When it comes to commercial black music, “high concept” makes the record industry very nervous. Motown initially told Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye that people wouldn’t like their political songs. Stax told Isaac “Black Moses” Hayes that radio wouldn’t play his 16-minute album tracks. Today, for every breakthrough iconoclast like Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill there are thousands of artists whose attempts to explore spirituality, politics, or “healing your inner child” through music have stopped their careers dead in (and with) their tracks. So I’d like to devote this space to three recent releases that pursue an artistic vision too pure to rely on trendy guest stars, currently fashionable producers, or the sample-loop du jour—black music which dares to, shall we say, elevate the range of sounds and ideas aimed at mainstream black radio.
Sixteen years after her platinum debut with Diamond Life, I really didn’t expect that Sade could still surprise me. Indeed, her consistency has always been part of her charm—that and the fact that there is still nobody who sounds anything like her. But the 11 delicate acoustic tracks on Lovers Rock do surprise. Her voice sounds richer, more agile and confident than ever before. And together with her loyal cohorts from her band Pride, Sade invents a slightly Moorish brand of torch-folk perfectly suited to a woman of her age, background, and experience.
This wife and mother who took eight years off in Spain before making the current album now reveals herself as more latent mystic than hopeless romantic. The lyrics in “King of Sorrow,” “Slave Song,” and “Immigrant” assess the causes of human heartbreak—from attempted genocide to infidelity—and each time refuse to demand karmic retribution. Sade is the rare female singer-songwriter to record an entire album about compassion. She sings of unconditional loyalty in “By Your Side” and blissful reconciliation in “All About Our Love,” with a passion worthy of Oprah Winfrey. And even “Every Word”—which is explicitly about emotional betrayal—evades the rancor common to most of today’s “he (or she) done me wrong” songs. Crooning simple phrases over her band’s sexy, languid rhythms, Sade doesn’t sound the least bit worried about being out of style, even though her words and music are as incongruous among the irate rants of Toni Braxton and Destiny’s Child as a tantric icon on a Baptist altar.
More in sync with Sade’s creed is Rachelle Ferrell. A formally trained jazz singer who vacillates between funk and fusion on record, Ferrell also let eight years go by since her last album. Her latest release, Individuality (Can I Be Me?), explores a number of decidedly New Age themes. Now before your eyes glaze over, remember this: New Agers championed female empowerment and green politics long before the rest of us did. Accordingly, Ferrell personifies The Earth and sings about overcoming toxic relationships like someone who knows her way around the self-help shelf.
Putting her multi-octave range at the service of her inner goddess, Ferrell channels every trick in her vocal repertoire for maximum impact. Her saxophone-like squeaks, reedy sustinatos, and fluid ad-libs are judiciously deployed to add both energy and subtext to each mini-manifesto. The title track is a rocking collaboration with Jef Lee Johnson, recalling Chaka’s best work with Rufus. Next comes “Sista,” an upbeat hymn to distaff solidarity featuring syncopated phrasing as percussive as a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rap. “Will You Remember Me?,” the only tune on the album produced by Ferrell instead of her longtime admirer George Duke, conjures the sly, libidinous mood of Roberta Flack’s vintage hit “Reverend Lee.”
Like Sade, Ferrell includes a reconciliation number, but “I Forgive You” isn’t exactly about getting back together. It’s about the self-liberating quality of refusing to remain resentful of a former lover. Yet both singers preach karmic release rather than retaliation. There are even closer thematic parallels between Sade’s “Flow” and Ferrell’s “Reflections of My Heart,” where both songs describe the magic sensation of telepathic rapport between lovers. Although giving credence to this experience hardly requires the massive leap of faith of, say, The Secret Life of Plants, both singers are clearly writing for disciples rather than skeptics.
A new hip-hop group has also tapped into this crypto-Buddhist zeitgeist with a vengeance. The four MCs and female vocalist who comprise the Spooks obviously, as their album title forewarns, “is on some other shit.” Their debut welcomes us to the “Karma Hotel,” where we confront our desires and fears; then introduce us to the nightmare illusions of duality in “Things I’ve Seen.” The Spooks chant their mission statement to a lilting loop from “La Malagueña” like wandering monks reciting a vow: “I want Wisdom . . . but Wisdom’s only friend is Time—who I run away from but he always catches me and walks faster than I run.”
S.I.O.S.O.S. Volume One is intensely melodic hip-hop rendered newly rich and strange by fresh combinations of fractured elements from Cuban son, reggae, and gypsy jazz. Working with a live band à la the Roots, the Spooks use samples sparingly but (as with the Hubert Laws riff that drives “Other Script”) to memorable effect. Latina vocalist Ming Xia can replicate Arab ululations or the trilling chromatic harmonies of Steel Pulse, and switch from English to Spanish in a heartbeat. As for the male quartet of Hypno, J.D., Water-Water, and Booka-T, their traded leads are distinguished by a careful blend of raw skills and cooked style.
Though obviously hip to some dharma, the Spooks haven’t exactly renounced rancor like Sade and Rachelle. This urban rap crew are the wrathful deities of spiritual evolution. S.I.O.S.O.S. is peppered with harrowing tales of their being battered for almost seven years by the hostile dupes of indifferent record companies—and they’re still keeping score. It’s no accident that Ming Xia, the fiery dakini of this little collective, sings a tune called “Sweet Revenge.” Guardians of the true faith, the Spooks have infiltrated our degenerate music scene to destroy all delusions of glamour. Like most self-styled revolutionaries, their stated agenda “to set your mind free/fucking up the industry” is dichotomous. But one can easily imagine the Spooks picking up Bob Marley’s torch to burn and loot Babylon before building afresh upon the smoking ruins.