Anastacia was already an international sensation by the time I got my hands on her sophomore album Freak Of Nature, which came out in the United States on June 18, 2002. The album was released internationally 7 months earlier, and was a top ten album in over a dozen countries, including number one in half a dozen. When I finally got wind of her, I latched on for dear life and twenty years later I still haven’t let go.
A year or two before the album dropped, my dad joined Sam Goody’s rewards program Replay because I basically lived at our town’s Sam Goody by that point. Joining the program included a subscription to their members’ magazine, Request, which I reasonably devoured each month. As I thumbed through the June 2002 issue, Anastacia’s photo caught my eye. Accompanying the photo was a blurb about her new album Freak of Nature. I was immediately taken by the writer’s audacious comparison of Anastacia’s voice to that of my idol, Aretha Franklin. They name checked the album’s lead single “One Day In Your Life” and within 10 minutes I was in the basement on the computer I shared with my sister downloading the song on Kazaa. I was hooked from the first listen, and days later was at Circuit City buying my copy of Freak of Nature.
“One Day In Your Life” begins slowly; The first verse lands on top of a building arrangement that gives way to the song’s big, driving hook. It’s a tenacious record that kisses off a detached lover in a fashion that is reminiscent of Mariah Carey’s “Someday.” She swirls with heartbreak, but is also confident in her convictions that he’ll come around. It’s driving, with an emphasis on the keyboard and synthesizers, giving it a funky, Euro feel.
In the U.S. it was the album’s lead single and though it didn’t make any waves on the pop charts, it did top the Billboard Dance chart. “One Day In Your Life” is one of three songs on Freak Of Nature that was remixed for the U.S. market. The original version was produced by Sam Watters and Louis Biancaniello, who co-wrote the song with Anastacia. The duo handled a bulk of co-writing and production duties on both Freak of Nature and Anastacia’s 2000 debut Not That Kind.
The US version was produced by Wake, which retains all the vocals but replaces most of other parts of the track. What was a funky, Euro club track became a pop-rock track. Keyboards became electric guitars to cater to the U.S.’ rock-leaning pop market. Both are stellar, but the original version resonates more and better fits Anastacia’s sonic profile. Because the song wasn’t widely released in the U.S. and I was downloading before the album dropped, the version I downloaded on Kazaa was the original, international version. It took me years before I understood the difference. I sensed it when I listened, but I just figured some Kazaa user doing their own thing to augment the version I’d downloaded. I still prefer that international version.
Anastacia’s voice sounds like something you might expect to hear from a drag queen, because despite it’s clear femininity, it has some masculinity in its depth and tone, which is combined with a nasally quality. Make no mistake, her voice is massive. It has just the right amount of grit and rasp, but also can soar to stupendous heights. Her voice recalls Taylor Dayne, but Anastacia’s is more intense and has a greater emphasis on her head voice. It’s one of the most versatile voices in contemporary music. In the years since her debut she’s demonstrated a unique ability to seamlessly move between genres. She can command the dance floor with a pulsing uptempo, compete with big-voiced balladeers, and go toe-to-toe with rock royalty.
On Freak of Nature though, she focused her energy on being a funky diva with a voice big enough to conquer Celiné Dion-level ballads. She’d already begun laying this foundation on her 2000 debut Not That Kind, which included her most successful U.S. single “I’m Outta Love,” which can still be heart at the club on the right night. Her style was quirky: sunglasses became a trademark, and she bounced around stage in belly shirts, leather pants, platform boots, and the occasional oversized hat. As a closeted gay boy, her style showed me a lot of things I wanted (I still need some of those belly shirts). She was also knocking 8 years off her age at the time, succumbing to the sexist industry pressure for women to be young.
The album opens with the title cut and an impression of a New York Puerto Rican accent that has certainly aged poorly, to say the very least. Introduction aside, it’s a strong opening cut where she leans into her unique voice and personality, which initially hindered her ability to get a record deal. The song represents her owning her shit and spinning it into gold.
Ric Wake, who produced a third of Not That Kind (and, coincidentally, Taylor Dayne’s early work), returned to take the lead on the album’s production. Remix aficionado Richie Jones joined Wake on most of his contributions. Sam Watters and Louis Biancaniello of The Runawayz cover most of the other tracks. Together they threaded together an eclectic mix of funk, pop ballads, and in the US market, touches of pop-rock.
Second cut (and lead single) “Paid My Dues” oozes with resilience as she details the trials and tribulations she faced in her quest for success. “So like I told you, you cannot stop me,” she declares, between verses. It’s a powerful cut that serves as a vessel for her soaring vocal capacity. It’s more of a power ballad with funk undertones (featuring thick keyboards that recur throughout the album). It also proved to be the album’s most successful track, topping half a dozen international charts.
The album’s two big ballads hit both sides of the Celine Dion coin. “You’ll Never Be Alone” is an inspirational record with an abstract subject, in the tradition of records like “Hero,” “When You Believe,” and of course the similarly titled “You Are Not Alone.” It has a big, dramatic climax that lets Anastacia show off the full breadth of her voice. The other is the adoring, acoustic closer “I Dreamed You.” It dials back the fireworks and lets Anastacia shine over a stripped back arrangement, akin to some of the ballads from Not That Kind.
The second half of the album also features two songs which were not new for U.S. listeners. “Why’d You Lie To Me” and “Don’tcha Wanna” were included on the U.S. release of Not That Kind and unapologetically reappear here. “Why’d You Lie To Me,” with hard acoustic guitar strums and effervescent synths is not far from the sounds of Destiny’s Child and TLC at the time. It was the album’s fourth international single, and is one of the most unique cuts because of its contemporary R&B-driven sound. I gravitated towards the song early on, and the artwork of the CD single, which I stumbled on a year and a half after the album came out in the US.
“Don’tcha Wanna” cuts 17 seconds of fade-out from the version that appeared on the U.S. edition of Not That Kind. The song contains the only sample on the album, a prime cut of the breakdown from Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” The sample moves sensually as Anastacia prowls towards her target. It fits the funky motif of the album perfectly, and hey, let’s be honest, not everybody can rock a Stevie sample like that.
In a strange and seemingly contrary move, the U.S. version plopped one new song into the middle of the album. “I Thought I Told You That” is a very middle of the road pop record, with both funk and rock elements in the arrangement. The record is an indictment of a cheating man, more topically in the vein of Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox’s 2000 “Same Script, Different Cast” than Brandy and Monica’s classic “The Boy Is Mine.” But while both of those songs pitted the protagonists against each other, this one finds them uniting to decry the cheater.
What made the song particularly unique is that it landed Anastacia the only feature on the album: Faith Evans. She judged Anastacia on MTV’s The Cut in 1998 and offered her some “encouraging words,” according to Anastacia’s thank you’s in the liner notes. Anastacia does most of the heavy lifting on the verses and blends to the backgrounds to let Faith take the lead on the choruses and bridge. It’s a solid, albeit perplexing collaboration that didn’t get the attention it warranted.
As if all the musical changes weren’t enough, the U.S. version of Freak Of Nature even featured a slightly different shot for the album cover. The U.S. cover shot features a more sensual pose that accentuates her breasts more than the original cover. Sex sells, and the label was intent on putting her chest on the market.
They tried, and boy did they try hard to make Anastacia work in the US. She made her formal US debut (after two singing cameos on Ally McBeal) duetting with Celiné Dion on the opening number of 2002’s VH1 Divas Las Vegas. She performed on The Tonight Show, The View, Regis and Kelly, The Late Late Show, Good Morning America, and sang the National Anthem at the MLB All-Star Game. In late 2002 she even landed on the Grammy Award winning soundtrack to the film Chicago. “Love Is A Crime” played during the film’s end credits, and would have been heavily promoted had Anastacia not been diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2003 (she famously filmed the song’s music video that month with a 104 degree fever). Nothing took, and aside from “One Day In Your Life”’s success on the dance chart, Freak of Nature floundered in the United States. Twenty years later it remains her most recent album to be physically released in the United States, much to this fan’s frustration.
Overseas Freak Of Nature was a star-solidifier for Anastacia, but she was on the precipice of an even biggest moment in her career. A 2003 battle with breast cancer proved to be a blessing in disguise, inspiring her third album Anastacia, which moved away from funk and into a blend of soul, pop, and rock that she termed “sprock.” The album was massive, debuting at number one in almost a dozen countries and landing at number 2 on the European Year-End chart for 2004 (behind Norah Jones). Future albums would delve more pointedly into both pop and rock, but the funk she forged on Not That Kind and Freak of Nature continue to be her unshakable foundation, and a crucial element of her catalog and her 20-plus year career.
Listen to both versions of Freak of Nature on Spotify:
Deluxe International Version: