You've probably never heard of Nneka, but if things go they way they've gone for her in Europe these last couple years, you will soon. Already a continental sensation -- garnering high praise for her unique blend of Nas-inspired hip-hop, Simone-inspired soul, and Marley-inspired social consciousness -- the Nigerian-born singer was just named one of SPIN's 10 artists to watch in 2010.
And now with her U.S. debut, the career-spanning compilation Concrete Jungle, hitting stores this week, Nneka seems destined to slay American audiences just as easily.
Funny then that the 28-year-old showed up last night to her sold-out record release party at Lower Manhattan nightclub SOB's -- only her second NYC gig ever -- in ponytails and a hoodie. Not exactly the costume of a world-conquering pop star, but hey, that's how Nneka rolls. She's got no time for indulgence or spectacle. Last night was all about Nneka's music and her message: the power of love and human dignity in the face of injustice.
Heavy stuff for sure, and there were times when Nneka's earnestness got the best of her -- "It's very important that you pay attention to the lyrics" she said solemnly, before strumming her way through the Tracy Chapman-esque "Come With Me."
But for the most part, Nneka and her four-piece band kept things light and moving. A sparse, more guitar-focused "Walking" starting things off, followed by her hit, "The Uncomfortable Truth" (an ode, as Nneka explained, to "love that does not have an ulterior motive at the hack of its mind"), and the playful reggae-pop of "Kangbe." Nneka dedicated the rousing "VIP" to the "vagabonds in power" -- the corrupt politicians and feckless oil executives who've exploited her oil-rich homeland for decades.
Except for this last tune, Nneka stuck exclusively to Concrete Jungle's genre-hopping global vibe for her 90-minute set. And though one missed DJ Farhot's sample-heavy production, Nneka's band easily compensated. After all, who really needs a DJ when you've got a bassist who can scat?
By the fourth song, Nneka had ditched her hoodie and loosened up. Instead of hiding behind the mic, she danced and sassed her way across the stage, calling out her audience to sing along as they rallied to her cause. "Thank you for your participation," she smirked after "VIP," which had everyone in the place hollering, "Vagabonds in power, oh!" "You were louder than the people in L.A." Cheers to that.
Yet Nneka didn't truly hit her stride until "Heartbeat," more than an hour into her show. Radically different from its recorded cousin, the tune built slowly from a lilting piano melody and Nneka's vocal free-styling into a galloping, four-on-the-floor epic that had the narrative sweep of hip-hop and the pulse of dance music. "Can you feel my heart is beating?" Nneka implored, pumping her tiny chest as the crowd bobbed and weaved in time to her music. Absolutely.
For more on Nneka, visit our global site, SpinEarth.tv: Nneka
The Uncomfortable Truth (Download it here)
Come With Me
God of Mercy