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It could be that time and experience done turned me skeptical, but I figured soul child India.Arie for a Jill Badu, a project spit out by the marketing-machine cogs at Motown. In the era of mass-produced boy bands, platinum-colored divettes, and cookie-cutter thugs, the dreadlocked nu-soul mother goddess might just have been the latest cliché du jour. The music industry has always tended to replicate successful formulas, but right about now, the arena looks like a bizarre testament to the feasibility of human cloning. So I figured I was ahead of the curve when I assumed that Arie could be dispatched to the trash bin of disposable vocalists. I figured wrong.
Acoustic Soul, the debut album from the Denver-born chanteuse, is an eclectic tour through her brand of nu-nessa mélange that is equal parts soul, folk, and unvarnished R&B. These influences don’t always come together smoothly, and Acoustic Soul is an uneven debut, but Arie can hardly be dismissed as a nappy knockoff. The best moments of this CD bring a whole ‘nother vibe to the table, an approach that is blissfully nonurban, nonelectronic, and simple on purpose. Despite the inevitable comparisons to peers Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, Arie has none of their citified sass. Her approach is laid-back and damn-near rustic at times. Augmenting her vocals with forlorn, self-supplied guitar flourishes, she comes up with a spare, nearly minimalist sound.
Plus, this sister has thrown an unlikely thread of genuine coffeehouse folk into the mix, anchoring most of Acoustic Soul’s songs with a foundation other than the standard R&B riffs. The result is a spare, clean, uncosmetic sound best described as soul unplugged. Lyrically, Arie is somewhere between Marvin Gaye and Iyanla Vanzant, blending praise of the earthly pleasures and homespun wisdom. Dig the opening single, “Video,” on which she lays down lines like “Keep your Cristal/And your pistol/I’d rather have a pretty piece of crystal” and “Don’t need your silicone/I prefer my own/God gave me just fine.”
The anti-materialist, New Age spiritualism of Acoustic Soul is clearly a response to the crass, swollen-pocket themes of contemporary hiphop. In her promo materials, Arie places herself squarely in the hiphop tradition, albeit one that she defines differently from the thugs at large. But even granting her own individual spin on what the genre isor ain’tit’s hard to see this as a hiphop-derived CD. Matter of fact, when Arie opens the disc by name-checking her artistic forebears, Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Donny Hathaway are all present and accounted for, but the heads are conspicuously absent. However, the lack of boulevard funk on this disc might just be a good thing. Imagine Jay-Z trying to flow over an acoustic guitar, and you’ll dig what this record is all about. Arie has gone in a new direction that just about no one else has even thought of. Shoot, even the Roots, hiphop’s premier instrumentalists, ain’t trying to come nowhere near the stripped-down licks on Acoustic Soul.
Productionwise, Arie enlists a committee of sound architects, most notably Mark Batson, who did some magnificent drafting on Caron Wheeler’s 1993 solo album, Beach of the War Goddess, a record unjustly ignored by the music-buying masses a few years ago. Batson’s design work on Acoustic Soul is equally memorable. On the ballad “Brown Skin,” Batson’s gospel-derived keys and drawling bass line form the backdrop for Arie’s smooth, slightly smoky vocals. In a moment of supreme love jones, she sings, “Your skin has been kissed by the sun/You make me want a Hershey’s kiss/You’re licorice.” On the midtempo affirmation “Strength, Courage & Wisdom,” Batson lays down a delicate, ethereal wisp of keyboard and an understated bass line that allow Arie’s vocals to come to the fore. Although she’s not gifted with a flair for pyrotechnics, Arie is skilled enough to navigate her way through the path that Batson opens for her.
Two tracks later, the folk guitar is upfront for the Blue Miller-produced parable “Back to the Middle.” Supported by a deliciously understated bass and with the keys pushed way down into the aural basement, the track is the best example of Arie’s acoustic soul, and it sounds different from anything Badu or Scottor Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, or D’Angelo, for that matterhas produced thus far. The ear-friendly “Simple” is another departure, a three-and-a-half-minute R&B-oriented tease that features a more sultry phrasing than its discmates’. “Now that you’re listening,” Arie purrs, “let me tell you what I need/Now that you’re holding me, let me show you what I mean.”
The successes on this release well outnumber the debits, but “Ready for Love,” which comes on the heels of the winning “Middle,” is so serenely played that it borders on easy listening. Its low-tempo, whispered vocals derail Arie’s musical momentum. And, with the exception of “Simple,” the handful of tracks that tilt toward R&B generally come off as less than distinctivea particular sin in these days of musical imitation. On “I See God in You,” Arie works her voice over a nondescript keyboard-led track produced by Carlos Broady. The descending six-note riff sounds as if it’s from a would-be Mary J. Blige hit and doesn’t really work with the agrarian soul that Arie puts down on most of this release. The Batson-produced “Part of My Life” falls short of glory, too. Lacking the guitar licks that spice other tracks, this one comes off as underseasoned.
Take Acoustic Soul as a down payment on a bigger aesthetic project. Like the Fugees’ debut, Blunted on Reality, this CD has the feel of a work in progress on which an artist is juggling elements that will be sublime when they finally come together. Forget about the sophomore jinx; Arie’s uneven but auspicious debut leaves you with high expectations for the second time around. CP