"She sho'll smiling hard. Where is this here place?" my Granny asked, looking at Goapele's CD cover. Then she tried to pronounce the name: "Goh- Peel? Where the hell's that?" I had to laugh; when I first saw the flyer, I too imagined it to be some mystical tourist mecca somewhere near Jamaica where women that look like the one on the cover sit on pristine shores eating mangoes in slow motion and getting you in trouble with your other half because you can't help but to look, then I figured it to be a mix CD of dancehall music.
I pronounced the name: "Gwah-pelay, Granny. It's Gwah-pelay. She's an artist I'm reviewing." "Hmmh," Granny snorted, "sound like a damn Jamaican fruit. You and your damn nappy dreadlock friends..." Goapele came to me from a friend who knows my love for music and how I can be as much of hard-ass as my Granny when critiquing things.
So here goes my first underground review: Goapele is a west coast artist (likely to be pegged neo-soul) looking to make a name for herself. As underground as she may be, somebody damn sure believes in her; "Closer", the first song, is to be featured on the soundtrack of the new movie "Honey."
Goapele's voice has a bird-like warmth that reminds you of Amel Larrieux. "Closer" is seductive and obvious as to why someone would have it in a movie. It's only weakness in fact is a keyboard that sounds cheap and Radio Shack-ish, making the cut only a step above demo.
It isn't until "Got it" that the album begins to shake of its sluggish, demo status. Here, the fruit of the Cali neo soul scene samples some serious, crip-walkable west coast funk. Although the arrangement is slight on some bass, Goapele's lead and background vocals and command of the track is fairly on target for such a sonic piece. "Romantic" is the dead on piece that will put this singer over the top. It's a laid back, uninhibited neo-soul number that can be the standard for the classiest exotic dancers from the Casa Rosso in Amsterdam to Rio de Janeiro's Barbarella. The production, delivery, and edginess brought out in Goapele's virtuous voice is compelling.
"Too much of the same" solidifies the reflective constant in the album. It adds more depth to the typical broken relationship/men ain't **** lyrical content in most songs these days. The soft, mellow keys set a pensive tone for a tale of two hard-headed people playing a game of chicken in the road of love. Relaxed enough to be poetry café - friendly. Goapele's style keeps a sunny face, but is anchored in such a wise and concentrated center that it may find a home with mature crowds that go for Cassandra Wilson type jazz moreso than youthful Alicia Keyes-typed styling. It makes the marriage the beauty makes with the volatile nature of hip hop tenuous. (Goapele is supposed to be working with E40 on a track for his upcoming album. Cross your fingers.) "The Days" is an example. The muddy demo style works best for her with neo-soul. Here, the hip beat's smothered almost to vintage Wu-Tang level. The ruggedness of that and the empathetic tale of hustling for a better life by slingin' rocks clashes and seems best as the jewel to a soundtrack to a straight to video movie. "Things Don't Exist" has the complexity in chords of a Stevie Wonder in his "The Secret Life of Plants" phase. This is the one India.Arie
missed (and needed) in her last album. Goapele's voice sparkles and is not weighted down by reverb, but upheld by it. Flashes of impressive poetic focus are clear: "In my fear I feel/We're seas apart in old Worlds/ We begin in vibrant colors/ but one off thing is said and I dread it."
Even Closer gives the impression of being a sophomore album in that Goapele is already pushing beyond "neo-soul" categories as if already impatient with the music industry's marketing machine. The ambition works both for and against her in the strangest ways. For instance, "Salvation" sounds like at least two thoughtful enough songs weaved on as the extensions of an elusive concept. Her voice does an admirable job of hiding the glue and the tracks. By "Back to You," that sweet, snake charmer of a voice seems iron-fisted in not letting the instrumentals of her music help her set the atmosphere. Here, a sax solo would work well to make the most of the innocence in her voice.
The next two prove to be more successful attempts of past experiments. "Butterflykisses" does a better job of the tempo and melodic changes than "Salvation." It has a Spyro-Gyro feel which forces you to recognize its impressive, fusion-jazz-like craftsmanship even if you're not mature enough to fully appreciate it. "It Takes More" is a better meeting of the talents concerning Goapele and hip hop. Though more R&B based musically, she serves delicious, self-reproaching lyrics about the breakdown of the black community in raising children. Thus, creating potentially violent thugs "you'd never give your real name to."
"Red, White and Blues" shows a turning of the corner for Goapele stylistically. Again that bird-like voice goes after an edginess that cannot be attained without the full support of her accompanying musicians. A guitar solo is the first assist Goapele allows in arguing with her the crisis of the state of American society and politics. As radiant and engaging as she is, you'd expect a more upbeat ending, perhaps a sweet outro would work. Ah, found that outro at the end, and as short as it is, it does make you impatient for whatever fruit Goapele has next to offer.