Homecoming: Fantasia’s triumphant return to the Triad

by Ryan Snyder

No pop star has brought more attention on themselves, for better or worse, than Fantasia Barrino has in the past four months. She’s been a lightning rod for both criticism and adulation since she reportedly attempted suicide through a combination of aspirin and a sleep aid back in August, an event simultaneously panned by detractors as a half-hearted

publicity stunt in disguise, and lamented by her diehard fans as a plea for clemency from the burdens of celebrity. There would be none of the former at her performance on Nov. 18 at the War Memorial Auditorium, as the High Point-born, Season 3 “American Idol” winner would return home for the first performance since her overdose thrust her into the public’s crosshairs.

Taking its name from her third album, the title alone of Fantasia’s Back to Me tour did little on the surface to challenge the notion that she’s a spotlight-hawking diva. But like the album — a collection of songs mostly relating her tribulations with flaky men and how she overcame them — her live show is a vehicle for empowerment, filled with costume changes, multimedia and volcanic blasts of vocal energy.

In front of a starry-skied backdrop, dressed from head to toe in white, Fantasia certainly looked the part of an R&B diva, and her 10-piece backing ensemble was further indicative, but it was her voice that confirmed it. It’d be a stretch to call Fantasia’s voice “pretty,” but it’s the unconventional characteristics of her vocals that separate her from everyday pop starlets and Idol retreads. Her standard phrasing is a tad blunted and ungainly, but when reaching for the big notes, she can often sound downright mangy and guttural.

What she lacks in conformist beauty, however, she more than makes up for with unmitigated ferocity. She softened up the crowd of mostly middle-aged females on songs like “I’m Doin’ Me” and “Collard Greens & Cornbread” with the vocal equivalent of body blows — off-cadenced and indiscriminate — supplanting them with wildly-swung haymakers. There’s an uncanny kinetic quality to her vocals at their most forceful, and it’s her ability to summon those feral powers on a whim that put her in rare company as a vocalist. Still, those who aren’t Fantasia faithful might have been left guessing at the actual content of her words.

Though some sort of theatrical tone was clearly trying to be established through the clips prefacing each costume change, they all felt disjointed and schizophrenic. In referencing historical figures such as Cab Calloway, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and the Black Panther Party and precursors to her inevitable arrival, Fantasia appeared to try and connect the thematic dots with each successive changeover. She appeared as a flapper singing Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” after a lengthy and incoherent bit set in the ’20s, never mind the song wasn’t released until 1973. Later, she came on as Chaka Khan with fist clenched and raised before tackling Prince’s “Kiss” and the Beatles’ “Come Together,” both charming and fun in their own way, but ineffective in bringing clarity to whatever theme she was trying to establish.

Fantasia never addressed the crowd beyond a casual nod to the area during a respite between “Bittersweet” and “Even Angels.” Any hopes of her addressing her personal issues were dashed when she left it to the screen overhead to convey her feelings in the form of a canned interview. Interviewer: “Fantasia, from where I’m sitting I can see you’re in a great place. What do you have to say about what they’re saying?” Fantasia: “What do I have to say about what they’re saying? I say, ‘F**k it.’” It felt a little more than disingenuous, particularly with all of the attention she’s invited on herself, but you have to respect her willingness to forcefully move past the issue. Chalk up the show’s thematic turmoil to that of her own personal life and her insistence on moving forward with that as well, regardless of the short window of time. Fantasia has the presence and ability to put on a great show, and though she might never wield the sultriness of Mary J. Blige, or the polish of Aretha, she’s a vocal force to be reckoned with in her own right.