Nneka is kind of like the perfect cross between Lauryn Hill and M.I.A.; she sings and raps with ease, and writes wonderfully empowering songs, while also speaking for a people largely ignored and invisible in mainstream Western culture (you know: that massive, ridiculously diverse group of people we Westerners refer to as, simply, “Africans”) . As her brilliant album cover suggests, Nneka fashions herself as the voice of the African Diasporic experience, recalling everyone from Ms. Hill and Erykah Badu to Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Born and raised in Warri, Nigeria before leaving at the age of 18 to live with her German mother in Hamburg, it could be said that her very existence embodies a clashing of African and Western cultures, and so she’ll surely fascinate Afrocentrics and NPR listeners in the coming months. But I can guarantee you that no amount of intellectual masturbation and hype can outshine Nneka’s brilliant, and downright moving American debut album, Concrete Jungle. Basically a collection of songs taken from Nneka’s two previous albums (both unavailable in the US), the album is an eclectic and freewheeling, yet somehow 100% cohesive mixture of hip hop, soul, rock, pop, reggae, afrobeat, funk, and trip hop.
Concrete Jungle stuns, inspires and enthralls from beginning to end, and confirms without question that Nneka has the potential to be among the most vital and fascinating voices of pop music in the years to come. Believe the hype.
From the very beginning, with the album’s funky, hip hop-flavored opener “Showin’ Love,” Nneka makes clear her intoxicating, fully capable mic skills; it’s no gimmick…girl can really flow. Surprisingly though, at least to me (in terms of what I’d expected), Nneka only full-on raps on one or two other songs (with the rock guitar-laced “Focus” being the clear standout), and instead mirrors the diverse musicality of Concrete Jungle by twisting and contorting her vocals into a dazzling array of styles and sounds. Her voice is perhaps not as rich and powerful as that of Lauryn Hill or Amy Winehouse, for example, but she more than makes up for this with versatility, and sheer passion and personality. It’s an interesting dynamic; lyrically, Nneka rarely treads into the personal (ala Winehouse or Hill), but in the coupling of hopeful, empowering messages with such fervent vocals, Nneka achieves a kind of Zack de la Rocha or Bob Marley-esque sincerity. There is absolutely no posturing going on here; the injustice she sees and the empowerment she wishes to inject into the listener clearly sit as close to Nneka’s heart as romantic misfortune and depression were to Amy’s throughout Back to Black.
But what makes Concrete Jungle so commanding and intensely lovable is its warmth. Unlike, say, Erykah Badu’s most recent work, Nneka’s music is incendiary and honest, but it’s also incredibly tuneful and accessible. A product of Nneka’s ongoing collaborations with DJ Farhot, this is music that will make you cry, make you happy to be alive, and make you tap your feet too. Honestly, not since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has an album been so intensely message-laced while being this pop-oriented and fun. And the results are truly astonishing; “From Africa 2 U” is a glorious, Afrobeat-styled tribute to the motherland. Nneka sings with such joy and respect for her wondrous, unfairly misunderstood continent, singing “Africa/Nigeria/from Warri to Abuja/Lagos States/Niger Delta/Oh my Africa/You are so beautiful.” Meanwhile, the contemplative “Mind Vs. Heart” finds Nneka adopting a hushed, Sade-inspired tone, and she floats effortlessly over pensive piano and flourishes of acoustic guitar during a lush, atmospheric chorus, before the song erupts into stuttering percussion and some of her most impassioned vocals.
The standout though is most definitely “Heartbeat.” A heartfelt plea for the acknowledgement of suffering, injustice, and the humanity of the oppressed, Nneka sings with urgency and a subtle anger, lamenting “You sold your soul to the evil and the lust/and the passion and the money and you/see innocent ones die, people hunger for decades/suffer under civilized armed robbers, modern slaveholders/Can you feel my heart? /It’s beating!” Somewhat reminiscent of Badu’s incredible “I Want You” from 2003’s Worldwide Underground, the musical backdrop for “Heartbeat” perfectly captures the urgency of Nneka’s message; the bass is as relentless and persistent as a heartbeat during the verses, before the song’s percussion explodes into controlled disarray and chaos during a forceful, truly arresting chorus.
This is music flawlessly designed to inspire and empower on a large scale, and it will be truly criminal for it not to succeed. How strange it is that an artist that conveys messages this unabashedly intelligent and positive would be such a rarity in today’s musical landscape.
Nneka’s Concrete Jungle is addictive, powerful, life-affirming, and very necessary.
And you’re gonna love it!