[4 March 2010]
Much of the ink thus far spilled on Nneka thoroughly covers her Nigerian-German ethnic split, with all the supposedly dispositive clichés that one attaches to the torn between two worlds. This biographic thumbnail seems more generically presumptive than culled from anything present in the music. In fact, Nneka seems like the poster child for the post-national play of interconnected pop culture. There are no more technological walls to prevent the Cincinnati Bengals from listening to the greatest hits written in Bengali. The barriers are now more the cumulative habits and desires of individual listeners. While trying to tread without meaning offense, the “African” elements of this record are no more geographically destined than the African elements of the Police or Sade. When you see writers bring up Fela Kuti or the word “African” in reference to Concrete Jungle, surely they must do so as form of colonial penance, because I won’t pretend to adjective 47 countries in order to find an artificial center for an artist that has clearly, like all of many of us, soaked up jazz, reggae, electronica, and hip-hop, genres so thoroughly cross cut in continental origin, that a lineal question that seems so quaint, has probably always been so. Africa seems like Nneka’s biographical backdrop for the earnest longing of a fabulist pop star, who sings in English about God and the human condition. Clearly the themes of oppression and salvation, repentance and authenticity, aren’t meant to be tethered too tightly to time and place.
The God thing: at this point you need to let go of it. By that, of course I mean, I had to let go of it because nearly every single song makes explicitly religious pleas from an avowedly spiritual worldview. Normally, I would elide something like this entirely because everyone comes to the world with a certain value system and its inevitable that predominant spiritualities will wend their way into metaphor, into analogy, into the inspirational core of an artist’s sound. But Nneka has a soft-touched missionary’s zeal, directly addressing people who don’t believe in God, praising God, thanking God, quoting the Bible, pretty much proseltyzing like a Jehovah’s Witness at your door, but with the kind of soundtrack that would compel you to let them in. Honestly, it’s hard to find offense with someone that generously reaches for common ground even if the language is freighted with exclusion. Nneka’s representation of God is fungible and easy to project through, like hearing “Jah” in a reggae song without necessarily bothering to ponder the divinity of Haile Selassie.
Nneka evokes lots of American touchstones, reference points that both overshoot and under illuminate. Frequent comparisons to Lauren Hill and Erykah Badu capture incomplete tangents of her sound. Unlike Hill, Nneka seems publicly liberated by her sincerity. She also reveals few regrets about using pop as the idiom of her activist bent and spiritual leanings whereas Hill seemed, especially on MTV Unplugged 2.0, to have placed pop and depth in false opposition. Badu makes some sense, but frankly, her aim is narrowly, deeply niched and more intellectual. Both share a love of the polyrhythmic breakdown, though Badu seems to be carving out a path with increasingly dense Curtis Mayfield foliage, sublimating her vocals to the level of the finishing signature. Nneka, despite DJ Farhot’s intricate aural canvases beneath her, vocally stands in front of of every single track. While it’s fun to trace the seams in each genre patchworked track, her singing has the greatest gravitational pull. Nneka’s voice has bracingly unique qualities of contrast: the breadth between beeseching and bruising on “Walking” absolutely kills. Her cadence also traverses several incarnations from the breezing ease of “Uncomfortable Truth” to the pinched ratatat chant on “Suffri”. The dirt in the the ethereality compels the listeners to return again and again to hear a new pitch, break, or effortless extension of her flex. The reason Erykah Badu and Lauren Hill come up as much as they do probably comes from the desire to connect her style to pop figures that pack power and enchantment into their chops.
At this point in the pop culture wars, I’m completely jaded by my own cynicism. What’s remarkable about Nneka’s record is its capacity to unravel the Uniceffed Bono damage to the world of good causes. In part, that works because her artistry is infused with her beliefs and she’s not simply accessorizing celebrity with tragedy. The panted plea of “Heartbeat”‘s chorus with an almost panicked crash of drums tumbling beneath it, has a breathless emotional puncture in its chorus. Nneka can sound wrenching and uplifted in a single note held with exhausted strength. While she might not yet share their musical stature, Nneka clearly views pop art as a mechanism for transformation and vision, in the way that John Lennon and Bob Marley used both in a dizzying concoction of myth and talent.
Although it’s not necessary to understanding an album, I was particularly enrapt by the homespun, grainy feel of Nneka’s videos. It’s worth noting that both the videos for “Heartbeat” and “Uncomfortable Truth” deepen her aesthetic with a visual palate that emphasizes the intimate over the excessively material and a bold sense of humanity that’s deeply moving because it’s so deeply out of sync with the tropes we’ve become accustomed to: the elevated “cool”, the celebration of gluttony, the intellectually ironic, and even the retreat into pure surface and form.
The joy of having a compilation introduction like this comes from the unbelievable strength of most of the material. “Focus” has so many elements and genre shards (Gregorian chants, power ballad guitar, and orchestral swells) that it’s hard to believe that that it hangs together so forcefully, particularly in her clipped rip on the inauthenticities of our age. What makes this a truly great album in the vein of Miseducation comes from the way that surface simplicities yield to rich repetition. I played Lauren Hill’s debut enough to scuff several copies, back in the days before music left this mortal coil. While most obvious lead single, “Heartbeat”‘s chorus initially grabs with its ferocious melodrama, on repeat its the violin note that holds for an unbearalbe length that strikes a chord of awe. And while I may have previously glossed avoid the African connection of her work to emphasize the pop globalism, it’d be malpractice to overlook the intense rhythmic clutches of songs like “Walking” and “Suffri”.
There are soft spots that wisely mirror the old Ann Richards quote of that once you know someone’s long suit, you know their short suit. Indeed, the ascendant mood and the populist uplift, wear thinnest where they are thinly worn. “God of Mercy”, with its watered down Massive Attack bleat and dull plod of piano chords, sounds like Alicia Key’s scraps. Referencing the footprints poem, in any context, brings to mind plaques on bathrooms walls and a sentiment that isn’t theologically deep. She does much better with Christian cliché in the more subtle grafting of Psalm 23:4 (shadowed valleys of death and all that) on “Kangpe”. It’s only when the sentiment feels forced and the frames weak that Nneka overreaches with awkward amalgam. Quite honestly, one could pretty easily make salty cuts against the grain of much of Nneka says lyrically, but it feels like the wrong critical apparatus to meet her in good faith on her terms. Imagine “All You Need Is Love” or imagine “Imagine” deconstructed in today’s doubly ironic, savagely detached inter-world and you can see how easy it is to muster the default sarcasm to chop off any hand that’s trying to reach out to you artistically.
Even though this is a compilation of previous releases, the most exciting part about Concrete Jungle comes from hearing such a fresh voice working with such open-pathed material. Nneka has a cunning eclecticism that could furrow deeper into electronic, jazz, and African sounds or simply keep arranging the parts into consecutively complex wholes. Unsurprisingly, some of the best Nneka repurposing has come from the J. Period remixes of “Walking” and “Changes”, which have Nneka providing anthemic bookending to tight, lyrical flow from the likes of rappers like Jay Electronica. There are so many pristine components here; each of them the building blocks of an amazing performer with a concentric gift of a future. With my defenses down, hands down, Concrete Jungle is one of the most impressive releases of the year.