The phrase “Pink Elephant” was popularized by writers such as Jack London in the early part of the 20th century to describe the hallucinations that could accompany withdrawal from alcohol. This state, delirium tremens in technical terms, has even prompted a Belgian brewery to ironically name their beer after it, stamping each bottle cutely with — what else? — a tiny pink elephant. What does any of this have to do with soul and R&B artist N’Dambi? Nothing, much like how the title to her fourth album applies to the album itself, which deals with more traditional themes of love, longing, and storytelling with nary a mention of addiction.
I’ve said all of that to say this: it doesn’t really matter what an album is called as long as it’s good. To that end, N’Dambi has succeeded, thanks in no small part to producer Leon Steyers, a long-time purveyor of the genre and its many tangents. The musical backdrops he creates incorporate elements from funk, soul, jazz, blues, and hip hop, all branches from the same tree, in a way that allows N’Dambi to expand and collapse her vocal approach to fit the mood of each beat. Notably, she doesn’t rely on the affectations, the superfluous riffing and subterfuge, of many of her contemporaries, opting instead for a more straightforward style that expresses its quality with strength, richness, and subtlety.
“L.I.E.” opens Pink Elephant with a modern story about a man and his double-life lived along the Long Island Expressway. Soul music is certainly no stranger to the topic of a man and his secrets, but N’Dambi’s presentation, employing analogies of Peter Pan and Neverland, as well as the titular acronym, is a fresh interpretation. The hypnotic bassline of “What It Takes”, which is begging to be sampled by some future producer, gives N’Dambi the opportunity to display her more sultry side as she expresses her confidence and dedication to her relationships. The slinky ’80s hip hop groove, complete with organ and jazzy overtone, of “Our Baby” is equally impressive, as she somehow turns a song about love lost into a warm slow jam.
Pink Elephant is not without its weaknesses, however, though thankfully they fall into one easily-bypassed clump of songs. “Daisy Chain” is like a mid-’90s update of something the Staples Sisters might have done, and has the kind of simplistic love-hate appeal typically reserved for the soundtrack of chick flicks. “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while not in and of itself a bad song, relies too heavily on the refrain of “fuckin’ witchoo” to convey dismay and the desire to move on. I’m not one for puritanical censorship — on my best days I issue more colorful expletives than a Quentin Tarantino film — but the desired effect here is cheapened by the incessant repetition, and it seems uncharacteristic in comparison the rest of the record.
Thankfully, the fantastic upright bass and chording of “Imitator”, and subject matter of no longer recognizing the person you’re in love with, allow N’Dambi to regain her form as she achieves shades of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. “Free Fallin’” is similar in this regard, and has the familiar feel of a glamorous lounge act accented by stage-lighting, a sequined dress, and a glass of something warm for the spirit. Pink Elephant is therefore a record that channels voices of the past into a modern rendering of all that is good about soul and R&B music, as much a tribute as a compelling bearing of the torch. N’Dambi has progressed a tremendous amount since she provided accompanying vocals for Erykah Badu, and it’s criminal that she hasn’t received more widespread recognition for her talent. Pink Elephant is at once lush, vibrant, and deeply moving as it sprawls across soundscapes that range from beat to bounce to ballad. Above all it is a consistent showcase of N’Dambi’s talent, one that encourages total immersion in her realized potential.