Though it’s fairly standard procedure these days for artists to circle around the sound of their influences before trying to fly off in their own direction, the English R&B singer Omar has been doing this for more than 20 years. Since the beginning, his music has been informed by ‘70s pioneers in R&B, reggae, and Latin music. His new album, The Man, sometimes sounds like Bilal’s recent album A Love Surreal. But Omar is less concerned with soaring off into new territory, and more interested in a firm beat and concrete song structures.
Omar put out his first album in 1990, and he’s sometimes considered a progenitor of the late ‘90s American neo-soul movement, though his breakout hit, “Nothing Like This”, didn’t contain much “neo.” With flecks of bossa nova guitar, smooth bass, and a light croon, it sounds like a male take on Sade. Omar also works more regularly than most neo-soul singers (the men at least): The Man is his seventh album in 23 years, meaning that he’s releasing music on a relatively regular schedule, unlike say, D’Angelo or Maxwell.
Omar shares Stevie Wonder’s interest in combining all strains of black music, if not his knack for sticky vocal hooks. (The two men have sung together in the past). Several talented friends help Omar step into his role as “the man,” including the bassist Pino Palladino, who worked on D’Angelo’s Voodoo album, and the singer Caron Wheeler, who concocted English neo-soul of her own in the late 80s (though the neo-soul term wasn’t used at the time).
Most of The Man comes by way of a full soul band—plus brass and orchestration—which gives Omar plenty of sonic options. The album kicks off with a string-heavy incantation. “All at once I see something in your eyes,” sings Omar, before trailing off into a sturdy, layered funk vamp. The title track adds flutes, and the squeaks and squelches common on Brazilian pop recordings from the ‘70s show up on “Bully,” before the song develops a reggae rhythm. “High Heels” mulls over a riff that could be a distant, slower cousin to the motif from Parliament’s “Flashlight.” There’s even a hint of a programmed dance-floor beat on “When You Touch We Touch.”
Like India.Arie, Omar is a singer who focuses on the warm and the positive. This is evident even in his song titles: “I Can Listen”, “Treat You”, “I Love Being with You”. For another artist, “Fuck War, Make Love” could be an angry, political manifesto, but here it’s another piece of light funk. If things get bad, Omar’s the guy to find a silver lining.
The song Pino Palladino plays on is a love song built around a simple bass motif and Omar swearing his romance is one of a kind: “There’s nothing like this / No one could ever have / What we have / There’s nothing like this.” That power of love—to convince those in it that nobody has ever felt like this before in history—is similar to the power of pop. A good groove develops its own unique existence, even if it’s not so different from past grooves experienced by others. There’s plenty of other music like the music on The Man, but that doesn’t diminish Omar’s creation.