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Diva in Training

Diva in Training


Leona Lewis has the pipes -- but not the bravado -- to play in Mariah's league.

The meek diva -- a rare thing in any case, but a rarer gay phenomenon in 2008 against the undulations of pussycat quintets and 20-year-olds with albums titled Good Girl Gone Bad.

But the stunningly shy Leona Lewis, the 23-year-old who won season 3 of Simon Cowell's British singing competition X-Factor, could've only cannoned to prominence this year. First she floored her homeland on reality TV, rejuvenating jukebox fog like "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" and "Lady Marmalade." Then Perez Hilton latched on and planted Lewis's image stateside, updating his blog almost constantly with Lewis's latest performances and igniting a cult following for her.

A superstar is born thanks to reality TV and blogger mania? Has such a feat even been invented yet?

Nonetheless, Lewis's voice swells with the technique and tenderness of a bona fide superstar. Her debut album, Spirit, which finally saw U.S. release last week with a couple new tracks, squarely compacts the bronze belle's penchant for (what else?) ballads and heartache, sufficing as the first full-length effort that captures her poignant bleat. But contrary to the glitzy fame machines that built Lewis, Spirit is dunked in dredge of yesteryear, like vanilla ballad formulas and slow-jam soups of nearly decades gone by. Much like Lewis foremother Mariah Carey's uneven '90s albums, the lead single (in this case, the gooey but ingratiating torch-pop hit "Bleeding Love," produced by OneRepublic front man Ryan Tedder) stands out like the climax of a pop-up book next to the vast tundra of whimpering tracks.

Not only is much of Spirit redundant and pulverized by cliches (the song "Here I Am" dares to send off lines like "If you need a shoulder to cry on..." and "When you need shelter from the rain..."), the album also doesn't play to Lewis's main strength. Sure, she's a balladeer, but Lewis's identity lies within the underdog drama and fight she brings to themes like loneliness and failed romance. For Lewis to ignore such a precious asset seems like a veer into territory where she can't win. Her identity is all but excised from the stockpile ballad "Footprints in the Sand," the breakup token "Take a Bow" (word: NOT the Madonna song. It's actually sometimes a dead ringer for Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River"), and the these-wounds-will-heal promise "Better in Time."

The worst moments, luckily, don't stick out -- and that's exactly why they fail. "I Will Be"? "Yesterday"? The aforementioned "Here I Am"? Indistinguishable from any Celine Dion mid-album cut. You wonder how a singer can weep about so many similar things.

Misrepresented as it is here, Lewis's gentle appeal will surely survive and propel the singer into further prominence. She's got the pipes of Mariah but the mysterious anti-bravado of a Tracy Chapman or Jill Scott. Keeping that perplexing but lovely dichotomy in mind, maybe Lewis (or Simon Cowell, judging by his intense mentorship of her) can better reach into the right pockets of pop history to make an album that belongs next to -- and perhaps surpasses -- those of the fiery fold of starlets who predated and still inspire her.

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