Signed to the legendary Stax label and produced by Leon Sylvers III, the man behind the Whispers, Lakeside and Shalamar, singer, composer and musician N’Dambi would seem to have a great deal to live up to. But this doesn’t seem to faze her in the slightest and Pink Elephant is that rare beast: a soul album that sounds completely modern yet fulfils all traditional expectations. It’s the best of RnB in both senses of the term.
What sets N’Dambi apart from so many of her contemporaries in this nu-soul area is that instead of constructing lyrics to fit a backing track, she leads from the front, putting the emphasis on storytelling within her writing. From there, her big, rich voice allows her to get inside each song, spinning it into its own mini-drama and involving the listener on a very personal level. The music effortlessly complements these stories, as it sets up a number of different funky scenarios that aren’t simply there to show off the singer’s versatility.
Sylvers isn’t afraid of a big arrangement, and secure that N’Dambi can hold her own he creates genuinely three-dimensional soundscapes worthy of his Solar Records back catalogue, and does so by layering contemporary instruments and sounds to bring things right up to date. So you have the easy-rocking funk of Mind Blowin’ and Nobody Jones; superbly-styled jazz/funk with L.I.E.; and Daisy Chain and Can’t Hardly Wait are much more in the classic soul mould – the latter coming with an alternative a cappella mix that brings out its true sentiments. Then there’s The World Is a Beat, a slab of raw, spacious drum-led funk that allows all the space the vocals need to totally take charge, drive the tune and show exactly what makes N’Dambi special.
This is the sort of soul music you’d expect from the likes of Smokey Robinson or Gladys Knight had they been born 40 years later, but, interestingly, N’Dambi doesn’t let herself down by trying too hard to reach those heights. She never stretches, and always seems to have something in reserve, meaning she stays in control and reaches the listener with the sort of emotions you find in true soul singing. --Lloyd Bradley
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