Some of the real gems of the so-called neo-soul era, have been those artists who’ve recorded projects for independent labels well below the radar of the tastemakers at MTV or Entertainment Weekly. Acts like The Jazzyfatnastees (who broke with MCA to record their second disc with the indie Cool Hunter), Ledisi, Kindred the Family Soul, N’Dambi and Conya Doss have more than held their own, both commercially and artistically, in comparison to their major label peers like Floetry, Bilal, and Musiq and Vivian Green. Bay area chanteuse Goapele is on par with many of her neo-soul peers in terms of style and talent, but what sets her full-length debut Even Closer apart from the rest, is the activist spirit that informs both her music and her decision to record on her family owned label Skyblaze.
According to Goapele Mohlabane (she is the daughter of exiled South African activist Douglas Mohlabane), the decision to go the indie route was the result of wanting to “get the music out the way I see fit, without having to compromise my values, my image or any of my lyrics”. (SF Weekly, 20 November 2002) Goapele’s spirit is indicative of a woman, who at the age of 10 formed a pre-teen support group for the Bay Area Black Woman Health Project, was the child of a activist-minded bi-racial couple, and was born and bred in a region of the country known for its political and cultural mavericks. Goapele is just the latest in a long line of San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area figures who pushed against the margins dating back to Sly Stone and the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and represented most recently in folk like Davey D, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Michael Franti and the legendary hip-hop collective known as Hieroglyphics.
Even Closer started-out as a nine-song EP (Closer) that the artist and her family partners distributed themselves, eventually selling 5,000 copies of the disc out of the proverbial car trunk. It was through her relationship with Hieroglyphics (who she collaborates with on “Ease Your Mind”) that Goapele was able to negotiate a deal with Red/Sony to distribute the Even Closer, which includes five additional tracks. Released in November, Even Closer caught the attention of some industry folks as the record managed to outsell 50 Cent’s record breaking debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in the Bay Area.
Possessing a flat, nasal tone that is reminiscent at times of Faith Evans, Goapele co-wrote every one of the songs on Even Closer. Though she earned a following initially for politically tinged tracks like “Childhood Drama”, “It Takes More” and the brilliant “Red, White and Blues” (“Red, white and Blues / If you don’t claim them they’ll blame you”), much of Even Closer is romantic fare. Goapele’s talents shine most extraordinarily on the album’s ballads and mid-temp grooves.
On tracks like the title track and lead single “Closer”, “Too Much the Same” and the moody and introspective “Back to You”, Goapele’s voice sways gently against supple jazz grooves, bridging the neo-soul/smooth jazz sound in ways that only Amel Larrieux and Jill Scott have achieved consistently. “Back to You” is sandwiched between the disc’s two best tracks “Salvation” and “Butterflykisses”. “Salvation” is a beautiful meditation on the desire to find grounding amidst the chaos of everyday life (”. . . hope is sifting through my hands/Like lost time/I can’t make believe”). “Butterflykisses” is as cinnamonly sweet as the title suggest. On both “Butterflykisses” and “Salvation”, Goapele employs a vocal style that can be best described as “searching for the perfect note” as the passion of both songs is literally expressed in her ability to squeeze every bit of emotion out of each note. The fact that her style is much more restrained than the classic gospel shouters, makes her ability to convey such emotion—think Laura Nyro and Sade—such a feat. Written and produced with neo-Chitlin’ Circuit groovemasters Soulive, another highlight of Even Closer is the surly, greasy funk that is “Romantic”.
Nothing on Goapele’s Even Closer is likely to ever be an MTV buzzclip, but throughout her debut she exhibits striking vocals and solid song writing skills, suggesting that she will be a figure that will be heard from again and again, likely outlasting many of her neo-soul peers and some of the independent labels they record for.