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Can the nu soul guv'nor Sing for the big time?,
This review is from: Sing (If You Want It) (Audio CD)
Omar's sixth studio album, and 14 years since his only commercial success 'There's Nothing Like This', sees the original king of UK urban take aim once more for the pop-charts, with one eye kept locked on the funk. But can Omar do what his last four albums failed to do and deliver enough Top 40 appeal to finally get the recognition that many fans and industry insiders feel he deserves?
Omar has certainly earned his nu soul crown. This is the man that Stevie Wonder has said he wanted to be like. The one that Badu and Stone have been desperate to work with. It's true that there isn't a soul artist alive with the sheer range of vocal and musical talent to match him. And he's a greater joy to watch live.
From his accomplished second album 'Music' - the ill-fated yet meticulously layered and still damn-fine follow-up to 'There's Nothing Like this' - to his previous and aptly titled 'Best By Far', Omar has excelled at nailing that funky stabbing synths with deep-purring basslines and a range of percussion styles. In 20 years time, he will be at the forefront of the artists being plundered for musical ideas, along with Steve Spacek, Lewis Taylor and a small band of homegrown talent who are largely ignored by those not in the know.
Having been slaughtered commercially for producing one of the best modern and under-rated soul albums in the last 20 years (Music), Omar tried a more pop friendly approach to the charts again with his third LP 'This is not a Love Song'. But Omar (or his management) made the mistake of releasing some of the album's weaker tracks 'Say Nothing' and Omar's first dreadful cover version `Golden Brown'.
Omar repeated the same mistake of releasing his weaker and wrongly perceived 'commercial' tracks on his fourth and fifth albums. 'Saturday' was a so-so track that failed to set both the underground and the overground alight (whilst Confection with Micia Paris was pure brilliance). He covered and released another classic - averagely - for his fifth album. 'Be thankful' was recorded with both Badu and Stone and was a plodding and far too respectful cover of De Vaughs seventies smash (he was never going to do better than Massive Attack). These poor choices of single release have been the main source of commercial woes. A shame particularly with his 2000 album 'Best by Far' as it's packed with brilliant tunes - commercial yet credible for the club crowds.
So Omar's joins us six years later. A new label, a new management team and a new desire for Top 40 recognition are evident in the track listing and numerous collaborations. There's a mixture of pop-wanabee with the opening gambit 'Sing (if you want it)'. It's ok, but comes all over too Des'ree. It's pleasant enough but it's not what Omar does best. Skipping past this and the most pointless `Be a man', you'll be reminded what Omar is about on 'Kiss it right'. A silkily lazy, skipping lick that serves the right mix of Omar's best ingredients: deeply funky bass, synth stab, and skillfully layered vocal. It's a classic. And stinks of the concrete from which it was born. It could easily hit the charts if it got the right airplay, which predictably, it won't.
From here, 'Sing' rests between not quite producing interesting enough pop music to reach the mainstream mark and delivering sublime soul that accelerates past all the other street pretenders. It's peppered with more gems like 'Your Mess' and `Stylin' which are ultra fresh but strangely still feel like they could have featured on any of Omar's last three albums.
Best track by a long margin though is 'It's So' a vibrant, up-beat Femi Kuti-esque number that should be the first single. It's infectious, summery and chart-friendly.
The biggest giveaway of Omar's desire to hit the big time again is the guest acts - Stevie Wonder, Rodney P, Estelle, Angie Stone - all look to push him up in the minds of new and old fans alike. Sadly, most of these partnerships end up in waffly raps that come across like they wrapped in one take and over too much of the green stuff.
The Stevie Wonder collaboration is stronger than could be expected, going by Stevie's musical track record in the last ten years. But seeing how long Omar himself has waited for the chance to record with Stevie, he doesn't actually do enough on the track outside of repeating the same line which by the time Omar's handed over from repeating it a zillion times, starts to get a bit numbing.
Sing is still a great album on balance, and the weaker tracks will grow on you eventually. It's just not as musically sophisticated overall as his earlier efforts. You should still buy it if you have any interest in urban music.
So will Omar get the attention he deserves and a Top 40 hit? On this show, and with a Summer release, there's a chance that `It's So' or `Kiss it right' may do something for him in the urban charts and then knock on from there. Omar's track record suggests that it will be a weaker track that will be released and sadly flop. Omar fans, like me, really hope not. Whilst there is a joy to keep the best treasures to yourself, Omar has been too long overlooked. He might have had only one walk in the limelight but Sing reminds us that there's still nothing like this...