she's recieved her share of praise from critics, popularity past her biggest hit has mostly eluded her. It's a shame too, especially given how good her last album (2007's Because I Love It) was; 1 Thing was even tacked on to Because I Love It after its lead single flopped, as if a desperate attempt to get people buying the disc. But as the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and while Amerie's fourth studio album, In Love & War, boasts very little change from her last release, and it lacks a single with enough punch to become a radio sensation, it still just sounds too good to be old just yet.
In Love & War gets off to a great, great start. From the funky Tell Me You Love Me's blasting horns to the of the fourth cut Higher, the energy is abundant and Amerie's strong, edgy voice is confidently leading it all. Heard 'Em All has an instantly grabbing, stuttering beat with a fantastic vocal, clever percussion, and carefully placed synths, and Dangerous is driven by a rugged rock-meets-soul sound, with a great deal of emphasis on the rawness of Amerie's voice. Both have incredibly addicting choruses as well, but it's Higher that really gets you moving. The subdued guitars and synths provide a slick backdrop to the surprisingly convincing singing.
Ironically, it's lead single Why R U that breaks up the momentum. It's the first point on the album where the balance is slightly off; the hip hop aspect is pushed too hard, and Amerie's background vocal in the chorus is suspiciously similar to a single of hers from a while back. Where everything has felt wonderfully genuine up to this point, it feels postured here, and doesn't sit well with the rest of the album. The following Pretty Brown Eyes, while better, falls to the same foil. The song, a duet with Trey Songz (who sounds quite good, actually), seems to be putting forth too much effort to be hard hitting, and consequently feels too forced.
Thankfully, the soulful More Than Love gets In Love & War back on track with ease. Like on a handful of tracks from Because I Love It, More recalls nineties R&B, but here it has a more updated sound. Fabolous is featured here as well, and sings the second verse (preceded by an amusing faux argument), which gives the already charming song a big dose of personality. Amerie perhaps sounds her best on Swag Back, which alternates sharply between piano and synths; she can sound simultaneously assured but not, and reminds how good she is at understating her voice and letting it soar at just the right moments, a quality far too many female R&B singers lack. Red Eye has a soothing downtempo feel, which carries out for the remainder of the album, from the similarly gentle yet sweeping The Flowers to the almost bleak sounding piano-led closer Dear John.
One thing that separates In Love & War from its predecessor is the presence of a theme unifying all of the tracks. As Miss Amerie said herself, "Conceptually, I just really wanted to write about the tumultuous times of a relationship. Not so much like everything is so perfect, but looking at the more imperfect sides of love and relationships... ...I was just thinking 'the whole concept of love and war really encapsulates everything that I was trying to get across as far as a theme for the album." Even without knowing her intent, the concept is highly noticeable, from the frustration sung over in the earlier tracks to the resignation in the closing ones.
With the exception of a small slump in the middle, In Love & War largely succeeds. Even though it's ultimately the same ground already covered by her last album, the savvy production as well as Amerie's theme of love gone wrong prevents it from ever getting boring. It's a very enriching listen, which unfortunately will not be nearly as popular as it should be.