N'Dambi - Pink Elephant (2009)

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This shouldn't be difficult to do, since autumn just began a few days ago, but imagine it's summertime: you're soaking in a fragrant bath of milk and honey, sipping languidly from a glass of chilled sweet tea as a crisp, cooling breeze plays across your skin. Sheer bliss, huh? Well, that's the myriad of sensations evoked when N'Dambi sings.

For those who are thinking "who's N'Dambi?," you've heard her voice before, if not the name. The Dallas native and daughter of Baptist ministers cultivated her smoky contralto in the pulpit and along the way in talent competitions around town. While auditioning for a play, she met and befriended future soul artist Erykah Badu. Between them, a pact was made that whoever "made it" first would employ the other, so it's her rich tones that gave extra sass and sugar to hits like "On & On," "Tyrone," and "Bag Lady," as well as her prose fueling "Hey Sugah" from Ms. Badu's sophomore studio set, Mama's Gun. Her solo efforts---1999's Little Lost Girl Blues, 2001's Tunin' Up & Cosignin' and 2005's A Weird Kinda Wonderful ---further endeared her to critics and fans alike, and with Pink Elephant, her fourth CD and first-ever for the preeminent Stax label, Ms. N'Dambi smoothes the rawer edges that abound in her previous sets, but retains the passion and potency that makes her one of today's most original and organic artists.

Colorful title aside, the themes reflected in the lyrics of the songs aren't uncommon---love, life and the struggles along the way---but the crisp production of Leon Sylvers (Shalamar, Lakeside, Gladys Knight) and her intuitive vocal prowess combine to create gem after gem.  It opens with the vividly-rendered, Tina Turner-esque "L.I.E.," detailing the subterfuge a philandering husband undertakes on the daily to lead a double life; the moody lovers spat "Take It Out" and "The One," which interpolates a sample of  Issac Hayes' "Walk On By" as its backdrop. It could've been cavity-inducing if it had been conveyed by a less capable artist, but its' woozy reflections avoid a saccharine aftertaste thanks to her lived-in, almost love-worn delivery: "Sometimes I've been told," she purrs, "that I'm so hard to read; like a diamond among the coals, you happened to notice me."

As with practically any other full-length release, some moments shine brighter than others , but what makes Pink Elephant such a standout is the throaty, full-bodied conveyor of its material. N'Dambi's voice is one that transcends even the most pedestrian of tracks ("Daisy Chain," "Imitator") and turns others into resplendent soul symphonies. "Nobody Jones" is a glittery up-tempo spinning the tale of an optimistic amateur who goes about her daily grind in the face of setbacks knowing "what many never knew, that a dream is only real when it starts inside you. To believe will take you far, to the moon, the sun and stars."  The infectious "What It Takes" is the silver lining in the gray cloud of a couple's relationship, assurance in the face of life's adversities: "Sugah don't fret, do only what you can, I promise, it won't make you less a man. Can't save the world, but you are Superman to this girl," she coos. "Ooh Baby" is a bittersweet confession rueing the love she carelessly threw away ("Back in your arms is where I wanna be, I'm woman enough to tell you I was wrong to leave"), and yes, the sinuous lead single, "Can't Hardly Wait," with that deliciously naughty refrain ("f***in' witchu'"), will speak to any situation in your life that you know is no good, but is hard to relinquish nonetheless.  One can almost picture her with hands on hips and that fiery red, billowy afro rocking thanks to an attitudinal neck roll as she tells a ne'er-do-well boyfriend that she's slowly building the strength to get ghost: "And when I get this monkey offa me, I bet one day I'm gon' leave..."

Is Pink Elephant as to-the-bone soulful as Plug-Tunin'..., or as adventurous as Weird...? Nope. It trades those free styled jams for a more focused approach, but that doesn't make Pink Elephant any less worthy of your time or hard-earned cash. With the emotional resonance and urban musicality that this collection displays, N'Dambi's prowess, like the animal after which her CD's is titled, is a sizeable one that even the most jaded of soul connoisseurs will be unable to overlook. Highly recommended.

By Melody Charles


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