Syleena Johnson

Daddy B. Nice's #83 ranked Southern Soul Artist

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"Guess What"

Syleena Johnson

Composed by R. Kelly

January 21, 2009: New CD Alert

Chapter 4: Labor Pains (Aneely's Entertainment/Federal Distribution)

Tracks of interest:

"Is It Because I'm Black"

This is a faithful remake of Syleena's father's (Syl Johnson's) Southern Soul classic. The instrumental mix sounds identical.

"Shoo Fly"

This track is getting air play at WZZA, Tuscumbia, Alabama (DJ Tori Bailey's Top Five--Jan 19-25.)

Daddy B. Nice comments:

Syleena Johnson's Southern Soul profile has diminished drastically since her debut album and the hits "Guess What," "Baby I'm So Confused," and "I Am Your Woman." "Guess What" in particular garnered attention across the chitlin' circuit, but since then Chicagoan Syleena has been content to ply an "urban-smooth" sound that, I suppose, fits in more readily with the Northern and national R&B audience. It's a loss for Southern Soul music, because Syleena's impeccably-clear vocal stylings contributed a distinctive niche.

Incidentally, as your Daddy B. Nice was listening to a new Stan Mosley single, "I'm Starting To Stop Thinking About You," the other day, I got to thinking about what a strange case Chicago is, from a Southern Soul perspective. The Mosley single was obviously written by Floyd Hamberlin (pilfering that same old, soulful Bruce Springsteen "Fire" hook again).

Hamberlin, like Syleena Johnson and Stan Mosley and Nellie "Tiger" Travis and Cicero Blake and the Love Doctor and Otis Clay and the late Tyrone Davis among others, is another in the talented contingent of Southern Soul performers based in their native Chicago. And Chicago, one of the two greatest northern outlets for soul music and the blues (the other being Detroit), remains entirely ignorant of Southern Soul music. If it isn't straight blues, you're not going to hear anything remotely close to Southern Soul on Chicago radio.

While Stan Mosley and Nellie Travis are at least trying to break out of that blues mold, other artists such as Syleena Johnson have simply gone with the "flow," migrating into hiphop and urban soul.

--Daddy B. Nice


Daddy B. Nice's Original Critique

Hearing Syleena Johnson, the daughter of legendary bluesman Syl Johnson, singing "Guess What" is like hearing the young Aretha Franklin sing "Natural Woman." Syleena's voice doesn't overpower you in the way Aretha's could on occasion, but her effortless range, enunciation and delicacy call up a fragrance as intoxicatingly feminine as Aretha singing,

"You make me feel,
You make me feel,
You make me feel
Like a natural woman."

And that's an essence hard to distill and put on record. But don't get the impression "Guess What" is a copycat effort. In fact, Syleena Johnson goes out of her way to avoid any of the obvious vocal comparisons the R. Kelly-penned, throwback-to-the-sixties composition might have allowed or suggested.

"Guess What" appeared on chitlin' circuit radio towards the end of 2002, a mid-tempo tune with a professional yet easy-going arrangement. The vocal wasn't buried in the production, but neither was it dominant. Maybe it was the mix, but your Daddy B. Nice always turned up the volume when "Guess What" queued up, and then turned it up yet another notch to hear Syleena's voice.

The subject was a selfish, immature boyfriend, the kind of slacker Erykah Badu had to deal with in "Tyrone," and the lyrics consisted of the woman's angry, long-pent-up tirade directed at her man.

"You wanna play the boss?
You got to pay the cost."

It took two or three listens for the melody and lyrics to "Guess What" to materialize, but a couple of phrases kept working their way into your mind.

"You wanna wear the pants?
You got to be a man.
You don't want to pay the bills?
I know somebody who will."

That, at any rate, was how it played out on the chitlin' circuit. It took a little while for the audience to warm to Syleena's cabaret-singer vocal sophistication, but when they did, the song ruled near the top of the Southern Soul playlists the better part of a year.

The R. Kelly lyrics were superb.

"And us going to church?
Always in your plans.
But come Sunday morning,
You play sick in bed."

Opposites attract, contrasts enhance. The fact that Syleena Johnson brought a delicacy and sophistication to Southern Soul may be the very reason "Guess What" was so successful. The song thrust Johnson's innate gentility into a "badgering" woman's setting with unique results.

And the cabaret-singer style? It's in full evidence in such accomplished ballads as "Baby I'm So Confused" and "I Am Your Woman." "Baby I'm So Confused" is so "oldies"-sounding that you have to pinch yourself to remember it's not a cover of Barbara Lewis' "Baby I'm Yours."

But "Guess What" remains Syleena Johnson's claim to R&B fame. Today her cut-out-the-nonsense anthem is considered a classic of chitlin' soul and a model for, not of, imitation.

--Daddy B. Nice

About Syleena Johnson

Syleena Johnson was born in 1977 in the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Illinois, the daughter of bluesman and Southern Soul forerunner Syl Johnson and America's first black female police commissioner, Brenda Thompson.

Johnson sang gospel as a child and also absorbed the R&B influences of her father and his peers. She overcame speech therapy, her parents' divorce (when she was a teen) and her father's acrimonious relationship with the music business to embark on a musical career while attending college at Drake University in Des Moines, Ia.

Johnson began writing songs for her debut CD in 1997 and sent a demo to Chicago's Jive Records, which signed her and eventually released her debut, Chapter 1: Love Pain And Forgiveness, in 2001. (An out-of-print CD, Love Hangover, was released in 2000 on the Twinight label.)

Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness featured guest appearances by Buddy Guy and R. Kelly. Although Johnson wrote most of the songs on the disc, it was an R. Kelly-penned and produced number, "I Am Your Woman," that received the most airplay and peer recognition.

The centerpiece of Chapter 2: The Voice (2002, Jive) was another R. Kelly-penned classic, "Guess What," which Johnson later recorded as a CD single (both on Jive).

Johnson also displayed her knack for singing mid-tempo rockers such as "Guess What" with a daring foray into Southern Soul's border with hiphop. "Tonight I'm Gonna Let Go" featured rapper Busta Rhymes singing back-up along with what sounded like the band from his signature rap hit, "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See."

Southern Soul fans are still waiting for Syleena Johnson's Chapter 3. Johnson has favored a hiphop direction of late, filling a prominent cameo ("Untouchable") on DMX'S 2003 Grand Champ disc.

Song's Transcendent Moment

"Now we've been shacking up
Since ninety-three.
I ain't getting no younger.
I need some guarantees."


1. Syleena Johnson released the third installmenet in her musical/autobiographical saga late in 2005. Chapter Three: The Flesh continues Johnson's slow drift away from chitlin' circuit themes and styles into the mainstream of urban pop and hiphop. Album guests include Common, Anthony Hamilton (a nice duet with Syleena on the cut "More"), R. Kelly, Jermaine Dupri and Twista. Perhaps because it sounds so mainstream, chitlin' circuit radio stations have largely ignored this release. DBN.

If You Liked. . . You'll Love

If you liked Betty Wright's " The Clean Up Woman," you should love Syleena Johnson's "Guess What."

Honorary "B" Side

"I Am Your Woman"

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Guess What by Syleena  Johnson
Guess What

CD: Chapter 2: The Voice
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 2: The Voice

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy I Am Your Woman by Syleena  Johnson
I Am Your Woman

CD: Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 1: Love, Pain And Forgiveness

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Baby I'm So Confused by Syleena  Johnson
Baby I'm So Confused

CD: Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 1: Love, Pain And Forgiveness

4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 
Sample or Buy Is It Because I'm Black by Syleena  Johnson
Is It Because I'm Black

CD: Chapter 4: Labor Pains
Label: Aneely's Ent

Sample or Buy
Chapter 4: Labor Pains

4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 
Sample or Buy Tonight I'm Gonna Let Go by Syleena  Johnson
Tonight I'm Gonna Let Go

CD: Chapter 2: The Voice
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 2: The Voice

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy Guitars Of The Heart (Happy) by Syleena  Johnson
Guitars Of The Heart (Happy)

CD: Chapter 2: The Voice
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 2: The Voice

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy Half A Love f/ Syl Johnson by Syleena  Johnson
Half A Love f/ Syl Johnson

CD: Bridge To A Legacy
Label: Texas Music Group

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy I Believe In Love by Syleena  Johnson
I Believe In Love

CD: Chapter 2: The Voice
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 2: The Voice

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy More (w/ Anothony Hamilton) by Syleena  Johnson
More (w/ Anothony Hamilton)

CD: Chapter Three: The Flesh
Label: Verity

Sample or Buy
Chapter 3: The Flesh

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy You Got Me Spinnin' by Syleena  Johnson
You Got Me Spinnin'

CD: Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness
Label: Jive

Sample or Buy
Chapter 1: Love, Pain And Forgiveness

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