No quibbling, let's get straight to the point: Choklate's new self-titled CD is the best R&B album to come out of Seattle, if not the entire Northwest. Choklate is world-class. The singing, songwriting, musicianship, mixing, beat-building—all of it has the substance and the quality of a work made in a world-class city. One more thing we should not quibble about is Choklate's vocal skill, which, in the competitive field of soul singing, is, once again, world-class. When you hear her voice (its easy elasticity, its richness, its ability to capture and communicate a precise emotion or a moment in time), you are not listening to an imitation of soul, but to soul itself.

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In style, mood, and artistic direction, Choklate picks up where Mary J. Blige left off in the mid-'90s; much like that great singer did in her early period, Choklate maintains a close relationship with hiphop. But with Mary J. Blige, the union always seemed a matter of survival: Hiphop was on the rise in the early '90s, and R&B, after the extravagances of the '80s, was in decline and looking for fresh blood. Connecting with hiphop was the practical thing to do. With Choklate, the union is completely natural. In her music, there isn't a line where R&B ends and hiphop begins—a line that is discernible in, say, Monica's "Just One of Dem Days," or in TLC's "Creep." With Choklate, there is no line because her music is not a marriage between hiphop and R&B, but rather the child of that marriage.

The musical director of Choklate is the leading local hiphop producer Vitamin D. He organized the contributions made by Bean One, Jake One, Amos Miller, Jay Townsend, and the promising new producer Kuddie Mak into an aesthetically consistent whole. Nothing on the CD sounds superfluous; the mood (twilight-warm, jazz-smooth, soul-confident with a touch of Northwest melancholy) is maintained throughout with no shocks, disruptions, or unexpected turns in the movement from one track to the next. This uniformity brings Choklate close to a concept album with a very specific project—the project of the self: the self in love, the self suffering lovesickness, the self in situations of vulnerability, the self remembering things past.

Choklate is, of course, the self in question; she is not, however, self-centered. In "Heavy," a brooding, cinematic track produced by Amos Miller that recalls, oddly enough, Radiohead's "Morning Bell," Choklate expresses deep sympathy for someone who is going through a rough period. She sings: "Believe me/Don't think I don't feel you/Don't think I don't hear you... Being me is a world of responsibility so to you I know it's heavy." The self in Choklate's music exists with (and recognizes) others. In the jazz-smooth opening track, "Thank You" (produced by Jay Townsend), Choklate offers something of a short prayer to an other who has been very good to her: "Thank you for being you/Thank you for challenging me to be a better me/Thank you because of you I'm a better who you believed in."

That last line ("Thank you because of you I'm a better who you believed in") is an excellent example of the kind of existential word play that thrives in Choklate's songwriting. I cannot think of any other R&B singer who is so openly philosophical, always trying to reach some essence of being, "being me," "being you," being in time.

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The attitude that almost all R&B artists have toward philosophizing is the one expressed by Portrait in "Here We Go Again": "Climb a mountain (what mountain?)/Swim a sea (What sea?)/See what I mean? (No!)/I don't know but I don't won't go too deep." That is not the case with Choklate; she is not scared of depth and will push her lyrics into dizzying ontological vortexes. "Shoulda, coulda, woulda—now what?/Are we going to do about what/We done got into—now what/how about nothing," she sings in "Now What," an elegantly sad track produced by Vitamin D.

On another track, still untitled and not yet available, Choklate sings over a pounding Bean One beat: "Please believe what you want to believe but leave me to do me/And I'm gonna practice what I preach/Ain't nobody do me better than me." Indeed, very few can do R&B better than our Choklate.

charles@thestranger.com

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