Born in Nigeria, raised in Germany, Nneka has gone in many directions over the course of her relatively young career: through soukous-tinged African pop, roots reggae, stripped-down acoustic folk and more ornately jazzy stylings, all of them imbued with a fearless political sensibility. She sings her aphoristic, terse lyrics in a fervent voice that rises to a gritty, almost otherwordly wail when she goes up the scale. The effect is both ancient and in the here and now. She has a new album, My Fairy Tales – streaming at Spotify – and a show at the Mercury on June 23 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $15.
Nneka’s English is better than the songs on the album might have you believe (she titled her second album No Longer at Ease, after the classic Chinua Achebe postcolonial novel). And the songs are a stylistic grab bag, possibly due to having traipsed from studio to studio in making the album. This time out, her lyrics are more skeletal and opaque – several of them in her native dialect -and the revolutionary sensibility both more general than specific, and further in the background. The opening track, Believe System is something of a mashup of Afropop, roots reggae and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Babylon builds a hard funk backdrop around some lively mid-70s SW-style riffage.
The reggae-lite My Love, My Love goes deeper into its roots on the reprise that follows it, while Local Champion works a trippy, techy vibe with layers of blippy keys. Pray for You takes a disco groove backwards from cold teens electronics to a biting, guitar-fueled 70s vibe. Surprise veers between a propulsive soca bounce and electro-reggae, while the morose impoverishment tale Book of Job is an attempt to make a roots song out of samples and cheap keyb settings. And the last song sounds like it was assembled with Garageband in somebody’s bedroom. On one hand, it’s authentically African – this is what people do when all there is to work with is a secondhand dollarstore Casio. On the other, Nneka is an artist with ostensible label backing and access to topflight recording situations and gear. But she’s also a charismatic performer with a strong back catalog and the ability to transcend the limitations of these recordings onstage.