Donnie - The Daily News (2007)

Donnie
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Listening to Donnie is listening to genius. Not yet the perfected musical genius of Prince, Stevie Wonder or his cousin, Marvin Gaye, but a genius nonetheless. With the SoulThought Entertainment release of The Daily News, the young artist is only on his sophomore project and there is still time and-we hope-opportunity to make the timeless magnum opus his talent promises. His already classic Giant Step/Motown debut, The Colored Section, four years ago reminded honest music fans that the soul genre was alive and kicking.

CLICK HERE to hear musical clips from The Daily News

Listening to Donnie is listening to genius. Not yet the perfected musical genius of Prince, Stevie Wonder or his cousin, Marvin Gaye, but a genius nonetheless. With the SoulThought Entertainment release of The Daily News, the young artist is only on his sophomore project and there is still time and-we hope-opportunity to make the timeless magnum opus his talent promises. His already classic Giant Step/Motown debut, The Colored Section, four years ago reminded honest music fans that the soul genre was alive and kicking.

On The Colored Section, falling in love sounded like love and the message music rendered its sermon in ways both fun and profound. When compared to the multi-instrumentalist's debut, The Daily News is short on romantic love and long on the funky message music made popular by the O'Jays, War and Norman Whitfield's psychedelic productions of The Temptations. There are plenty of barrier breaking antics and enthralling moments on The Daily News, yet it may take much from listeners to fully appreciate Donnie's efforts. As with most works of genius, this art demands far more study and concentration than most casual music listeners are conditioned to offer. For those uninterested in contemplating Donnie's dark, politically charged lyrics but instead desire The Daily News based on its mega-watt funk factor, there is plenty of shoulder-bouncing sprinkled throughout this project.

As a complex work from a more seasoned artist, The Daily News is also ripe for some criticisms about diction and the engineering challenges listeners had let slide on Donnie's debut. They may be less gracious about these lingering issues on this sophomore jam session. Donnie and his production partner, Steve "The Scotsman" Harvey, seem committed to following a long and distinguished tradition of soul artists who risk losing their words audibility to melody and instrumentation in favor of achieving a certain emotionally moving sound. James Brown originated this technique, submitting his growling voice to the groove. Similarly, D'Angelo on his last project Voodoo layered his voice in lush harmonies to the point of near fever pitches of impassioned, romantic emotion. On the up-tempo tunes, the approach works, but it can be a distracting at times. Too often the privileging of sound and styling overwhelm Donnie's lyrics, causing diction to vanish into the groove. It would be less frustrating -- and far more forgivable -- if Donnie didn't have anything relevant to report on The Daily News, but here he has intelligently written plenty of timely news worth primetime broadcasting. Between The Colored Section and The Daily News, Donnie reveals himself as one of the finest lyricists working in music today.

Technical quibbles aside, when listening to Donnie again you realize how good it is to hear his voice on new material and experience the deepening of his talent. Though Donnie's spirit-heavy voice evokes instant comparisons to Lalah Hathaway's Daddy, there is something more playful and sarcastic about this Donnie's husky tenor. His voice has matured in texture between projects; it is richer, muddier than before. Some trademarks remain unchanged such as the vocal reflections of field songs and Negro spirituals throughout Donnie's work, giving emotional tensions present in his music a weight and political history. On almost every track of ...News, waves of harmonic gospel wails all sung by Donnie play backdrop to the artist's highly stylized leads. At times, these chilling cries seem to come from the very depths of the world's oppressed.

The backing vocals provide constancy even as the musical visions radically change from track to track on ...News, each with a unique sound and influence. "Impatient People" opens the disc with wah wah guitars and ascending piano a la Issac Hayes theme song for Shaft.  Its follow-up, "911," is a matter-of-fact staccato tune that avoids the predictability of its title by illustrating the emergencies within our control - discrimination and social intolerance - not the urban follies of dialing 911. The futuristic sound effects and emotionally distant vocals on "911" offer a chilling, almost robotic landscape of cold and inhuman apathy, encouraging disturbing questions about humanity's direction. Earnest and cynical, "Over the Counter Culture" is a bumping education on America's hypocritical drug policy put to music. The tune is well complemented by the thought-provoking rap of Ponte of Little Brother. "Classifieds" is early Stevie with sweet sentimentality replaced by lip snarling and nose flaring self-righteous funk. From its clarion calls for work and tongue-in-cheek encouragements to the eliminate unemployment woes by simply applying jobs for out the "Classifieds." "Suicide," an ironically titled tune, is an atmospheric jam session that inspires the whole family to two-step. Bass guitar, strings, wind instruments, and a drum tight rhythm section converge on "Suicide" in a celebration of the living and the possibility of tomorrow; its celebrants going on with life even if only out of fear of death. On the fun-filled "Mason Dixon Line," with its deceptive slavery subtext, Donnie's got you smelling the corn liquor and hear the shotguns on this thrilling dance number. Hopefully, it's the follow-up single to the inspiring first radio cut, "If I Were You," a delicate cut on evolutions and transitions. "If I Were You" is the project's most enduring, well sung and orchestrated tune, it's also the album's only straight-ahead ballad.

In addition to "If I Were You," the notable works on the project are the title track "The Daily News" and the hooky "For Christ Sake", a tune that turns the gospel number on its ear by reintroducing instruments we haven't heard used in such imaginative ways in 30 years. Lesser, more ambitious works include, "China Doll", a dark tune on child molestation with a deliberate nod to Eastern music. Despite its brilliant complexities, "China Doll" still feels lyrically incomplete by the song's end. Donnie's such a risk-taker on...News there are other songs of even greater ambition that result in even greater ambiguity about both content and execution, particularly on a song about serial child murders.

Which leads us to the most curious and daring number on ...News is the "Atlanta Child Murders", a song about the real-life series of Black child murders that took place over 22 months from 1979 to 1980. This political tune of conspiracy theories and a child murder roll call feels like a chamber piece ripped from Stephen Sondheim's Broadway murder classic, Sweeney Todd, in both its musical theatrics and intentionally macabre tone. It's not always pleasant to the ear: like its subject matter, the music often disturbs and the story it tries to convey is cloudy. What is clear is like author James Baldwin before him in his essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Donnie believes America's first black convicted serial killer, Wayne Williams, is innocent. Raising the possibilities of Williams' innocence in his music is an odd cause celebré for Donnie to resurrect, if only because it's so terribly dated and-for many-long decided as justice served. Maybe by recording this tune, Donnie hopes to inspire critics like myself to discuss the controversy, educating a generation of listeners too young to remember ATL's tense atmosphere during the horrific tragedies. If so, his goal as an artist has been achieved. Who knows what new life Donnie may inspire for the Williams case?               

Minor challenges aside, The Daily News is an admirable follow-up to Donnie's debut and a must have for funk and soul fans, alike. Hopefully, another four years will not pass between projects leaving us hungry for more of Donnie's high caliber material and artistic courage. Using a lyric from "Impatient People", one critic would like to say, Thanks so much for what you do, Donnie. And, brutha, don't make us wait that long again for more of it.

L. Michael Gipson

 

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