I guess no one saw this coming since Paul Revere didn't saddle up in a Dodge Charger flying down I-495 yelling that the British are coming. But they're here, and it is a shame that American soul music sounds much better through European lungs.
With Amy Winehouse "Elvis-ing" her way into the American lexicon with plush lyrics and strong vocals, Floetry swooning melodic tunes and Ms. Dynamite's light-hearted sing-songy flow, U.K. artists have charted course for new artists Lily Allen, Duffy, Adele and most recently, MC/singer/songwriter Estelle.
Her sophomore album Shine on John Legend's HomeSchool Records shows all of Estelle's musical talents from her honey-tinged vocals to her women's lib lyricism. On "Just A Touch" she warns all comers that rushing into her bed will not be happening anytime soon. On "No Substitute Love" she croons about no longer accepting side fling status. It is clear that Estelle isn't having it, what's also clear is that she is not Lauryn Hill.
Not that she is trying to be the famed Grammy winner, but whenever there is a female singer/songwriter/MC there will always be the comparisons to Hill, arguably the best to ever do all three. It also doesn't help Estelle's cause that Wyclef Jean produces two tracks on her album that sound pitch perfect for Hill's voice. At the pinnacle of being a slash artist is Hill, and unfortunately for Estelle, everyone else is just a close second.
Now, being second isn't always bad, in the history of music seconds aren't always sloppy. When Estelle shines brightest is when she doesn't push the songs out of her diaphragm but merely lets her voice ride over the beat like an instrument.
On "Back in Love" her voice creeps into your neck to loosen that device that allows the rhythmic nod, the head bob, and that's hip-hop. She explains to a lover that love, in all its complexities, is attainable and ultimately fair, even in its misgivings, and she is happy to have a second chance. "Back in Love" is redemption at is best on this album— where the production is laced with heavyweights (Jean, Swizz Beatz, Will.i.am and Jack Splash) that highlight them rather than showcase Estelle's gifts.
Not to mention the countless cameos (Cee-Lo, Kanye West, Kardinal Offishall and of course Mr. Legend himself) that steal Estelle's shine. In fact, the only collabo that slightly works is the first single, the Will.i.am produced "American Boy" with Kanye West where Estelle sings about wanting to meet an American boy to show her all the American sights, and Kanye does what Kanye does best, rap about Kanye. It isn't that this album is bad but with too many producers and too many cameos, Estelle's musical vision doesn't always shine through.
Santogold's music is like a dream: disjointed, whimsical, fantastic and completely random. Once the album stops, you awaken, both puzzled and hungry to find the deeper meaning and the thread that connects it all.
Santogold, a pseudonym for singer Santi White, jumps from new wave to M.I.A-ish drawl to punk to pop to jazz. There is no continuity, no spine to her music, but there is a heart and a soul, and that's far more important. Singing isn't always about singing as much as it is about feeling, and what Santogold feels on her self-titled debut album is the spirit of 1980s pop. Since the whole world has gone back to the '80s with the resurgence of everything from gold dookie ropes to fishnet stockings and leggings, why not Santogold?
Especially since she does it so well. With a synthnotronic sound, electro-flashes and heavy pop feel, Santogold will make all the old new wave '80s bands proud. The opening track, "L.E.S. Artistes" conjures up visions of Blondie or The Cars as she sings about trying not to become one on the masses.
"You don't know me/I'm an introvert and excavator/I'm duckin' out for now/a face in dodgy elevators/Creep up and suddenly/I found myself/an innovator."
Only problem is that she isn't really that innovative. In fact all of her spunk street cred has to have taken a hit. Her song "Creator" boasts, "Me, I'm a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place/Up on the radar," and is the background music to help sell Bud Light's new lime beer. I am also sure penning lyrics for the lip-synching, tabloid monger Ashlee Simpson's album Bittersweet World couldn't have helped peak interest.
One thing that Santogold does well is her lyrics. They are unapologetic almost brash and in your face even though she isn't shouting. White is not looking to be loved; she is looking to tell you to your face how she feels. On "Shove It" she sings, "We think you're a joke/shove your hope/where it don't shine" in a low, drunken ska tone.
But anyone who grew up during Reaganomics and actually found themselves cheering to "Mickey" and wishing they were "Jesse's Girl" have heard these voices before. The part that makes this all Santogold is the music behind her and her ability to flip it. As disjointed as it may seem in the beginning, this album actually works in the same way a Basquiat painting can be several arresting images all at once; a mess at first glance, but the second look is where the beauty lies.
What Santogold offers is a musical collage from the '80s all in one neat package. This way, all those kids that shuffle into Urban Outfitters thinking that neon printed T-shirts or acid wash jeans are brand new don't have to spend megabucks buying one '80s album after another searching for that authentic sound. For them, Santogold is a good throwback to an old era, and there is no need to spoil that.
The Roots, Rising Down
When the song "Birthday Girl" leaked almost a month before The Roots' Rising Down was released, more than a few Internet sites were buzzing that the legendary Roots crew from Illadelphia had lost it. The song was a poppy mess with Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump singing a weak hook about finally being able to bed a young girl that had come of age, all played out over a folksy guitar riff.
Not a good look for a band that had made their bread and butter blasting government policies, challenging world views and pushing the ghetto of Philly into the ears of all. But to leave it there would have been to miss the beauty of The Roots. Since The Roots' inception, they have never received the kind of critical success that most major labels expect from their artists. It had been rumored that "Birthday Girl" was the bands' attempt to become more crossover friendly and to be its big sellout.
But while the video features porn star Sasha Gray playing the "Birthday Girl" and taking gifts from men's groins, to this day it remains unclear as to whether the "Birthday Girl" track was ever truly supposed to be released on the album. "Birthday Girl" never made it onto the album when it was released, not even as a bonus track. Instead, Rising Down is darker, grittier and more politically charged than ever, proving once and for all that The Roots lay down for no one.
It's clear that there are several ways that music can motivate folks, for some it can be uplifting and inspire you to snap your fingers and do your step. For others it is a Calgon experience that can simply take you away. But what The Roots create is think rap.
Like good literature written out in long hand, The Roots use their music as a medium; they paint scenes with colorful language. If today's ringtone rap is the equivalent of steamy grocery store novels, then The Roots are James Baldwin. There are no dance raps here. No mentions of excess unless it is to blast those that participate, no boastful claims about money or fashion. They have no ties to Italian designers, fine champagnes or smooth Vodka. From rhythm to rhyme, the tunes on this album are not made to go down easy. What The Roots create instead is a motivational tool that should be used to inspire. This is not the album to play when getting dressed to go to the club (for that music I suggest a nod to the South, somewhere between Shawty Lo and Soulja Boy). What The Roots did in this album was create fight music, get off the couch and change things music, some "come on man we can do better than this" music. Come to think of it, this album shouldn't even be placed in the music section but over in the self-help aisle between Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving and Deepak Chopra's The Third Jesus.
Everything from the album art, a black stereotypical Sambo-esque caricature with wings, tail and claws swooping down on unsuspecting white villagers, to the taped argument that begins and ends the album, to the dark sounds that haunt the listener, prove that this definitely isn't a softer, kinder Roots crew. The album begins with wordsmith Black Thought and ?uestlove arguing with then-label management at Geffen Records about the direction of the group. At one point, someone can be heard yelling so loud that his words are inaudible.
To hear the frantic, intense argument feels almost intrusive, as if we are not supposed to be here, stuck inside the eye of a tornado. This kind of intensity is how the entire album feels—almost like you aren't really supposed to be listening in. Like all of this is being overheard and you are a fly on the wall, trying to figure out whether you should stay still or fly away.
Loaded with a musical band of revolutionaries, (Porn, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dice Raw, Peedi Peedi and former member Malik B.) this is the soundtrack for revolution. Chuck D once called rap music the black CNN and on the title track, leading correspondent Black Thought delivers the blueprint for exactly what is under the microscope: "Between the greenhouse gases/and earth spinnin' off its axis/got mother nature doing back flips/the natural disasters/it's like 80 degrees in Alaska/you in trouble if you not an Onasis/it ain't hard to tell that the conditions is drastic."
But the darkest song by far is the eerie "The Singing Man," a roundhouse between Porn, Black Thought and Truck North, in which all three illustrate the thought process behind the tragic mind state of the misunderstood. Porn channels the angst and anger of a school shooter and expresses that there will be a suicide note that will explain what he cannot. Truck North takes on the persona of a suicide bomber and Black Thought depicts the struggles of an African child soldier all while Dice Raw sings in a morbid voice for each one of them "to sing another song singing man."
But not every song is devoted to social issues. "75 bars (Black's Reconstruction)" and "Rising Up" bring back some of that old Roots love. On "75 bars" Black Thought does what he has always done best, rep Philly to the fullest. No one expounds on the grimmest folks and drug-laced corners like Black Thought. For 10 albums he has been breaking down the real street scenes of Philly, and it never gets old. On "Rising Up" Chrisette Michele sings the plight of a bored B-girl who is fed up with the radio's monotony. ?uestlove opens the high hat and drops into a go-go pocket beat as Black Thought and D.C.'s Wale trade barbs about everything from dressing fresh to dominating the globe like Oprah.
The infectious "I Will Not Apologize" hook could sum up The Roots feeling on all of the wanted sellout-ry from label heads to those that don't understand the commitment to making more than just music. On the track, Talib Kweli and Dice Raw trade lines, "I will not apologize/I will not apologize/this is for all of my people that understand and truly recognize some won't get it and for that I won't apologize."
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a Washington writer.