When Leona Lewis announced that she had left Simon Cowell’s Syco record label back in 2014 it came as a welcome surprise. The fans had been calling for her to leave the X Factor label for sometime after the messy release of third album Glassheart, which saw her sell a tiny fraction of what she is clearly capable of.
But not many – this writer included – thought she would ever jump ship. Leona was the original X Factor superstar. Before ‘Bleeding Love’, winners were seen as second-rate popstars with a two-album shelf life at best. ‘The Voice of an Angel’ crushed that perception, and helped Cowell sell the X Factor brand across the world, as well as opening the pathway for later international breakouts such as One Direction, Little Mix and Olly Murs.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking Syco would a) make sure Leona had the freedom, confidence and resources to continue to make the best possible albums, and b) make sure their prime diva was content with the direction of her career so she doesn’t become desperate to leave. Obviously, judging by Leona’s subsequent departure to Island Records, it got to a stage where neither of these things were happening. And while this was all brewing behind the scenes, Leona’s meek and mild demeanour meant she kept a high level of class and didn’t shout off to the press or vent frustration on social media.
However, with that in mind, album number five is very much a case of let the music do the talking. There’s no escaping the break-up lyrics that lead the new tracks. This isn’t the breakdown of a personal relationship, though, but rather a professional one. Leona opened her showcase in London last night (April 14) with new track ‘I Am’; an empowering mid-tempo ballad that has a razor sharp defiance. It has jolts of breakbeats on the chorus, and isn’t wildly different sonically from what we’ve heard from her before, but the biggest change comes in the tone of the narrative, proving that behind that sweet Hackney smile there is plenty of bite with plenty to say.
The toughest challenge Leona has always faced is mastering an uptempo number that she can feel comfortable with. It’s one she has finally cracked with ‘I Got You’; a bouncy groove with a funk-driven undercurrent. It’s positive, it’s infectious, and it has a real chance of becoming a hit. But most importantly it’s a pacier track that agrees with Leona’s natural style and rhythm, rather than cornering her into a full-blown techno blowout that feels forced.
What’s more, following track ‘Ladders’ also flits between mid-tempo and uptempo territory, building into a gospel-like crescendo towards the end. Leona explained that the song deals with appreciating the lows as much as the highs, hinting that she needed to experience the bad times at her former label to get to where she is now. We suspect it won’t prove easy listening for Mr Cowell.
Leona Lewis plays showcase at the Hospital Club in London.
Essentially, it wouldn’t be a Leona album without a soaring ballad, and ‘Thank You’ was dedicated to her parents who have helped her through some teary nights in recent years. It’s a classic slow number that allows Leona’s insane vocal range full space to reach its peak, reminding us of those intricate ad-libs and powerhouse belting notes that made ‘Bleeding Love’ a worldwide smash. As one person rightly whispered in the crowd: “They don’t make X Factor winners like this anymore.”
It ended on new single ‘Fire’; a jaunty, soulful number, with a foot-stomping beat and Leona on the piano. It’s hard to ignore the whiff of Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’, but it almost ramps it up even higher with an electrifying guitar solo in the middle and Leona belting “fire” over sassy claps. It’s an extremely solid lead for the album and easily has the potential to put Leona back at the top of the chart.
This is clearly going to be Leona’s statement album. From what we’ve heard so far it’s full of passion, heartache and struggle, but it’s lined with hope and a general sense that this is the happiest she has ever been with what she is performing. Every man and his dog knows that Leona has an incredibly strong vocal, but now she finally has an equally strong voice to go with it.