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Drum ‘n’ bass and triphop have become so pervasive that you can now hear them in car and perfume commercials, but the dance-music subgenre most talked about by British club kids these days is two-step, which can best be described as a hybrid of drum ‘n’ bass and U.K. garage. But where U.K. garage ends and two-step begins is just as mysterious as when house shut its doors and dance music fled to the garage or, for that matter, when disco died and house was born. In dance music, styles are sometimes distinguished only by BPM, and in the U.K., it seems, even the slightest rhythmic variation earns a new hyphenated moniker.
Although less menacing than drum ‘n’ bass, two-step does retain its predecessor’s visceral rhythmic edge, stuttering beat, and dublike bass. But it also looks back to the creamy grooves and gospel fervor associated with house. And, depending on the artist, two-step can be as unassuming as guru producer MJ Cole’s infectious “Sincere,” one of the best-produced and best-arranged dance songs in recent years, or it can be as over-the-top apocalyptic as London-based producer Wookie’s “Battle,” which rivals Cole’s “Sincere” as the movement’s most celebrated anthem.
With its ominous keyboard drone at the intro and strident marchlike cadence, “Battle” sounds very much in step with the nihilistic stance of drum ‘n’ bass, especially when vocalist Lain Gray chants the solemn verses: “Fugitive in hiding from yourself/Always slip-sliding…On the run from soul to soul but you can never find your goal.” That desolate opening evokes the ironic isolation of dancing in a crowded club, but the song’s vibe suddenly transforms into self-empowerment as Gray’s overdubbed vocals swell into a gospel-style chorus worthy of Sounds of Blackness: “Every day is like a battle/But we’ll overcome/When we get back in the saddle/Faith will bring us home.” Not since Soul II Soul’s late-’80s anthem “Keep On Movin’” has a song so melancholy but so irresistibly hooky hit the dance floor.
But the hard part is creating an album as sensational as the single. It’s a task that most dance-music producers stumble on. Because they are so focused on singles, most producers’ albums sound less like unified artistic statements and more like overcrafted mix tapes. Wookie’s eponymous debut, in contrast, is definitely unified, even when the producer forsakes genuine songcraft in favor of bare-bones (but catchy) beats. Although Wookie isn’t as frisky or dynamic as Cole’s sensational full-length debut, last summer’s Sincere, it’s nonetheless one of the most inspired two-step albums currently on the streets.
Wookie’s rhythmic sensibility and keen awareness of sonic space are rooted in both U.K. garage and dub reggae. Crisp programmed beats skip atop rubbery Moog bass lines, while eerie keyboard flourishes and strings fill in the corners. Sometimes the formula works against Wookie, especially on the instrumental tracks. Even with Mike McEvoy’s flinty Spanish guitar strumming against a disco inferno of strings, “Back Up Back Up Back Up” sounds unfinished, as do the barren “VCF” and the twitchy “Down On Me.”
Wookie works best when it’s graced by the presence of Gray’s rich baritone. Soulful but free of the clichéd wails that litter most of today’s R&B, Gray’s swooning vocals glow on the mesmerizing “Joy My Pride” as he sings to his newborn child against Wookie’s fractured shuffle: “Now the tears fall from my eyes/As I’m watching you arrive.” Even when Gray sings such disposable lyrics as “Get up/And don’t you stop/When you’re feeling hot/You can’t get enuff,” as on the bouncy “Get Enuff,” his voice is jubilant and mesmerizing. Nothing else on Wookie is as transfixing as “Battle,” but Gray’s presence makes it a worthwhile introduction to a still-mutating genre.
With U.K. dance music constantly reinventing itself, some older artists have been re-entering the scene as progenitors of the next great rave. South London vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Omar emerged during the heyday of acid jazz more than a decade ago and has since been hailed as the originator of nu-soul. Although his richly orchestrated music is sometimes at odds with the stripped-down sound of many two-step records, Omar’s groovy arrangements and poignant lyrics lend themselves to the
RCA released Omar’s underrated For Pleasure stateside in 1995 but failed to market it properly. Needless to say, the album’s sales flopped. But now that nu-soul artists such as D’Angelo, Macy Gray, and Jill Scott have rejuvenated American R&B, Omar’s latest album, the occasionally two-step-influenced British import Best by Far, stands a good chance of breaking into the U.S. market with more impact. His duet with Erykah Badu, “Be Thankful” (a remake of William DeVaughn’s 1974 classic “Be Thankful for What You Got”), would have been a sure bet for an American urban-market hit had it been included on Badu’s magnificent Mama’s Gun. With its sparse but sinewy kick snare and thick, reggae-inflected bass grounding atmospheric layers of strings, vocals, and guitar, “Be Thankful” is modestly unique yet unabashedly radio-friendly.
Unfortunately, when it comes to urban radio, opulently arranged music gets ignored, and despite Omar’s masterful rhythmic and melodic sense, “Be Thankful” may be the only song on Best by Far that’ll get any airplay whatsoever over here. Nevertheless, the album’s intoxicating blend of bohemian soul, reggae, jazz, and bossa nova has the potential to become a cult classic.
Blessed with a striking voice that has Jon Lucien’s slinky fluidity and Lamont Dozier’s yearning intensity, Omar croons with sophisticated flair amid hooky melodies, contagious grooves, and jazzy orchestration. The insanely funky “Something Real,” with its intricate bass line percolating through layers of snappy percussion, punchy horns, and cinematic strings, will entrance you from the first listenas well as distract you from Omar’s sappy lyrics, which are the weak link of Best by Far.
The wistful doo-wop ballad “In the Morning,” whose sophisticated arrangementcomplete with sparkling glockenspiel and swooning vocaleseowes a huge debt to ’70s R&B group Bloodstone, deserves better verses than “Are U hungry baby, can I fix U something?” Other sublimely arranged songsthe sensual bossa nova “Essensual,” the hypnotic reggae number “Tell Me,” and the funky ass-spanker “Come On”are also matched to lackluster sweet nothings. Only on album-opener “I Guess” do Omar’s lyrics match his splendid musicianship: “Mama protect me from those evil tones/I’ve seen things that have left a chill in my bone,” he sings against a gangsta-lean groove. “Black cats and leaning ladders are not the only thing/Paranoid I may be but I know I have to sing.”
Like his across-the-pond nu-soul and R&B contemporaries, Omar is all about getting it on, but despite its mushy lyrical concerns, Best by Far is far superior to the cheap, crushed-velvet productions of American heavyweights such as R. Kelly, Profyle, and Sisqo. CP