Neneh Cherry is a folk heroine for female MC’s. She made the pop charts just a bit smarter in the late 1980s with her fantastic brand of hip-hop music that owed just as much to dance-club music, jazz, and alternative rock. Unfortunately, she never earned the commercial success that her brilliant debut album Raw Like Sushi deserved, and she was forced to be content to be a cult artist. She released two more studio albums including the 1996 Man, which included a smash hit duet with Youssou N’Dour “7 Seconds.” In the years since, she worked with various musical collectives including CirKus and The Thing. Finally, she’s back with a new studio record, Blank Project, and it’s fantastic return for one of pop music’s most ingenious, if unfairly obscure performers.
Since her brief time on the top of the pop charts, music has changed, and Cherry doesn’t seem terribly interested in chasing trends. Instead she’s put together an austere collection of songs. Similar to Beyoncé’s latest effort, Cherry is happy to indulge in an eccentric artistry that eschews radio-friendly hooks for something more interesting. The beats are there – and at times she’s reminiscent of the dance diva that spit rhymes in the 1989 classic “Buffalo Stance.” And though it’s a bit of a stretch to call Blank Project a dance record, she keeps an eye on the dance floor with some of the tunes, including the brisk “Dossier” that boasts dub-step influences, and ghostly chimes that might remind listeners of Faithless’ immortal hit “Insomnia.” She reaches another club high with “Weightless” that also allows for the singer’s interest in alternative music with buzzy synths and jangly drums.
At other points of the record, she reinvents herself as a trip-hop artist. On the languid, churning “Spit Three Times” Cherry uses her clear, soulful voice over lethargic synths and a looping drum. And with the stunning “Cynical” Cherry sings over scattered beats, military band percussion, and samples, before indulging in some light rapping.
And though dance artist Robyn is featured on “Out of the Black” the two singers perform on a pretty straightforward pop/rock number instead of a raver. On the slower numbers, Cherry’s jazz influences creep through in her phrasing (her stepdad was jazz trumpeter great Don Cherry). But her beautiful voice – light and prehensile – hasn’t aged since she prayed for the plight of the inner-city in the 1989 hit “Man Child.” Her lyrics are also introspective and personal, and slightly sad and ominous. And the production is airy and sparse, a far cry from the crowded, textured sounds from her previous releases. At times the album feels unfinished, as if Cherry and her producer Four Tet could go back later and add some more instrumentation. It’s a loose-feeling album that sounds like an impromptu jam session, instead of a result of painstaking work (the record was reportedly recorded in less than a week and it sounds it). But what the end result is a startlingly creative work. Instead of radio-ready melodies and hummable formulaic tunes, Cherry has put together a collection of pop experiments. Each song is a thrilling reminder of just how talented Neneh Cherry is, and Blank Project is a welcome return.