Like pretty much everyone, I fell for Les Nubians after their turn on Reflection Eternal’s “Love Language.” The combination of their heavenly French vocals and harmonies and one of Hi-Tek’s very best beats was simply sublime. But somehow I never got round to checking for more of their own stuff. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because this was back in the days when you actually had to invest in an artist and buy their album to hear it. Or maybe it was more down to the fact that as sweet as their pipes were (or are), they just weren’t quite special enough to warrant further investigation.
Fortunately for Les Nubians, a considerable part of the American listening party was more susceptible to their charms, making the French-Cameroonian sisters the biggest selling French language R&B group in the US. This was due largely to their Top 10 Billboard hit “Makeda,” which established the template for their afro-soul-hip hop sound. Their sophomore album “One Step Forward” in 2003 was meant to be the key to American, if not world, domination, but then Les Nubians went quiet. For eight years. Until Nü Revolution in fact. And it wouldn’t appear that much has changed in that time.
Celia and Hélène can still sing as beautifully as ever, there’s an impressive array of big name and underground guests (Manu Dibango, J. Period, Blitz the Ambassador) and the music is still a mix of African rhythms, soul-and hip hop. But just like “Love Language,” Nü Revolution lacks that special something (or je ne sais quoi) to turn good into great. Everything is just a bit too polished, a bit too clean. Songs like “Fraicheur Souhaité (Freshness Desired)” drift by in a way that will get your foot gently tapping, but without provoking a more emotional or physical response. The feeling of something missing is captured in the song’s use of a sample of an MC clearing his throat as if about to launch into a rhyme that sadly never materialises.
In the same way tracks like “Vogue Navire” and “Nü Revolution” are never less than thoroughly pleasing on the ear, but never really memorable either. On the other hand, “Liberté” is a bossa nova tinged call and response number that will stick in your head and remain there, “Afro Dance” is a nod to Prince’s “Kiss” and “Africa For The Future” is quite simply brilliant. It’s the track that provides the best example of Les Nubians mix of afro-soul-hip hop (I won’t say that again, I promise), throwing horns, flutes and a hypnotic guitar line together to truly provide a global vision of what popular music could become. Like the other good tracks on Nü Revolution it stands out precisely because it’s got that little bit extra, a glimpse of real emotion, funk or rhythm to catch your imagination.
More often than not it’s when the sisters let their hair down, or show their Cameroonian roots more explicitly, that the music comes alive. “M’Bengue” turns from a rather saccharine love song into something much more interesting; when a male choir and some frenetic percussion take over. But too often Nü Revolution is just too refined and too polished, resulting in some soul and R&B with a slightly African leaning that’s very nice, but rarely more than that. That might be enough for some, but not for two singers of Les Nubians’ undoubted quality.