Parisian-born, Nigerian-raised Asa peppers her debut album, Beautiful Imperfection, with African-sonding song titles like “Bimpé”, “Oré”, and “Broda Olé”, but don’t be misled: This is straight-up western pop music, slickly produced and well performed, but a far cry from anything resembling “world music”. Asa possesses a silky voice and a reasonably impressive range, but little on the album is challenging or unexpected.
This isn’t to say that the record is bad. Opener “Why Can’t We” lilts along on a tripping, reggae-ish acoustic guitar strum, with bouncy verses and a cheery chorus (“Why can’t we be happy?”) that comes complete with playful “who-hoo"s. Tasteful guitar accents throughout keep the sonic mix lively, almost managing to mask the fact that the song is fairly dumb. If this track is indicative of the album as a whole, the listener will be in for a long afternoon of impeccably recorded, lightweight pop fluff. Guess what? For a while, that’s exactly what happens.
The next couple songs fit the impeccable-fluff template perfectly. Despite the presumed seriousness of the subject matter on “Maybe”, with its references to modern-day anxieties signified by “guns and war machines”, the radio-friendly beat and jingling arrangement serve to undermine the supposed seriousness. (Note to producer: Nothing undercuts somberness quite as effectively as a tinkling glockenspiel.) “Be My Man” sounds so much like an Amy Winehouse song, you’re forgiven for cheking the liner notes to make sure she didn’t contribute.
Things slow down for “Preacher Man,” which succeeds in channeling a more intense vibe, courtesy of piano-based accompaniment that knows when to hold back and when to cut loose. Though still undeniably a pop song, it’s unfair to call this one fluff. It’s also an impressive vocal performance from Asa, who trades in technical perfection for some unexpected, expressive swoops and howls. More of this, please.
“Preacher Man” marks a bit of a turning point for the record. “The Way I Feel” rides a chugging, faintly sinister bassline through a downtempo landscape of self-doubt, nicely punctuated with jazzy horns and flutes. “OK OK” brings urgent acoustic guitar into the mix, varying the sonic landcape and almost making up for the weak lyrics about “stormy weather” and people who “tear it all apart”. Despite the less-than-inspired lyrics, the song thrums along nicely.
It’s hit or miss after that. “Dreamer Girl” and “Baby Gone” are both forgettable slices of workman-like pop product, while “Oré” is as engaging for its foreign lyrics as its gauzy arrangement, breathy delivery, and lighter-than-air melody. The album closes with the unfortunate “Questions”, which has a serviceable melody undermined by hackneyed lyrics: “How do people get so busy they don’t find time to love? / When you look into the mirror, who do you see?” This ain’t “Blowin’ in the Wind”, folks.
Listeners fond of well-produced pop who hanker after something a little different — but just a little — would do well to give Asa a listen. Like Sade, she doesn’t possess a voice with great range, but she uses it well and smartly maximizes her talents with solid arrangements. When those arrangements click, this is a pretty compelling record.