Nneka has had quite the journey. Her unique brand of international soul has taken her from UK indie favorite to the historic stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater on David Letterman’s Late Show. Now, seemingly on the cusp of US stardom, the Nigerian-born singer delivers a statement album, seemingly designed to remind listeners about the power of music. Soul Is Heavy plays like a mash-up of Nneka’s disparate musical influences, spanning three continents and at least as many decades.
Ominous guitar chords and distorted horns give way to a propulsive reggae bounce on the urgent opener, “Lucifer (No Doubt),” giving the track the feel of an internal free-for-all between righteousness and corruption. On “My Home,” big band horns and an explosive hook juxtapose powerfully with the meditative lyrics and pensive dub groove of the verses. The sonic dissonance of the industrial hip-hop screed, “God Knows Why” is enough to have even the most even-tempered skeptics preparing for the Armageddon of 2012, or at least the accompanying riots. Black Thought continues his recent string of show stealing guest appearances, anchoring the track with a verse every bit as calibrated as Nneka’s are visceral.
For all the sonic bombast, it’s the piercing intimacy of Nneka’s vocals and lyrics that truly resonate. The bristling ballad “Restless” opens with a simple acoustic arrangement, emphasizing the emotive nuances of Nneka’s throaty delivery. As the mournful keys and muted drums kick in, she eases into an airy falsetto, which quickly morphs into gravelly stridence as the tracks percussive thrust takes shape. Similarly, the impeccably-structured torch ballad turned reggae burner “Valley” allows Nneka to go from sultry siren to soul shouter without sacrificing the coherence of the song, or her own unique vocal identity.
This may well be the project that delivers Nneka to a pop listenership–audience that tends to embrace one genre bending international flavor per year. But she isn’t making it easy for them. Soul Is Heavy is just that: heavy. No “Paper Planes” to be found here. From the shapeshifting production, to the searing urgency of the vocals, these songs aren’t intended to go down easy. With 15 full-length tracks, the album feels longer than its 60 minute run time. Later selections like the generically Latin-tinged “V.I.P.” and the redundant feeling “Camouflage” would not have been missed had they been held for future movie soundtracks or an iTunes deluxe edition.
Still, with all of the heart, soul and inspiration that Nneka clearly poured into this opus, it’s hard to begrudge her the occasional indulgence. For listeners ready to let go of expectations and embark on a musical ride, the journey will be well worth it.
– Jeff Harvey