Women of Soul – My Black British Top 5

It’s Black History Month, so why not (shrugs).

I’ve never had that typical musical upbringing. You know, the usual narratives like…

“My Dad had – insert classic artist names here – in his vinyl/CD collection”

or the infamous “My mum always played – insert popular artist name here – in the front room when we had to clean the house”

Yeah, none of that. My mum didn’t often play music at home and if she did, it was her Worship music compilations. Still, that didn’t stop my young, inquisitive self putting my ears in places it shouldn’t have been; It opened me up to the big, beautiful musical world. I developed a real appreciation for R&B and Soul but I feel sometimes the British trailblazers don’t get enough credit. I’ll do my bit. Here’s my top 5, in no particular order of course.

1. Sade Adu

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you might have noticed this is not the first time I’ve mentioned her name and probably won’t be the last. Sade-Adu7-600x488I don’t know what age I was when I first heard “Smooth Operator” but that song has stuck with me for the longest. There’s no-one I know that sounds quite like Sade. She just has a way with words and her vocals & tone are so full of character that they could tell a story when words may fail.  I personally don’t think there are many famed singers  who wouldn’t cite her as a source of influence and inspiration. She has developed a strong global fan base (she’s a lot bigger in the US than the UK) which is evident from her ability to tour and make a #1 hit record despite going on more than one hiatus, in an industry where it is not difficult to become yesterday’s news today. While these days she has become more reclusive, she is most certainly not irrelevant.

2) Beverley Knight

‘The Queen of the Black Country’ or ‘The Queen of British Soul’ or whatever you may wish to call her, Ms. Beverley Knight is a household name and has been a staple in the British Music industry for a few decades now.153265 It’s crazy because just the other day I stumbled across “Keep This Fire Burning”, a song which I haven’t heard since Primary school (a banger might I add) and I could almost sing the whole chorus AND the video gave me crazy nostalgia feels. While her traditional Gospel and Soul background is greatly evident in the way she performs, especially live,  the beauty of her artistry is how natural her catalogue of hits navigated through different genres… and how simple she could make it all look. Beverley Knight encapsulated an era of music in Britain where R&B, which was essentially Pop back in the day, was really in heavy rotation. She was a name that you were bound to hear on the radio and see on TV.

3) Estelle

I’m not biased because we’re birthday twins. For me, Estelle was one of the first artists of my generation that I recognised really making major moves. I became a fan from when she dropped “1980” (which happens to now be one of my favourite Estelle songs) and Estelleshe was on my radar ever since. She has definitely come a long way from her humble beginnings and in every interview or public appearance, she definitely flies the flag and is proud of whom she is and where she’s from. If there is one thing I have always appreciated it is her versatility; the soul in her, the R&B, the Pop and Hip-Hop can all shine on a particular album as a reflection of her own influences. Despite her last album dropping in 2015, she’s been generally flying under the radar as of late with the exception of features here and there for De La Soul and Tyler, The Creator but it’s high time that we got a brand new Estelle album.
She dropped a new single “Love Like Ours” – go pree that.

4) Marsha Ambrosius

Marsha Ambrosius needs not an introduction but ‘The Songstress’ is renowned for being one half of the legendary R&B duo Floetry. Fans of R&B/Soul music the world over know of the Grammy nominated pair for songs like “Say Yes”, “Getting Late” and “SupaStar”. marsha-kimWhile I feel their active years were quite short lived, Marsha never stopped contributing to the world of music and staying true to her genre and art form. She is appreciated for the bold and effortless way she works her unique tone and it has gotten her the chance to work with just about everyone BIG in the game – from Nas to Queen Latifah, From Dr. Dre to Robert Glasper, from Kanye to Jamie Foxx. Not only does her talent lie in her vocals but also in her pen, writing one of my favourite MJ songs (originally recorded by Floetry) “Butterflies”. She often isn’t the first name the comes to mind and like Sade isn’t as embraced in her homeland but her contributions definitely paved the way.

5) Lianne La Havas

While it’s not the typical soul … I have really developed a special and deep rooted affinity to Lianne La Havas and the wonderful way she has concocted her brand of Soul b8d40aca0412d6bf75fa703482f7f3abe6df5f5cwith elements of Folk and R&B. Arguably, one of Britain’s best soulful exports in recent years excluding the giants like Adele, her Grammy, Mercury, MOBO, Brit and Ivor Novello award nominations are testament to her craft. I believe it is the power of her style of music and her sophisticated writing ability that has allowed her and also her beloved guitar to take to festivals and stages all over the world. A genuine fan of her 2015 album Blood, she is not an artist you should pass up on by any means. If you don’t at least have “Lost and Found” in your Spotify or Apple Music playlist somewhere then I really question what you are doing.

 

While there can only be a top 5, honourable mentions must go to Corrine Bailey Rae, Melissa Bell & Caron Wheeler, Emeli Sande, Shola Ama, Cynthia Erivo and Gabrielle. These ladies plus the 5 aforementioned have really helped make British Soul/R&B what it is today and I would hope their names can live forever more.

The 4 pillars of a great album

New music is literally being released every day. As you read this, someone somewhere is getting ready to premiere a body of work to the world for appreciation and scrutiny. And everyone’s taste is different. No matter how hard you try, you can never have the PERFECT album because as human nature dictates, people’s tastes vary. However, some of the best albums to touch this earth followed some of the same principles. I’ve taken the liberty to package it into a nice acronym for you guys for easier reading – PACT. As subjective as it can seem, I could have found some sort of answer.

Production
We are moved by the power of sounds. When you listen to a song, EP or album for the first time, your immediate reaction and your opinion on whether it deserves another play or a straight skip is determined on what it sounds like. The instrumental, percussion, the use of real instruments or synth-bass and 808’s; we enjoy being able to identify the elements and appreciate the hard work making a melody sound so nice.
An artist can’t afford to be lazy in this regard. While they may rely on a producer for that banging beat, they must also have a musical ear to decipher what works and what doesn’t. Many artists and producers have a sound that is synonymous with them. Quincy Jones is noted for having a beautiful relationship with Michael Jackson which birthed two of his greatest albums Off The Wall’ and Thriller’. I liken it to the relationship J Hus has with JAE5. JAE5 has helped make J Hus’ ‘UK-afro-bashment’ sound so unique and stood as executive producer in his critically acclaimed and Mercury Prize shortlisted Common Sense.
rick-ross-kanye-studioSome artists take to production themselves because, I mean, who knows your musical style, taste and preference better than yourself. The likes of Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder have really shaped their respected genres by taking the music into their own hands.

 

Ability
We judge the greatness of an artist based primarily on their ability. For a rapper, it’s their abstract metaphors or double-time flow, rhyming style, storytelling prowess. For a singer, it’s their tone, their vocal control, riffs, runs & harmonies. We can sometimes be so swayed by a singer or rappers acrobatics on a song but it is that well executed dynamism that ultimately have people wanting to listen to the song or the album again and again. No better example than ‘Section.80’  by Kendrick Lamar and in particular “Rigamortis” . Take time to really listen to the song, you may be wowed by his effective use of double-time flow but what is more fascinating is his subtle and elaborate rhyming style. 15-phenomenal-female-british-soul-singers-u1
A sign of a great rap album is when you can listen to it much later and discover a new metaphor astonishingly like its the first time you heard the song. As crazy as that sounds, I still have that feeling when I listen to Wale’s Attention Deficit’ or Wretch 32’s Black and White’.
In like respect for a singer, it’s how your songs are vocally arranged, how you work through your range and no one did it better in prime like Sade. With songs like “Smooth Operator” and “Your Love is King”, her famous sultry vocals crowned her introductory album Diamond Life’ a top album of the 80’s era.

Content
After you first listen to an album and decide that you like it so you listen again, you’ll find yourself picking up on the messages of certain songs and the album as a whole. Whether the artist speaks on real-life experiences, a storyteller for others or speaking figuratively, listeners have an expectation for a quality written album (unless your songs lack proper lyrics, no shade).
lecrae-tickets_11-04-17_17_598899b350492Lecrae’s in-depth look into the African-American social-historical condition and being self reflective of his own personal journey while inspiring hope, faith and political change made ‘Church Clothes 3’ one of my favourite projects of 2016. Joey Bada$$ contribution to the message with ‘ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$’ was less historical, more passionate but powerful all the same. Especially the video for “Land of the Free“!
And while heartfelt messages arguably don’t achieve proper commercial success, her mature take on love and nostalgia fittingly made Adele’s ’25’ one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century.

Theme
Theme slightly differs to content for the reason that it can be executed in a number of different ways. It’s not strictly confined to what the artist speaks; it should realistically be always down to the artist to have the freedom to express and execute his creativity. GoldLink’s At What Cost’ was greatly inspired by his D.C. roots and that gave for an album that had a go-go, funky groove from top to bottom, with songs like “Summatime” “Hands on your Knees” and “Meditation” being prime examples.
Great albums have retrospective themes that can go beyond just the audible which the listener can follow and become immersed in. I took a real liking to Jon Bellion’s ‘The Human Condition’; what he presented was more than an album. He intertwines his own stories and relatable life experiences with a hint of imagination, and with the added artwork accompanying every song on the album, creates a visual-audible experience.

If I say anything else, let me say AGAIN this is not a comprehensive neither is it industry standard but my own personal opinion based on preference and listening experience but I feel like even you, the reader, after reading this may start to see these things yourself.

The evolution of the Black British Sound

The MOBOs awards have come and gone, meaning one thing…Award season has finally kicked off. I feel this is the perfect time to reflect on what I call the ‘Black Sound’. Considering how interesting it is a time for music, we should go back to understand where we’re headed. We have come a long way from our roots.

I’m a 90’s baby, and although I’m knowledgeable more on the 2000’s, I still look back in the archives and appreciate the music that made my era iconic. In order to fully appreciate what was then and how it is now, we should go back a little more.

Black music, I feel, in the UK really came alive in the 80’s. Soul was all the talk. We heralded the artistry of Sade as she carried out her dominance. Her 1984 debut album went to #2 in the UK, won her a BRIT award for Best Album and her subsequent tour was the beginning of her international acclaim. Tim Westwood had cracked mainstream radio and was determined to broadcast the best in ‘urban music’ to the masses. Soul II Soul had massive breakthrough R&B hits “Keep on Movin'” and “Back to Life” in 1989. Considered to have opened the door to the mainstream for black British R&B and Soul artists. They got nominated for Soul Train awards, BRIT awards and even won a couple Grammys.

The 90’s were a strong continuation on the foundation of the 80’s. Omar, Sade and Soul II Soul’s careers really took off. Not only that but Black music within the UK is finally getting mainstream appeal. R&B took centre stage. We could see an array of Black artists being awarded BRIT awards for their quality art including Seal and Gabrielle doing the double in ’94 and ’97. Kanya King had launched the MOBO Awards in 1996 which grew to be the premier music award show which celebrated those who created Black. It shone a light on the up-coming like Shola Ama and recognised the hard work of big names like Beverly Knight.

The turn of the century I feel is where Rap rose in prominence. Hail Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Lethal Bizzle in being some of the frontrunners in the inception of Grime music. The tenacity of the art form attracted the youth, the forgotten and the whole underground. Mainstream media attention followed and the 2002 and 2003 Mercury Prizes for Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal meant people were now standing up. Let’s not forget R&B now. Lemar? Craig David? Estelle? Our artists were cracking the mainstream and making waves in the States. If 22 Brit award and 6 Grammy award nominations are nothing to go by on how greatly R&B had developed, then I don’t know what will.

So here we are, at the end of the sixth year into the decade. British music has taken a move completely against the status quo. The rise of the independents has shown the mass that you don’t need a major label to ‘make noise’. Skepta followed in Dizzee’s footsteps 13 years later in winning a Mercury Prize. Krept & Konan cracked the top 20 charts with the mixtape ‘Young Kingz’ and Stormzy peaked at #8 with his single ‘Shut Up’. All of this was done with no major label backing. Couple this with Grime once again returning to the forefront and subsequently the new style of ‘Trap’ evolving from the underground. The likes of Section Boyz, 67 and Harlem Spartans have truly captured the minds of the youth in an N.W.A-esque fashion. Rap has truly stolen the show.

Now this, this is the sound of Black Britain.