For all you gym rats looking for that motivating “Get your life!” workout mix of the Spring season, well…look no further; Sy Smith and Mark de Clive-Lowe deliver the goods in their new collaboration, Fast & Curious. An ode to those nasty ‘80s girl groups and performers who soundtracked the roller rink and the discotheque in the age of shell-tops and Jheri curls, Fast mines the best of that era’s production techniques and rhythmic influences and combines them with the best of what’s happening in contemporary acid jazz and electrosoul. The results are a delectable mix of futuristic sounds, sinewy vocals, and enough percussion to lift the feet of even the most lumbering treadmill warrior. With her fifth solo excursion (yes, I’m counting 2005’s Psykosoul Plus), Smith triumphantly breaks a cycle of prior solo recordings that have provided far fewer thrills than what she’s heretofore been able to capture in her electric live performances.
It’s been said that this is Sy Smith’s last foray into R&B, and that she wants to try her hand in other genres like straight-ahead jazz on her forthcoming releases. If true, this is a shame since Smith finally seems to have found the groove first promised on her 2000 Hollywood Records debut, Psykosoul, with its “Gladly” and “Good N Strong” singles and classic take on Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.” In the über-popular LA by-way-of New Zealand producer, Mark de Clive-Lowe (Jody Watley, PPP, Shaun Escoffery) , Smith seems to have finally found a kindred musical spirit and a producer who gets her and subsequently maximizes a talent that was always present on projects like Conflict and The Syberspace Social but only episodically pushed to its zenith. A consummate professional and an always entertaining live stage presence, Smith achieved event-level moments and indie soul cred largely as a featured artist on compilations like Kajmere Sound Vol. 1 and hipster albums by artists like Zo!, The Decoders, and The Foreign Exchange. However, despite a strong cult following and a penchant for storytelling lyrics, Smith didn’t seem to have that star’s edge that moved material beyond adjectives like “polished” to ones like “memorable.” Smith seemed to rise by simply taking care of her business, presenting like a star, and always pressing forward, never moving too far outside of her public’s consciousness, be it stints as a background singer on American Idol or dropping in on soundtracks like Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom and Save the Last Dance. But with Fast & Curious Sy Smith demolishes all polite expectations and generously offers us her first of what we hope will be many more magnum opuses.
As the project’s sole producer and one of the most successful leaders in the Nu jazz and Broken beat movements, Mark de Clive Lowe consistently infuses Sy Smith’s project with a blend of syncopated rhythms, astral jazz, and cleverly placed percussive elements of various types—from snare to cowbells - to make every song a deliriously delicious collage of sound. On these kaleidoscopic soundscapes, Sy’s liquid vocals literally float and flow like a river, softening the edges of de Clive Lowe’s relentless beats and driving grooves. These elements best come together on creamy dreams like “Personal Paradise“ (featuring Shelia E on percussion), “Let The Rain Fall Down,” and a cover of “Nights (Feels Like Getting Down)” with Rahsaan Patterson that will make you wanna smack your mama. Smith’s supple harmonies and airy whistle notes showcase her years as a go-to background and session singer, elevating “Primacy Effect” from another atmospheric house tune to a tour de force of dynamic arrangement, voice, and composition. Mark de Clive Lowe shows out on the broken beat track for “The Ooh to My Ahh” and the tropical, acid jazz of “People of the Sun,” cuts that illustrates a range of voices effortlessly at Smith’s disposal when in the right producer’s hands and with fitting material. “Teena,” an inspired, unconventional tribute to the recently departed Teena Marie, also surprises by taking a fuller, slowed down, more soulfully avant-garde approach to the re-imagined melody, chorus, and grooves of Marie classics like “Lovergirl,” without making it a direct cover—genius. Only the pleasing opening cut, the “Fast & The Curious,” far overstays its welcome with a track that runs as repetitious as it does long.
Lyrically, on encouragements like “People of the Sun” and “Truth,” Sy Smith slyly delves into the metaphysical and the philosophical with a dash of soft-shoed socio-political thrown in for good measure. In music and clever sexual lyricism, the Mary Jane Girls meets Vanity 6 “Message from the Stars” provides an infectious funk grown folks over 35 will swear is straight out of their arcade years (a feat repeated on the lengthy title track). The mix of the subtly profane with messages of spiritual enlightenment gives these songs a weight and places Sy on equal footing in this divine partnership with de Clive-Lowe, at least as much as her clean vocals do throughout.
Easily the best release by a female solo artist this year to-date, Sy Smith raises her stock creatively and commercially with an album that keeps 2012 hitting a winning streak, joining Robert Glasper’s Black Radio, Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society, Gregory Porter’s Be Good, Bernhoft & KORK’s Walk With Me, The Slakadeliq’s The Other Side of Tomorrow and several #winning others in supplying some of the best hybrid soul, jazz, R&B, blues and electronica that we’ve heard in an age. Congratulations, Mrs. Smith on making us sweat and smile our way into the new year. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson