There was a teen-aged Maimouna Youssef — smiling, singing and dancing abundantly on stage, as Dead Prez shouted lyrics from their landmark “Hip-Hop” to a raucous crowd in Brooklyn, N.Y. The large assembly had gathered there, braving overcast skies and occasional rainfall to see Dave Chappelle’s cast of musical characters: The Roots, Common, Mos Def and many others. For Youssef, a dynamic Maryland-based singer and MC, this was her opportunity to soak in some of the national spotlight, to step boldly from the studio’s quiet confines and perform with those she so idolized. Indeed, it was bigger than hip-hop for Youssef, as these chances don’t come along too often.

Two years later, Youssef’s rich gospel added a sense of desperation to The Roots’ already-anxious “Don’t Feel Right,” the gritty lead single from the group’s Game Theory album of 2006. The song, with its prominent piano loop and drum kick, was nominated for a Grammy the following year. Then just as suddenly, Youssef seemed to recede from said spotlight, releasing a collaborative project with fellow singers, but nothing that capitalized on the tremendous momentum of a movie appearance and Grammy nomination. As Youssef explains, she’s had plenty of offers to sign with a major record label, but those, well, didn’t feel right. “Labels pounding down my mama’s door when I was 13,” she raps on her new album.

That artistic frustration is addressed throughout The Blooming, Youssef’s long-awaited debut album: “Lord knows, I would love to take the path of least resistance/But my spirit guides been tellin’ me they need assistance,” she rhymes on the triumphant title track, with its tribal chants, rolling bass line and stuttering percussion. Throughout this 12-song recording, Youssef epitomizes musical freedom, crafting a fluid assortment of blues, hip-hop and reggae, most of which are supposed to inspire deep inflection and carefree dance. Elsewhere, the artist is torn between her boyfriend and her best friend on “I Got A Man,” chastises formulaic rap on “You Ain’t Hard,” and has a romantic overseas tryst on the smooth “O Encontro No Brasil (Meet Me in Brazil),” a quiet bossa nova beat produced by Oddisee. But while those songs are impressive examples of Youssef’s stellar musicianship, the volcanic “Wake Up,” with its driving rhythm and sudden pace changes, stands as The Blooming’s clear-cut centerpiece. For nearly seven minutes, Youssef warns against government cover-ups, bemoans man-made disasters and pleads with listeners to read between the headlines.

Seven years ago, a brash, young Youssef could be heard trading bars with her cousin Omari Forman-Bey on the unapologetic Subversive Activity, a jazz/hip-hop fusion that showcased her potential as an MC, even if the overall project was a little too raw for public consumption. Now, Youssef is all grown up. She’s a multifaceted vocalist and accomplished poet with skills reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. She’s also a capable producer with the bright spirit of a youthful novice, and the musical acumen of an experienced veteran. The Blooming brings together a diverse array of sonic influences, all of which fit comfortably into a seamless current of comprehensive sound. It proves that Youssef is an effervescent force to be reckoned with, and that true artistry does not fit within social restraints. It moves freely and challenges its observers to do the same.

-Marcus J. Moore

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