If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that mainstream American music can be subverted in many suprising and subtle ways. Sure, the bestselling artist in the nation right now may be the vanilla-voiced, bland-as-bread Taylor Swift, but just take a look at Rolling Stone's 100 best singles of the 2000s. It's a list dominated by massively successful outbursts of eccentric pop genius: "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, "Hey Ya!" by Outkast, "Paper Planes" by MIA, and on and on. All huge commercial hits, but each, in their own wonderful ways, really rather odd.
And it is this America that stands ready to welcome an unlikely pop hero called Nneka and her album Concrete Jungle. It switches through smoky blues, biting rap, and howling soul without missing a beat. But it also has something extra, something you don't normally hear in the US charts: the sounds of unfamiliar cultures and places. With a Nigerian father and German mother, Nneka spent her childhood in Africa before moving to Europe to study aged 19. This transcontinental journey has given her both an impassioned political perspective and an unusual set of musical influences. And now Nneka arrives on these shores to promote a record packed with more pop hooks than the Jackson 5 dressed in Velcro.
"Uncomfortable Truth" has an insanely catchy chorus built on big brass stabs and Nneka's multitracked vocals. The awesome "Walking" is fuelled by a monster stomp in the style of Kayne West's "Jesus Walks" (a link made even more explicit in Nneka's recent mixtape with J.Period, which adds samples from Kayne's track to Nneka's). In contrast, "Come With Me," is all stripped-down understatement, featuring just Nneka's voice, acoustic guitar, and a strange, almost subliminal beat stuttering underneath. The mellow roll of "Suffri" is an excellent example of how a simple idea (Nneka's repeated "jeh-jeh, jeh-jeh" backing refrain) can transform a relatively ordinary track into something truly special. And elsewhere you get British-style trip-hop ("Mind vs. Heart" and "God of Mercy"), Fugees-era Lauren Hill ("Showin' Love"), and even the unmistakeable ghost of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the guitar hook of "Focus." Each disparate reference point is as joyful as it is unexpected.
The album isn't perfect, particularly its one or two less substantial pop moments ("Africans," "From Africa 2 U"), but overall it comes packed with an almost unreasonable ratio of killer tunes. Of course, one reason so many tracks sound like potential hits might be because most of them already are. Concrete Jungle is a collection of songs from Nneka's past European releases, dating back to her debut EP in 1995. But, as this is her first official Stateside release, why shouldn't she go ahead and unleash every musical weapon in her armory? The American chart can be an unforgiving place for outsiders, after all. Unless, of course, they happen to be just a little bit different.