I’ve been listening to Nneka’s new album Concrete Jungle for almost a week straight now, so I feel more than confident writing that we’ve never seen or heard anyone quite like her before, and will never probably never hear anything like her again. But will that stop me from making comparisons? No, no it will not. Like when presented with anything new, we need a comparison to establish a foundation, a starting point, if we’re to travel further, so here we go: Nneka sounds like Lauryn Hill without the heartbreak, like Dead Prez without the …
DJBooth Album Review
Born in Nigeria and now splitting her time between her native Africa and a home in Hamburg, Germany, Nneka’s music carries the weight of two worlds, worlds that are sometimes harmonious but often in conflict. Remarkably she’s managed to translate that diverse array of experience into her music, garnering critical acclaim for her first two albums, which were primarily European releases. Nneka is now finally making her way to the U.S. with Concrete Jungle, an at times stunningly soulful work that will feel like a debut album to almost all of us, an effect that will only enhance the feeling that we’ve stumbled across something great here. If you can’t tell from the opening paragraphs, I really, really f**king like this album.
There’s no better place to start than with the album’s lead single The Uncomfortable Truth, a track that contains within it all of the essential components of Concrete Jungle. First, the music, like the vast majority of the album, was produced by DJ Farhot, who here lays the track’s foundation with soul horns (shades of Mark Ronson) and kinetic percussion, a sonic backdrop that Nneka overlays with vocals that clearly betray her heavy hip-hop influence.
Unlike a Mary J. Blige or Alicia, Nneka’s voice doesn’t wash over you so much as it invites you to come inside, a quality that’s most evident on Heartbeat. While an appropriately pounding bass line beats in the background we get the first evidence of the anger and revolutionary spirit that underlies Nneka’s often soft voice, an effect we hear again on Focus, a more rock-oriented cut that also features the closest thing we get to some outright rapping from Nneka (other than maybe God of Mercy). In this regard she’s not the double-threat the aforementioned Ms. Hill was (I can’t believe I’m writing about Lauryn in the past tense) but that’s fine. Nneka’s not trying to miseducate, she is only trying to be herself, a task she accomplished powerfully.
While tracks like Focus and Heartbeat do showcase the more aggressive side of Nneka, the true root of her music lies in an unwavering sense of hope and optimism, as seen most evidently on Africans, Concrete Jungle’s only real acoustic ballad (although Farhot quickly expands the track into a reggae jam). On Africans Nneka urges her fellow countrymen to escape from the cycle of violence and abuse that has plagues the continent and move forward into a brighter future: “Wake up Africa, wake up and stop sleeping,” she sings in a voice that’s as much a scold as a plea. On a similar tip even the most hard-hearted gangster would find themselves throwing a lighter in the air after hearing the soulful Come With Me, and even the most stubborn wall-clinger would be forced to find the dancefloor after a couple spins of Suffri. Still, none of them are as good as Walking, a track that’s uplifting in the most authentic way possible. Right now, more than ever, we need this music.
My real fear here is that I’ll end this review either failing to communicate how truly impressive Concrete Jungle is, or allowing people to dismiss it as something nice but not something they’d listen to, so let me be clear. Music, good music, has a universal quality that transcends any language or preference, and Concrete Jungle embodies this universality better than any album in recent memory. Act accordingly.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 02/1/10
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