Various Artists: Soul Satisfaction: A Collection of Nu-Soul Gems
It coheres, it flows, and the songs fit together like a pieces in a jigsaw puzzle -- I just wish the whole thing weren't so goddamn 'serious'.
Soul music is one of the great mongrel forms that defined American pop. Modern soul, however, doesn't get much critical r-e-s-p-e-c-t, mostly because it's even more mongrelized now than ever, and if you can't define something, how can you praise it? Soul Satisfaction purports to be an album of nu-soul, a genre that combines whatever soul is with, y'know, modern music. Computers and shit. So is nu-soul really different from old-soul, or just a technological update? If not, how is it different? Whom did it come from? George Clinton? Prince? (James Brown, for good godsakes?) Even if you define it like record company folks now do (which is to say, black people singing, not rapping, over hip-hop beats), you'll end up roping in a wide range of stuff -- Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Usher, recent smokinggun.com Mug Shot Mania inductee D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill (if she ever gets her groove back).
None of whom, you'll notice, really sound like P-Funk or Prince or the Godfather of Soul (or even Gladys Knight or Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin). Also notice that those names all represent the aboveground of nu-soul. If Shanachie can be trusted, there's a hot-to-trot underground scene in effect, one that radio won't touch (which Soul Satisfaction's smug liner notes posit "demonstrates how bankrupt popular radio has become," yeah yeah how many times have you heard that one before?). On this album, compiler Randall Grass assembles 14 "nu-soul gems" and asks listeners to provide their own definition of nu-soul as an aesthetic form.
So, after listening to this album many times, here's mine: simplistic-by-design lyrics crooned and/or histrionically belted over midtempo hip-hop beats, complete with acoustic guitars, keyboards, and simplistic-by-design basslines (and, occasionally, schlocky string fillips). Soul Satisfaction is kind of formulaic that way. So it passes a crucial compilation criterion with flying colors -- it coheres, it flows, the songs fit together like a pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I just wish the whole thing weren't so goddamn serious.
Maybe this is my failing; maybe hearing hip-hop beats has conditioned a response from the chuckle quadrant of my brain. Rappers, of course, have the liberal word count necessary to crack elaborate jokes. (I'm still hearing new laugh lines on The College Dropout, which is officially my favorite album since Love and Theft.) Nu-soulers, on the other hand, are forced to subsist on "This is the time we say that we're in love / This is the moment we lay it on the line / And this is the mood that is set by our beating hearts / And this is what we do before we make love". I mean, yechhh. If you take sex that seriously, maybe nu-soul is the genre for you. As someone who celebrates the inextricable link between sex and humor, I found Soul Satisfaction absurdly formal and frigid, and since most of the songs are about getting it on, that's a major flaw.
The album isn't a total waste, however. A couple songs break free of the midtempo-acoustic-keyboard formula, and, unsurprisingly, they're the most fun songs here. Adriana Evans' uptempo "Remember the Love" ("Where was they way back when, / You was on the corners rappin?") sounds positively giddy sandwiched between a couple nu-soul genre exercises. Me'shell Ndegeocello is as blessedly quirky as you would expect, and opener "Miss Q-N" by Zap Mama is more exuberantly beaty than all but a few of the 13 tracks that follow it. But, on the whole -- come on. If this is really what nu-soul is -- dull, austere, and pathologically unable to crack a smile -- better you dig through your old-soul albums instead.