Just prior to her last release, 2013's fiery rock-oriented Beautiful Africa, Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré's home country suffered a military coup that launched the nation into a brutal civil war and political unrest that continues to smolder three years later. It's no wonder then that Traoré's sixth album, Né So, is a more subdued affair, rife with new tensions and deeply affecting meditations on identity and the meaning of home. Produced again by Britain's John Parish (PJ Harvey), the sonic scope of Né So is more intimate and tightly wound than its predecessor, filled with subtle grooves and some inventive guitar work from both Traoré and her two very capable six-string counterparts, Stefano Pilia and Rodriguez Vangama. Weaving in and out of this mix is longtime collaborator Mamah Diabaté, who adds nimble flourishes on the n'goni, especially on songs like the masterful "Kènia" and the pensive title track, whose haunting lyrics tell of the millions of Malian refugees forced to leave their homes in 2014. Traoré's voice has always seemed to be both brittle and strangely electric, and she delivers these powerful songs in a worldly mix of Bambara, French, and even English, as on her heartrending cover of "Strange Fruit," Abel Meeropol's 1937 anti-racist ballad originally made famous by Billie Holiday. Traoré's confidence and emotional candor drive her music, adding heft to the anti-war themed "Ilé," or a lush resonance to the romantic "Amour." Guest artists like Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and California psych-folk bard Devendra Banhart represent her expansive, multi-cultural breadth, though their contributions are hardly necessary, as this already comes through in her music. With Né So, Traoré feels completely dialed in and in control, delivering her most compelling record yet.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger