(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

CD review - Nneka, Concrete Jungle (2009)

Nneka Egbuna has her feet in at least two different worlds. She grew up in Africa, with her Nigerian father and German mother. Later, she went to school in Hamburg to study anthropology. She's been performing in Europe and Africa for several years and she's attracted the attention of performers like Lenny Kravitz and Lauryn Hill. Even though most of these songs seem to come from her first two albums, Concrete Jungle will be her first release in the US. It's not due to hit the stores until February 2010, but I got an early release copy. Catch her during her tour dates in November (New York, Philadelphia [World Cafe Live] and California), score her digital EP (available in early November), or wait for Concrete Jungle in February -- Nneka is well worth the listen.

Her music has a host of touchstones: lots of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, some afrobeat, reggae, and classic R&B. This varies from song to song, but even within a song, there can be a lot of stylistic crossover goodness.

The top track is Africans, which is aimed at her Nigerian and other African compatriots, telling them to move beyond their colonial past. The message is delivered in a positive tone, with sweet soulful singing and beautiful music. It starts out with a Hendrixy guitar lick (think Little Wing) and vocals with a hint of Nina Simone. Then a reggae beat and bassline drop in to propel the song forward. The echoed vocals sound full, showing some fine production decisions. It's conscious, but it's also a great dance number.

A close second for best track is Focus, which is an excellent example of her crossover sensibility. Kicking off with an alt-rock groove and a dirty funk bass, that intro slides into a simpler beat and rap vocal. The chorus pulls that alt-rock intro back in. Later, she even throws in some toasting style rap. As with most of Nneka's songs, the lyrics are key:

Is it the drugs? Is it the men?
Is it the money? Is it the fame?
Don't need all this to find myself
Have met my shadow a thousand times
I know how it feels to be untrue to oneself
Say, would you hold back the things
That urged you to speak your mind?
Living in the bondage, in if-clauses for the rest of your life
You want to lie in system's custody, your soul stripped for free
Living in the bondage, in if-clauses for the rest of your life
You want to lie in system's custody, your soul stripped for free
Will you sell your soul for free?

Her delivery on this shows some great lyrical flow and it's all on a positive tip.

Kangpe, featuring Wesley Williams, kicks off with a heavy drum and bass vibe with one foot in techno. The other foot is somewhere between an African groove, Indian scales, and a reggae beat...it's a busy foot. The verse is almost spoken, with cool fills between the lines. Nneka does more singing during the chorus. The chord changes may be simple on this dance song, but the crossover complexity makes it a joy to listen to. The bridge offers some Jamaican DJ style. This should be a club single.

I'll pair this one with some of my friend John's chipotle mead: spicy, sweet, and strong.

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