Innovative, driven, compassionate, and powerful are all words that have been used by publicists and critics alike to describe Oakland, CA born singer, songwriter, and spoken word artist Jennifer Johns. Now, with the release of her album â€˜Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop', the listening public is getting the chance to have an opinion too. That might in fact be the problem as those people, who tend to buy records not only on commendation but also on impulse and instinct, may dismiss this CD on the basis of the title alone. Yet those who choose to do so will really be missing a musical experience from an artist who knows where she is going but has yet to signpost that direction through effective marketing.
Since birth, Jennifer has been making this world, in her words, â€˜just a little bit more melodic' with her some times boisterous, some times soft, but always powerful voice. If you were to ask her when she started singing she would say, â€˜I don't remember a day that I didn't.' Her first experience on stage was at church at the tender age of 3 and she hasn't really stopped performing since then. Growing up she gained her influences from Earth, Wind and Fire, Phoebe Snow, and Sade, through to Paul Simon and Whitney Houston. All these and more plus distinctive West Indian rhythms filled her home as a youngster. And then there was hip-hop....
Jennifer says it was somewhere between Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh's â€˜The Show', Rakim's â€˜Know What's on Your Mind', and Queen Latifah's â€˜Ladies First' that she first fell in love with hip-hop music. She sums this up when she says â€˜just as I am music, I am hip hop'. At 13 Jennifer pursued her love of music by joining the award winning Oakland Youth Chorus where she studied music in numerous languages under the tutelage of nationally revered conductors Trente Morante, Elizabeth Seja Minn, and Grammy nominee Melonie DeMore. Performing with the OYC's professional a capella ensemble, Vocal Motion, Jennifer got the chance to work and perform with such musical luminaries as Nancy Wilson, Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Melissa Manchester, and James Ingram.
At 17, Jennifer began to look deeper into a professional career in music and began performing locally in Oakland. Three years later she decided it was time to move to Los Angeles where she quickly built a name for herself and began recording with Goodvibe Recordings artists The Anonymous and BIG DRO.
During her time in Los Angeles, Jennifer became a member of both SAG and AFTRA, securing voiceover work for commercials with the LA Weekly, Macy's, and Pacific Bell. She also stayed busy building the entertainment and media company Pure Love that she founded in 2001. It produced live music and spoken word events that quickly became a staple in the rapidly growing Los Angeles spoken-soul community. In 2003, having built her fan base through Pure Love, Jennifer made the decision to isolate herself in Seattle to record songs for the upcoming project, â€˜Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop'.
â€˜Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop' is co-produced by Grammy nominee Spontaneous and on her own label, Nayo Movement Music. Her publicity suggests that Jennifer is set to give the world a taste of her â€˜Electric Soul.', stating that â€˜listeners can expect some of what you love about Sade, a lot of what we needed from Lauryn, the warmth and conversational energy of Jill and the mystery of Dido.' That's quite a build up but how does it play out in reality?
First impressions confirm preconceptions formulated through the title with â€˜Heavy' a track stripped down to the basics of drum and bass with an underlining beat that seems to come all the way from Marakesh but then comes track #2 and everything changes. Rap, or spoken word music using a telephone conversation as its centrepiece is not new. One only needs to go back to Judie Clay and William Bell's â€˜Private Number' or the smooth sax version of the outstanding â€˜What Becomes Of A Broken Heart' by RJ's Latest Arrival to confirm this. However with â€˜Do You Believe In Love' we find an exquisitely poetic rap from Johns that really tells a story and lives in the memory.
Track #3 is different again and really begins to confirm that Jennifer Johns has the ability to transcend traditional genre definitions. The haunting â€˜Beautiful' is reminiscent of an old Miracles number with â€˜Swept By You' from the 1966 â€˜Away We a Go-Go' album seemingly in there somewhere. This haunting quality is retained in the next track â€˜Fallen' but this time with the injection of a background with a real jungle feel. This jungle flavor reoccurs on track #6 â€˜The Truth' where Johns is found at her melodic best and track #9 â€˜Fire', a number that suffers through over production.
Two gems are â€˜Never Give Up', a truly outstanding piece of mid temp R & B and â€˜Cherish The Day' a competent cover of the cut from Sade's album Love Deluxe.
Finally on the album is that strangest of modern music phenomena, the â€˜hidden track'. Buried deep within the recording, and identified as track #24, â€˜Afraid Of Me', features Ayinde Howell and is a fantastic example of deep R & B. Its sexy, sensuous rap and minimalistic production, all held together with a solid bass line is quite simply too good to be hidden away.
â€˜Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop' is an interesting showcase for the talents of Jennifer Johns. What is now crucial to her success will be the musical direction she opts to take. There might well be an opening for a new Sade or for a fresh voice on the contemporary soul scene. Whatever route Jennifer Johns chooses to take she is an artist who is likely to be with us for some time to come.
By Denis Poole