Tunin' Up & Cosignin'


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Tunin' Up & Cosignin' Review

by Stanton Swihart

Little Lost Girl Blues was one of the most exciting (albeit slept-on) albums to hit soul music in the second half of the '90s, a debut better than dozens of efforts put out by peers the artistic inferior of N'Dambi, yet one that barely recorded a blip on the radar screen of mainstream urban radio. That album's successor leaves no doubt, however, that its creator is among the most stimulating and adventurous voices -- acknowledged or not, indie or established -- on the urban soul scene at the outset of the millennium. Tunin' Up & Cosignin' may be a bit daunting for some ears, filling a full two hours with its shambling, languorous burn, but it is worth every second of that time, closer in many respects to a spontaneous, early-hours acoustic blowing session than a studio set. Cool and off-the-cuff, barefoot and Bohemian but in no way casual, the album is like a pair of organically spawned albums recorded in the previous year: former employer and mentor Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun -- an album, in fact, to which N'Dambi contributed -- and D'Angelo's Voodoo, buoyed by substantial live instrumentation and overflowing with a maverick spirit. It is a thrillingly eclectic and demanding record that stretches out its legs fully. Unlike Badu and D'Angelo, though (or Macy Gray, whom she also recalls in fits and starts), N'Dambi is swooningly cosmic without the need to incorporate any sort of vocal mannerisms and tics or, more importantly, personal eccentricities. Her singing is deeply resonant and spiritual in its own unclothed splendor, telling a rich story even when words aren't involved in its making. The album absorbs and then reshapes dozens of influences -- Nina Simone, jazz's golden ladies of scat, the funky apple-hat soul of the '70s, even Joni Mitchell -- into a wide variety of styles, from electrically falsetto soul, breezy urban fusion, and straight jazz to gospel and "Do Dat Mare Ray," a piece with the earth-stained potency of an old work song. And it is deeply moving as much for its heady sophistication as for its visceral musicality. Nothing here is dumbed down for mainstream consideration. That said, the album's pleasures are abundant and accessible, owing not only to N'Dambi's enormous vocal prowess or the band's impressive back-pocket playing, but also because the songs are astoundingly good.

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