Tori Kelly’s ‘Unbreakable Smile’ Is A Lovely Grin That Grows A Little Tired (Album Review)
When Simon Cowell tells you that you suck, the next logical step might be right off the nearest cliff. Tori Kelly, who found herself on the receiving end of the former American Idol judge's contempt in 2010, only dug her heels in harder and produced an EP that caught Scooter Braun's eye.
In 2013, having been newly signed to Capitol Records, Kelly released Foreword, a five-track soul-pop EP that offered pleasing, mellifluous tones but kept one very big secret: The singer's voice doubles as a combat zone-clearing rocket launcher—find yourself within the limits of her crosshairs and you could be blown to pieces.
Word got out eventually, though, and by the time the talent performed "Nobody Love" at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, there was no denying she could belt with the best of 'em. The song, Unbreakable Smile's first official single, showed incredible promise—especially when Kelly reduced production to a single guitar for live sets—and the 22-year-old's debut seemed like a sure thing.
As of today, the album's lived up to that promise. Well, half of it has.
"Where I Belong," a prelude to the 14-track LP, borrows from Foreword's cool, breezy posture. "I'm just a girl with a guitar trying to give you her whole heart," Kelly pleads in a charming love letter. Were it not for her superior vocal gymnastics, it could be confused for any of Taylor Swift's teenage audio-diaries.
If the song serves as the album's first vault, Kelly's totally airborne through "Unbreakable Smile," the audio-equivalent to Cinderella greeting the early morning's friendliest birds. "Should've Been Us," Unbreakable Smile's newest single that's a sexy-albeit-sad rumination on love, plays like "This is How We Do" with two shots of espresso. "Shoulda been a fire, shoulda been the perfect storm / It should've been us / Coulda been the real thing, now we'll never know for sure," she laments in a depressing but catchy dirge.
But what can heal a broken heart? Jewelry, of course! Or at least the sentimental equivalent, and "Expensive," the album's strongest offering, finds the previously scorned singer suddenly lousy with platinum-protected love. "'Cause I know I got that somethin' / And it won't cost you nothin' / I already feel expensive enough / Turn that gold into dust," she insists over modern pop's favorite feature—a bevy of brassy horns. It's the best of Ariana Grande's "Problem" without Iggy Azalea's needless and clunky punctuation (Daye Jack's featured, instead), and Kelly's throaty yells, crystal-clear phrasing and raspy breaks make for better baubles.
By the time the album reaches minute 20, though, Kelly's full-sprint devolves into a limping jog. "First Heartbreak," a palatable but unremarkable slow-burn, coupled with "I Was Made For Loving You," a charming duet with Ed Sheeran that would have found a much better home on X, escort Unbreakable Smile into a completely different party: Where it was previously dancing—mixed drink in hand—at a favorite Thursday night dive bar, it's suddenly sipping a green tea latte at a vegan coffee shop.
Finally, "City Dove," an obligatory ode to finding one's path, marks the point at which the album has officially become something else, and has very likely passed the point of no return. "I don't really know my fate / I just know I'm on my way / There will be mistakes movin' on," Kelly croons. There's nothing wrong with tackling ballads—and with a voice like hers, she should—but these don't stoke the flames she'd slowly and intently ignited; they put the fire out.
And why, oh why, does LL Cool J supplement "California Lovers," a clear-cut Katy Perry knockoff? The song's not bad, but the rapper's insistence that "Your legs deserve their own day of the week: Thigh Day" is simply embarrassing, and chips away at the authority Kelly had previously fought for and (was rightfully entitled to).
Thankfully, "Anyways," one of the album's heaviest hitters, completes the work with the zip and zing it'd previously worn on its sleeve — but not soon enough, and by the time the curtains close, Unbreakable Smile's spirit has sunken into a back pocket that'd take a pair of tweezers to successfully extract.
If you could cut an album in two, Unbreakable Smile: Side A would make for a solid, radio-ready debut that underscored a successful work by an excitingly remarkable talent. Unfortunately, Side B serves as an anchor to which Kelly is chained and—try as she might—there's simply no wiggling loose from its restraints. No, she's not doomed to drown, but it's much more difficult to hear her underwater.
Kelly's got pipes that could stop an Olympic sprinter in her tracks—and she's got a great album in her—but Unbreakable Smile, for its undeniable glint, could do with a bit of elective orthodontia.