Sing (If You Want It)

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Back in the early '90s, when "neo-soul" was nowhere to be found and groups like Jodeci and Shai ruled R&B with Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, Omar was overseas championing a newer version of soul with a little less dance-camp than his British brethren Soul II Soul. Sing (If You Want It), Omar's sixth release since his 1990 debut (There's Nothing Like This), is the latest effort in a string of what has to be considered some of the most consistently excellent soul albums in recent memory. Sing is a rarity in that the difficulty in getting through the album lies not in the urge to skip tracks, but to repeat a song, like "All for Me" -- his duet with Angie Stone, an "in love" song with the tastiest groove -- or "Your Mess," whose funk is so arresting and jarring that it'll make you frown. And whereas many of Omar's stateside ilk (Donnie, Glenn Lewis) have profited from attempts to be Stevie Wonder carbon copies, Omar is a reinvention of the legend, a contemporary update. His vocal phrasing and scatting -- a quality that adds much texture to his songs in that he employs his voice like an instrument, the way jazz singers do -- borrow a healthy amount from Stevie, but Omar's own creativity and vision redesigns Stevie's blueprint. There's no irony when the legend blesses Omar with a collaborative stamp of approval on "Feeling You," where Stevie's voice is showing its age, yet is still earnest. Throughout the album, Omar is committed to making sure he bolsters his music with substance. When he "takes it to the bridge," he does so with distinguished arrangement changes that make his songs more like suites ("Get It Together") than the clichéd "verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook-ride out" shenanigans of today's cookie cutters. Omar gives you Afro-Cuban percussion, horn blast and distorted electric piano on "It's So...," and ends the album with the reflective, jazz-drenched "Ghana Emotion." This ain't no poetry café backdrop music. New-soul music doesn't get much better than this, and with the American soul vanguard -- D'Angelo, Bilal, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu -- either in hibernation, dealing with personal issues, or struggling with label woes, Sing is a much needed fix.

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