Melanie Fiona had me from the first note. It takes a lot to hook me that early on, but for me, she has “it.” “It,” referring to the combination of the voice and the application of said voice. There’s soul, there’s style, there’s technique. There’s talent. I still remember that first time. I happened to catch “Give It To Me Right” on VH1 while sitting in the kitchen at my parents house during the summer of 2009. It was just after my freshman year of college wrapped up. The vintage loop from The Zombies’ hit single “Time Of The Season” made me whip my head up and pay attention. All I had to hear was, “Okay, okay,” and I was sold.
Her debut album The Bridge was just being released internationally at the time. It came out in Italy, then her native Canada. England followed a month later. The United States had to wait though, with a release date set for November 10, 2009. I don’t like to wait. So I did the rational thing, found the leak, and spent my summer engulfing myself in The Bridge. When November 10 came around, I unapologetically cut biology lab to hit F.Y.E. in Center City, Philadelphia and secured my copy. Frankly, I’ve barely used biology since then and I still listen to The Bridge often, so cutting class was clearly the right move. It’s always important to me to buy a copy of an album, and I felt that to a higher degree with Melanie.
Guided by the late, great Andrea Martin (who co-wrote half of Melanie’s debut and received associate producer credit on both of Melanie’s albums), Melanie bridged the gap between classic soul/R&B and today’s sonic landscape. Her voice was built for the task. Whether she was waxing poetic over a sample-laced record like the immense, sweeping “It Kills Me” or flexing her chops over an original like the Motown-esque “Monday Morning,” she captured the essence of a tapestry of soul sounds. She even went beyond, like on the acoustic “Teach Him” and the reggae “Sad Songs.”
Between projects, Melanie continued to soar. Most notably, she appeared on the single version of “Fool For You” from Cee-Lo’s acclaimed album The Lady Killer. That version was so well received that it won Melanie her first two Grammy Awards.
I couldn’t get enough of her, and was ecstatic when the first taste of her next album arrived in early 2011. The one thing that really resonated with me was how she was describing her next album. She was calling her sophomore effort an album of “stadium soul.” Melanie already had me eating out of the palm of her hand, but now I was imagining an expansion of the soulful sounds she captured so effortlessly on her debut, magnified for the larger stage she was destined for, accompanied by bigger hooks. The title had a helluva ring to it too, and was a clever double entendre: The MF Life, which was released on March 20, 2012. I put together a ‘Top 5‘ to celebrate the 5th anniversary in 2017. Now I’m going deeper to celebrate a decade.
“Gone And Never Coming Back” was that first taste of The MF Life. Co-written and co-produced by Andrea Martin, it vacillates between quiet verses and surging choruses, something Andrea had been doing well for at least a decade and a half (see En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go [Love]”). Though quiet on the verses, those choruses hit like a tidal wave. They encapsulate the ‘stadium soul’ sound Melanie used to describe the album. The title implies finality, and the delivery of the song perfectly reinforces that. It already represents growth from the material on her The Bridge, which didn’t delve into situations in such definitive scenarios.
The next single, “4AM,” produced by Rico Love, couldn’t have arrived at a better time. “This muhfucka thinkin’ I’m stupid,” she sings as she vents her heartbreak over her man out cheating on her. “It’s 4am and my lover won’t answer,” she laments as she’s seen vacillating between concern and frustration in his cold, empty home, before alleging, “he’s probably somewhere with a dancer.” Once again, it has a big chorus that soars above the ruminating verses. The moody, 808’s fueled beat was complimentary to the sound that was surging to the top of the R&B and hip hop charts at the time thanks to Melanie’s former bandmate and fellow Canadian, Drake. That sound can be heard prominently throughout 2011’s Take Care. Interestingly, there’s even a hint of UK garage as the bridge reconnects into the hook.
Drake doesn’t just appear here in reference, either. He wrote “I’ve Been That Girl,” alongside longtime producer T-Minus, making it one of the few records Drake has written for other artists. With T-Minus handling production and Noah “40” Shebib handling vocal production, this song unsurprisingly sounds like it could fit perfectly alongside the more melodic side of Take Care. The hook is catchy, but reserved.
Though she didn’t score a Drake feature on The MF Life, Melanie stacked up a goldmine of first-rate features for the album, greatly contrasting her no-features debut. The album opens with the hard-hitting “This Time.” The song is poignantly declarative, opening lines “if only you knew, all the love I have inside,” to a hook that radiates with optimism. “This time, I’m doing much better, love you like I’ve never, ever loved you before. Oh baby now this time, I’m giving my heart and soul and every drop of my love.” She also nabbed a feature from J. Cole at the optimal moment: just as he was breaking through. He bookends his verse with the killer bars, “if looks kill then Melanie you a felony,” and “know it’s deep when the girl of his dreams is the same one to wake him up.”
She closes the record with the cool, chill “L.O.V.E.” featuring John Legend, returning the favor for Melanie’s help on the title track to his 2010 covers LP with The Roots, Wake Up! The call for unity has a retro, Philly soul essence that compliments the source of their first collaboration. She even manages to recruit the legendary Nas on the Salaam Remi-produced, boom bap-laced “Running.”
The top collaboration on the album though, goes to her record with B.o.B., “Change The Record.” “If you don’t like how he’s playing then change the record,” she advises as she aligns men’s shortcomings to records, some with scratches, fade outs, and skips. It works a perfect metaphor over a glittering staccato piano and hard-hitting bass drum beat.
On the solo front Melanie is much more adventurous on this outing. She doesn’t confine herself to traditional R&B sounds on this stadium soul album. She reaches into other connected genres, delivering a twisted, dark, torch song in the form of “Bones,” which credits dynamic British vocalist Paloma Faith as a co-writer. The hook is a monster in both lyric and melody. “Straight through your skin past your soul to your bones… I need your bones… gimme gimme gimme gimme your bones!” It’s engulfing, and slithers inward with a progression that recalls Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ haunting “I Put A Spell On You.”
There’s also a gritty, sassy, high energy record that orbits in the realm of Tina Turner’s solo rock material. “Watch Me Work” is “something different, something new. Out the box, out the blue.” It’s a much more overt rock-leaning track, unlike the rock undertones that filled out The Bridge’s playful “Bang Bang.” This is music that drives and energizes, with a motivational message. It’s best listened to while strutting in some high heels a la Melanie in the video (or me on a Friday night).
While “Gone And Never Coming Back” was the lead heartbreak record, the album’s true heartbreak standout is the gut-wrenching “Wrong Side Of A Love Song.” Like “Gone,” the verses are mellow, and crescendo as they approach full choruses that pushes Melaine to the outer limits of her range as she wails “And I don’t wanna be, without you, cause I can hardly breathe without you. This is what it feels to be the one that’s standing left behind.” She emotes every single line and refuses to back down as she mourns the heartbreak. This is soul music at its finest.
A bonus moment serves as a cheeky reminder of a coincidental fixation R&B had with late night/early morning hours at the time. Melanie had “4am,” and T-Pain had a record called “5 O’Clock.” Naturally, T-Pain suggested that they come together, and they created “6AM.” The record merges the two worlds, with T-Pain playing Melanie’s cheating lover, arriving home two hours after she’s wondering where he is. It’s an amusing convergence of two otherwise unrelated records. They each possessed enough ambiguity that they could be connected based on their timestamps. It’s fun, lighthearted, and features an entertaining back-and-forth between the two, best summed up by the first two lines of the bridge, where T-Pain chides Melanie with “what’cho ass doing up anyway?” and she instantly shoots back “fuck that! I was sittin’ here worried ‘bout you.”
A deluxe edition of the album adds four songs, and iTunes also added their own exclusive bonus track. The best of the deluxe bonuses is “Like I Love You,” a mellow, vocally heavy reggae record which harkens back to Melanie’s roots as a reggae singer and her first formal release (under the name Syren Hall), “Somebody Come Get Me.”
The iTunes bonus is also notable. “Gone (La-Dada-Di)” is driven by ominous keyboard chords and accentuated by flourishes from a tuba. It’s one of those records that has some stellar storytelling bursting from the lyrics. A strained relationship is shattered by tragedy, as Melanie tries to process the horror, “hoping it was all a dream.” It’s one of the most impassioned vocal performances Melanie delivers on the album. Snoop Dogg glides through to deliver a verse that ties it all together before the record fades out.
It’s been a decade and The MF Life remains the latest full-length release from Melanie Fiona, and it still hits just as hard as it did the day she released it. Since then, Melanie released a few singles in the mid-to-late 2010’s including the searing, reggae-driven record “Bite The Bullet,” and teased a third album that was to-be-titled Awake. As she continued to tour throughout the 2010’s she performed a number of songs that have never been released including “Love Needs Love” and “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” In the time since she released The MF Life, she found love and became a mom, twice. Her daughter was just born in late 2021. Suffice it to say, she’s got no shortage of important things in her MF life, but music is still on the list. Two days before The MF Life turned 10, Melanie dropped a cover of “Don’t Explain” as part of a Nina Simone reggae tribute LP. It’s her first solo recording to be released in three years.
Listen to The MF Life: