Though the folks at corporate don’t seem to know it yet, neo-soul is out and real soul music is in again. This is not a knock the neo-soul denizens and their grand icons, but just the reminder that the so-called neo-soul sound was nothin’ more than what Baba Amiri Baraka (it all flows thru him, and if you ain’t read Blues People you don’t really get it) labeled nearly 40 years ago as the “Changing Same”. Mosdef, the big label, moved a gank of music courtesy of the tag neo-soul—Daniel Gray-Kontar notes that Alicia Keys, Maxwell, India.Arie, Badu, L-Boogie, D’Angelo, Macy Gray, and Jilly have moved 30 million units between them—but more than anything, the so-called neo-soul movement allowed a few folks to take risks and do “they-own” thang. Sure, there’s been some causalities—Dionne Farris and Lauryn Hill to name just two (we all need to read Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Aretha” to truly understand what L-Boogie’s breakdown was about)—but the real joys of this moment have come from the shit happening just beyond corporate radars—joints from the likes Lewis Taylor (who really jump-started the neo-soul moment with Lewis Taylor), Fertile Ground (who defy simple definitions) N’Dambi, and Calvin Richardson. Cleveland native Conya Doss is now likely to join the ranks of these “secret gems” with the release of her debut A Poem About Ms. Doss.
Doss is the latest of a cadre of folks who have come out of the Cleveland metro area, including legendary ones like Eddie and Gerald Levert and most recently Bone, Thugs, and Harmony and “Little Kelly” (Avant). While Doss has been singing since she was a child (singing Natalie Cole’s “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” at family gatherings), she eschewed a formal singing career, instead choosing a career in education—Doss is a special education teacher in the Cleveland pubic school system. Doss had auditioned for and successfully earned a gig to be a back-up for Gerald Levert (president of the “Pretty Big Man’s Club”) while in college, but as she told Gray-Kontar, “being on the road seemed as though it was going to conflict with school” so she turned it down. While doing the “teacha, teacha” thing in a serious way, Doss often visited the studio of producer Edwin “Tony” Nichols, who has laced “G-love” and a few others over the year. Doss began co-writing songs with Nichols (he the music, she the lyrics) shortly thereafter. When Nichols became the head of the fledgling Cleveland-based label Nu Mecca, Doss became the label’s first signee. A Poem About Ms. Doss is a conscious attempt to replicate the indie-soul success of Jill Scott and Hidden Beach Records. Nu Mecca is distributed by Orpheus Music, which also distributes Juve’s UTP Records and Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal imprint.
“First Cup of Coffee”, the lead single from A Poem About Ms. Doss, began getting airplay in the Cleveland area as early as February of this year. The song, which borrows riffs from Jilly’s “Try”, is a classic morning drive time ditty (intimated in the title) that features Doss’s sassy vocals. Doss sounds a little like L-Boogie on “You Really Hurt Me” (it’s in the pleading and the yearning) which references Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love”. The two songs, along with “Feelin’ You” are the only musically up-beat tracks on the disc as Doss’s strength lies is her reading of ballads and mid-tempos.
On the sunny “One More Try” and “All Because of You”, Doss flows supply over the un-intrusive grooves of Myron Davis and Nichols, allowing her voice a clear forum. In so many of the projects labeled neo-soul, the music itself has taken center stage often pushing the vocalist to the background. The prominence of neo-soul sound production has allowed many labels to just plug voices into grooves, creating the context where some marginal singers have been allowed to flourish at the expense of those who can bring the spirit when the spirit needs to be brought. Nichols wisely employs the same laid back strategy on tracks like “So Fly” and “Smile Again”, which like most of the disc were co-written by Doss. The only track where the music does seem intrusive is Doss’s over-wrought re-make of Norman Connors and Michael Henderson’s “You Are My Starship”. A shout out for spreading some luv on the classic but a suggestion to move cautiously on remakes in the future.
The real gems on A Poem About Ms. Doss are the slow-drag ballads. The “blue-light in the basement” flow of “Meantime” sounds as if could have been recorded by the Jones Girls two decades ago. “That’s Not Love” riffs from the best of the contemporary “blue funk” tapping into a soundscape that simultaneously draws from Dr. Dre, D’Angelo, and Touch of Jazz. Other standouts include “Heaven”, which features vocalist Zero and the interlude “Zoning in My Dome” which gives the clearest window into Doss spirit and should have been recorded as a full-length track.
A Poem About Ms. Doss breaks no new artistic ground, but is a solid debut by a vocalist who deserves much more visibility than a host of folks who get more airplay than their talents suggest.