Great music is often made by people with a real story to tell. This is certainly true when it comes to Nigeria-born, Germany-based singer Nneka Egbuna. Having relocated to Hamburg at the age of 18 to pursue her musical career, Nneka’s music is steeped in soul and draws on her strong feelings for her homeland combining both the personal, the political and the spiritual.
Nneka’s first two albums Victim Of Truth and No Longer At Ease established her as one of modern soul music’s classiest performers. Her third album Soul Is Heavy carries on that deeply soulful sound, combining it with some of her most fiercely intelligent songs and cutting lyrics.
Nneka’s sound can loosely be described as neo soul in the vein of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. It’s a melting pot of lots of disparate musical styles. Soul Is Heavy is predominately a soul pop record but in that mix are touches of reggae dancehall, dance pop, hip-hop, rock and frequent African rhythms. Nneka cites Bob Marley and Fela Kuti as inspirations and the influence of both can be heard throughout Soul Is Heavy, both musically and in its revolutionary spirit.
The album begins with the strident dancehall rhythms of Lucifer (No Doubt), which immediately introduces the theme of spirituality and redemption. The first half of the album indeed comprises a number of hard-hitting RnB tracks. With an emphasis on the anthemic and uplifting, Sleep features Ms Dynamite with a typically vibrant verse, and My House’s gloriously exuberant horn blasts are truly stirring.
Themes of the album include Nneka questioning her place in the world and the struggles of a modern society. My House’s chorus finds her asking: “Where do I go? When this world forsakes me, who do I turn to?” She finds some answer in the comforts of home, which she calls “my beginning, my middle, my end”.
Unfortunately, the album cannot quite sustain the quality of its striking opening half. Part of the problem is length. Clocking in at over an hour and featuring 15 tracks, Soul Is Heavy is overlong and at times overwrought. It always sounds immaculately crafted and Nneka’s wonderfully malleable and dextrous voice is hugely impressive, yet some of the melodies fail to catch fire despite the always-interesting lyrical content.
The best moments in the second half of the album are more restrained and understated. The lilting acoustic soul of Do You Love Me Know is particularly affecting and the almost flamenco shuffle of V.I.P., which sees Nneka raging at the “Vagabond In Power”, is subtly engaging.
Soul Is Heavy certainly cannot be accused of lacking depth as the album flits from soulful pop to hard-edged hip-hop to dancehall reggae workouts. Album highlight God Knows Why featuring Black Thought from The Roots is a return to the powerful sound of the album’s opening and its rumbling primal hip-hop groove is stunningly executed, Nneka’s pleading voice perfectly complementing Black Thought’s rhymes.
There is much to recommend in Nneka’s third album, though if it was slightly shorter it could be considered a great album rather than merely a good one. But it is another example of Nneka’s brilliance as a contemporary soul singer who has something to say.