Soul ID calls their music "Afropean Soul." Like Barack Obama, the American politician the music embodies, it is a startling concept. It rings benign enough when spoken and yet for so many in America the root idea conjures ancient miscegenation fears, particularly when the African in the Afro-pean soul aesthetic is so expressly leading the European in this social experiment. Before I tread too far down this politically charged road, let me clear up any emerging misnomers. No, Barack Obama has not released a soul album (but wouldn't that raise eyebrows!). Funny enough, the album under discussion isn't even overtly political. However, a Belgium-based group named Soul ID has unintentionally managed to release an album that expresses the man and these curious times. It also offers a demonstration of what can happen when you mix African-based styles that are required to operate in a Western context while paying deference to both African and Western expectations. Sound familiar?
Soul ID's debut contemporary soul project is entitled Sex, Love and Philosophy. As much as the album can be viewed as a metaphor for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, it is also a quiet political statement about how quality in any arena can achieve transcendence, if one is willing to play a few concessionary notes.
Like its chance inspiration, this half breed doesn't piteously cry, cower with hand over face, and try to pass for white as its tragic mulatto antecedents did in classic films like Imitation of Life or contemporary novels like Anne Rice's Feast of All Saints. Rather, this bi-racial child proudly struts its African heritage, is measured and considerate about its European influences, and unapologetic about melding both binaries-the liberating improvisational and the defensively structured-to create new paths and visions for engaging modernity, while conversely being a bit of a slave to the comforting dog-eared platitudes of the past. Oh, and in the midst of spouting all these Afropean inspired high theory, socio-political allusions from a half-baked music critic, did I mention that Soul ID also happens to deliver one groovy contemporary soul album?
Soul ID is comprised of V (not to be confused with soloist and Jill Scott's background singer, V), T'chai, Dad'd, and Urban Deep, three African singers and one European drummer/producer. As is the case with many groups, each singer lends the collective a different voice: the raspy church singer; the melismic tenor; and the soothing alto who can belt on cue, all skilled and unique storytelling leads. As distinctive as their solos are on Sex, Love and Philosophy, in their polite refinement and ability to humbly submit their individuality to the harmonic blend, these singers reveal more than their session singer origins, they reveal the tense marriage between "balls out" Black musical aesthetics play within Western music's structural straightjacket. On Sex, Love and Philosophy, jazz riffs, gospel runs and soul shouts-all remixed elements of ancient African aesthetics-stealthily slide in and out of these prettified melodic structures, adding funk, flavor and illuminating each song's sturdy architecture. The group's drummer and main producer, Urban Deep, a clear student of African and Latin rhythms, does give his friends some breathing room on the changeling "Oh, Oh, Oh" and on sections of songs, like the accapella breaks on "Beauty and Sin" and the astral cries closing "Believe." Even then there are boundaries-producer imposed, I suspect-dictating the vocalists' illustrations.
Urban Deep, in his meticulously arranged compositions, uses a range of techniques to create tightly defined parameters for his adroit compatriots to operate and express themselves within. You get the sense that any of these African singers could uninhibitedly blow with awesome, Western rule-breaking aplomb. But the limiting demands of the modern pop song and authorial, European inspired rules for "legal" musical forms and structure doesn't allow for lawless artistic abandon, no matter how liberating such an allowance might be for both singer and listener. As was the case with repression and censorship (think post-30's Hollywood after the censorship codes were established), social constraints encourage astonishing and subtly subversive creative expression unique to its time.
In the case of Soul ID, Urban Deep's Western production lens, however Black influenced, forces V, T'chai and Dad'd's to be strategically honest in their musical expressions-which is the aesthetic requirement of "soul" music-while also being respectful of the Western musical conventions they've learned, accepted, and/or had imposed on them. This bi-racial marriage gives birth to a hybrid of urbane sounds that neither the European nor the African would have had to conceive without the other culture's divergent stylistic impulses.
Let me be clear to say that I'm not saying that Urban Deep as a European man producing Black artists in music that has been commercially labeled as "Black" has inherently oppressive qualities (that's a metaphor for others to discuss). One, Urban Deep isn't the only producer (V and Dad'd also produce and co-produce with Urban Deep), just the primary one. Two, the African singers of Soul ID ain't nobody's slave, and in such a democratic experiment as Soul ID, Urban Deep hardly made all the production decisions. What I am saying is that the group in its actual racial composition, its hybrid form of "soul" music, and how it languages its music as Afropean, is ripe for metaphor and critical inquiry. When you name your music Afropean Soul it begs questions about what makes it so. In the instance of Soul ID, I hear the Afro in this "Afropean" music do what Black artists have done since first encountering Europeans and their musical rules: employ a multitude of improvisational strategies to be as unrestrained as possible within Western music highly structured rules and theories for what gets defined as "acceptable" for any genre of music. The singers have the same charge as Obama, how to be honest and truthful to African traditions, styles and thoughts while rising to the challenge of Western restraint and expectation.
It is the tension and yielding between these two styles-indeed, these two worlds-of African and European that makes Soul ID such a compelling listening experience. Soul ID's music becomes a simplified metaphor for Barack Obama, a mesmerizing figure born of improvisation, agitating rifts, conforming hierarchical educational processes, revolutionary daring, socially just law-breaking, cross-cultural exchanges (of varying types), and decades of racialized fine-tuning. Both Obama and Soul ID's "Afropean Soul" are creatures born of conflicting tensions in harmonious cooperation; new, inspiring, and beautiful, but whose calculating references to appease its base(s) may cost it the opportunity to really be heard and seen for what it is.
Politics and Religion are not part of that high concept title listing for good reason. With the possible exception of the one politically explosive tune on this lover's set, "How Come," a muted percussive tone permeates the mix of Sex, Love and Philosophy. The mix rounds out most of the album's edges, softening the choral of alternately crying and celebratory voices into a palatable cream of cobalt, lavenders and midnight blues. This audible overlay does two things: it gives this groove heavy album a cohesive consistency but it also gives permission to listeners to prematurely classify the Soul ID sound as neo-soul and play Sex, Love and Philosophy as cool, bumping background noise. In the Afropean effort to appease both bases, it may have played it too safe (a hint for Obama?).
The Soul ID emphasis on proverbial neo-soul instruments, smooth jazz sheen, and percussive frameworks makes the music instantly likeable, listenable and misleadingly familiar. In its lulling mainstream appeals, Soul ID has unintentionally invited smug, au fait music listeners to "check out" instead of "tune in." This potential for false "knowing" and subsequent dismissal by those best able to appreciate Soul ID is a shame really, because it's in its idealistic vision and novel details that Soul ID really expresses something original. Musically, this Afropean soul ideal gets realized through constantly shifting and sometimes competing approaches to melodic line; the deeply contrasting vocal timbres; horn like calls and breathy responses; subtle hip hop, be-bop, and gospel droplets; muzzled rock threads; and an egalitarian approach to lead vocals that are themselves bending and contorting in unanticipated ways to the will of the song. Lead single "Love of My Life" is probably the best example of Soul ID's amalgamated sound.
Though it falls within a highly digestible jazz fusion, soul-pop vein, Soul ID isn't Something for the People, Brand New Heavies or Cooly's Hot Box just as Barack isn't Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Dr. Martin Luther King or even Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick, but comparisons can and will be made. It's telling that when both voters and listeners are greeted with something fresh and original trying to successfully function within the confines of a dated, ill-fitting tradition, unease and comfort dictates easy comparison, ready dismissal of those sounds as routine and familiar, even if it's not an entirely honest reading by the receiver. The need to box something in or to out right disregard it may also cause both listeners and voters to miss out on a wonderfully life-changing experience. To overcome fear-based reticence and achieve the realization of a new experience for its receivers, the improvising originator often reacts with life-saving, but soul crushing disingenuousness. Sometimes, however, the Afropean reacts with some surprising contortions and the occasionally ingenious innovation of its own; say, with a speech that saves a candidacy.
Yes, Soul ID has innocently captured a man and a moment that is as revealing about us as it is about itself. Afropean, eh? Indeed, when it comes to embracing interracial idealism and receiving the inimitable fruits of cross-cultural exchange, our friends across the ocean seem more prepared than we are to extend open arms. If Sex, Love and Philosophy is any demonstration, the benefit of distance may allow them to better illustrate the potential of America's historically unprecedented social experiment; how culling the best of both worlds can create something amazing and beneficial for all. An appreciation our close confines here at home may prevent us from realizing, as far too many of us are stumbling in the forest fearful of all those big black trees pushing against that vast, oppressive white sky. Highly Recommended.
-L. Michael Gipson