Nikki Jean, "Pennies in a Jar"
The strategy/marketing hook for this Lupe Fiasco collaborator is her collection of co-writes with legends ranging from Bob Dylan to Carly Simon. Nikki Jean excels when she plays into her collaborators' strengths, especially the Philly soul of Thom Bell on "How to Unring a Bell," the edge-of-'70s Supremes sound she gets with Lamont Dozier on "My Love" and the orchestral splendor of the title track (written with Burt Bacharach). A charming step back in time, Pennies in a Jar suggests a late-'70s alchemy. But it's unlikely anyone would have connected Dylan's spiritual side with Carole King's pre-Tapestry good-time pop without the benefit of decades of hindsight. Consistently melodic--with elements of Broadway from Paul Williams and '60s girl-group sounds mined by Jeff Barry and the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill--the top-notch production work and arrangements give the album a rare joyfulness, sounding breezy and simple, yet far more accomplished than most modern R&B. Fiasco and the Roots' Black Thought appear on "Million Star Motel," which Jean wrote with Bobby Braddock.