The package is honest. Showing Ayo’s soft, almost make-up-less face, framed by slight frizzy edges of pulled back hair, looking down in pre-smile anticipation to her bare shoulder-blades against a plain white background, this album presents itself as what it is. Hopeful. Radiant. Expectant. Refreshing. Clean. The innocence of the literal packaging of this album prepares us for a sound that is not packaged at all.
In a moment where synthesized vocals and super-produced beats saturate the R&B market, Ayo’s soulful, world-beat album seems almost out of time. And that’s a good thing. This album is simple, recorded in New York under what her myspace page calls “live circumstances” retaining the feel of an open-air performance. Ayo, a Nigerian, Parisian, Gypsy living in New York, transmits the feeling of journey through her interplay with the diverse band that supports her with an African-centered, Caribbean-influenced global jam sound.
It is Ayo’s distinctive, insistent voice that saves the album from the background music feel that is so often the fate of “world music” in relationship to a soul market. It is Ayo’s voice, refusing to be ignored, that retains a feeling of presence, keeping the music “live” even in its recorded form. Ayo’s voice, sweet and open, reaches at the end of each phrase in a pattern that is passionate (if also repetitive and not quite dynamic). “Down on My Knees”, the first single, in which the singer begs a lover not to leave, is the perfect place for the straining intensity of Ayo’s phrasing. Listening to this track we understand why Ayo cites Donny Hathaway as a primary mentor, and the pleading quality sounds the plaintive edge that a saxophone would make if it were fashioned out of a gourd.
Not brassy, but holding a slight whine, the sound of Ayo’s voice says simply “Please listen. I am opening up for you.” However this insistent quality remains almost uniform throughout the album, which treats topics from familial appreciation, to spiritual faith, to rejected advice and comfort for the oppressed. Determination carries the singer’s voice through the project, although the melodies and the lyrics are repetitive and sometimes too simple. Ayo uses her vocal strategy to insist on truths that are too vacant to require insisting. She repeats and stresses, “life is real” or “love is deep”, phrases that continue not to teach us much, despite the vocal energy she invests in them.
However, the album does have its teaching moments. “And It’s Supposed to be Love”, the most upbeat track on the album, has the most cynical message, outing abuse, violence, and deceit within so-called “love” relationships while maintaining the most lighthearted and up-tempo polyrhythmic feel. The track that gives the most critical corrective to the commercialization of love is ironically the track that would most likely tempt listeners to dance. “Help is Coming”, on the other hand, a song ostensibly about hope has the heaviest vocal quality and the most grounded, rhythm almost dragging, causing this listener to think past the divine “help” that the song seems to be about to the more ambivalent international “help” in the form of hollow promises at time of international political and economic crisis.
Ayo’s voice, while refreshing, is not subtle. We experience all of her moves in the first song. The simplicity of the lyrics and the phrasing create a context of sincerity, but it remains too simple to ultimately bring home a powerful message. The album is young, fresh, and pleasant and could be described as something like Sade for beginners, or the perfect opening set for an Angelique Kidjo concert. While Ayo is a welcome addition, even an intervention into the overlap of the soul and world music genres, I have a feeling that this artist’s most memorable work is yet to come.