N’DAMBI / “N’Dambi Mixtape”
Despite the attraction of fame and fortune, making it in the popular music business is not only torturous and deeply discouraging, the ups and downs are too often dictated by happenstance, whimsy and fickle decisions by mostly men who can’t play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on any instrument or sing the simple, child’s nursery rhyme in tune. Too often the people making the decisions about what music we hear are non-musicians.
Moreover, not only is more than talent required to succeed but worse still, the necessary “more” generally has nothing to do with artistic ability or preparation. But all of that notwithstanding, young singers keep lining up to take their chances.
When you get right down to it, the truth is that music is bigger than business. Before there was an entertainment industry, there was music, and after the American way has gone the way of all the roads to Rome, there will be music. As long as humans are living and breathing there will be song.
All of which is a way to explain why and how singers like N’Dambi keep on doing what they are doing.
N’Dambi could be Bessie Smith great-grand daughter. The majority of N’Dambi’s tracks on Pink Elephant are not simply Soul songs, they are distilled tears. The innards of these compositions, the contexts and conflicts highlighted by these songs, the moments of begging for better even though you know things will only degenerate and get worse, the embarrassing self-abasement, all of these worry-ations are disturbing signs of suffering abuse and suffering from feelings of inadequacy.
But then, isn’t this the story of our people? How can we who have survived chattel slavery, false emancipation, the terror of virulent Jim Crow, the disaster of integration and a seemingly permanent position on the bottom of the social order, how can we still be here and not recognize how strong, how beautiful we are even as we are constantly reminded of our weaknesses and uglinesses—yes, plural uglies—how can we be who we are and yet be so unsure of who we are? How can we continue to love each other despite it all and yet be so bereft of love in our individual lives?
Pink Elephants? Pink. Elephants! I don’t know what N’Dambi specifically means but I’m damn sure there’s more than a taste of bitterness in that flavor.
And yet, believe it or not, I think this is beautiful music. For sure the music of Pink Elephant is illustrative of one of the miracles we are so good at, i.e. taking ugly and making it beautiful. Beyond beautiful. Making it vital.
Why would N’Dambi be singing so many literally sad songs, so many “he done me wrong” boo-hoos unless she intimately knows something about pain, and not just ordinary pain, but instead the pain of losing your all at the crap tables—or where you more sophisticated and pushed all your chips forward on the twirl of a roulette wheel?
I don’t know. But I swear these songs don’t sound like sweet nothings to me. They sound like deep descriptions of life in the killing fields of post-modern America where not only is plastic the new natural and synthetic the new soulful, but worse yet, temporary is the new permanent. Nothing lasts.
So why are we always singing sad songs? Year after year, decade after decade. Is there something wrong with the radio of our lives?
Listening to N’Dambi is a study in ying/yang, a lesson on how to make the most out of nothing nice.
The first six tracks are from Pink Elephant, N’Dambi’s new 2009 release on the Stax label. The last five tracks are from Tunin’ UP & Co-Signin’, a much earlier, 2001 DIY production I picked up in her hometown of Dallas while conducting a writing workshop at the South Dallas Cultural Center (shout out to Ms. Vicky Meeks!).
Tunin’ UP & Co-Signin’ is a sprawling, jam that is a bit too long for one CD and too loose to work over the 2 CDs that comprise her sophomore release. But when the music clicks, it’s really happening.
Fortunately, Pink Elephant has all the strengths of N’Dambi’s earlier releases and, more importantly, has none of the weaknesses.
N’Dambi sings soulfully and strongly throughout. The production is sharper, fuller and more expertly arranged. Nothing goes on too long.
There is a completeness to the music. The tracks are more than grooving over a few good ideas. The songs have developed narratives and top quality production values. Particularly important are the kicking bass lines threading through all of the songs. Kudos to producer Leon Sylvers III who has crafted a contemporary update of the classic Stax sound for N’Dambi.
Musically, N'Dambi's Pink Elephant is one of the best R&B albums of 2009. It would have been stunning had there been two or three more cuts like “L.I.E.” and “The World Is A Beat” so that there would have been a wider variety to the content. As the introduction to this write up opines, love gone sour is over-rated as subject matter.
Yeah, I know, damn half the blues songs ever sung are about love turned rancid but even those old blues singers knew how to freshen up the same-old same-old with ironic and humorous twists and themes other than “she’s gone/I’m all alone.” What neo-soul needs is some old-fashioned originality.
On the other hand, I have the sneaking suspicion that we are not only going to continue to hear these kinds of songs, we’re actually in for a deluge as people struggle with economic hardships and disintegrating communities.
I believe that Pink Elephant is only a partial indication of the deepness N’Dambi is capable of delivering. Yet, even in it’s partialness, Pink Elephant is way, way better than the majority of R&B, Neo-Soul and Nu-Jazz releases of 2009. Go here to read an earlier BoL write up about N'Dambi's music. Congratulations N’Dambi, you’ve delivered the goods.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
N’Dambi Mixtape Playlist
These tracks are from Pink Elephant
02 “Can't Hardly Wait”
03 “Ooo Baby”
04 “Take It Out”
05 “What It Takes”
06 “The World Is A Beat”
These tracks are from Tunin’ UP & Co-Signin’
07 “Soul From the Abyss”
08 “Ode 2 Nina”
09 “What's Wrong With U”
10 “Call Me”
11 “The Sunshine”
This entry was posted on Monday, November 23rd, 2009 at 1:56 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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