Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s chops are not in doubt, and her playing, composing, and arranging have all been finely honed. Yet Rise Up, her second album as a leader, suggests that her imagination could still use some cultivation. Hearing the opening track, “March On,” puts one in mind of mid-’90s Prince: the funky drum loops and processed riffs, the horn punctuation, even the cadences of the rap and vocal fills. A cunning pastiche, it seems. Then comes the guitar-and-synth-driven “On the One,” so faithful an approximation of circa-1982 Prince that it’s genuinely startling when Solomon Dorsey takes the vocal. Three tracks later, “Juicy” presents his post-Purple Rain sound and lyric-writing, with Jaime Woods’ vocal a credible stand-in for Sheena Easton. Even her cover of “Change the World” has echoes of his style. This isn’t homage; it’s mimicry.
Not all of Rise Up comprises Prince imitations. There are some stock smooth-jazz grooves with little to distinguish them (“Flashback,” “Lonely”). “Stay,” an instrumental for Benjamin and trumpeter Maurice Brown, and “Survivor” sound like film cues warmed over with some R&B touches (and still have a whiff of Prince to them). And there is little improvisation throughout. When Benjamin solos for a chorus and a half on “Change the World,” the full-chorus part is the written theme. The other half-chorus, however, offers more hope, and is solid work—raw funk staccato of the Maceo Parker variety that stands with Benjamin’s best recorded improvisations. There are even seeds of original compositional vision underneath the Gold Experience-era Prince arrangement of the groover “Takeback.” Rise Up isn’t strong, but Benjamin’s promise still is.