Intelligent, affecting third album from Nigerian/German chanteuse.
Daryl Easlea 2012
Ever since her debut EP of 2005, The Uncomfortable Truth, Nneka Egbuna has quietly built a catalogue of challenging, political soul and hip hop. Best known for her 2008 single Heartbeat, a bittersweet earworm of a hit, her work has been compared to Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. On Soul Is Heavy, her third album, she rises above such shorthand associations.
Set against a 21st-century mixture of pop, Afrobeat and RnB, you sense that nobody has made this record but Nneka: intensely personal, deep and beautifully executed, Soul Is Heavy is not the work of focus groups. The title-track – co-written with Talib Kweli – is most poignant, a sucker-punch of Nigerian history delivered in four minutes. As Nneka walks around her country, she reflects on the catalogue of injustices and corruption that has befallen it across the years. She evokes the spirit of martyrs such as executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, 60s resistance fighter Isaac Adaka Boro, and Jaja, who founded the Nigerian city-state Opobo. With long-term collaborator DJ Farhot providing beats, it is far from a militant history lesson; Nneka’s charged, socially conscious message is delivered sensuously.
The child-like reggae of J and the jaunty bluebeat of My Home demonstrate her spirituality, referring to a higher power as "her beginning, middle and end," in the face of repression. She questions God’s existence on God Knows Why, which features a blistering rap from The Roots’ Black Thought. Elsewhere, Shining Star is a beautiful, straightforward pop song that, in a different era, could have been sung by the Chic girls or Candi Staton. The mellow waltz-tempo of Do You Love Me Now is all double bass and strings, yet the majority of its listeners would miss its subject matter of oppression. Stay has another killer chorus, and her rap recalls the ornate late 20th-century productions of Timbaland and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins.
For all the surface sweetness of Soul Is Heavy, Nneka comes over as a restless, questioning soul. Restive and confrontational but also undeniably upbeat and commercial, it would be difficult to expect more from a modern political soul record. It's good to hear a new album that brims both with strong opinions and great pop songs, often at the same time.