It ain't easy being easy listening. With a voice that's smoother than satin undergarments and equally as alluring, the Nigerian born Helen Folsade Adu to an African father and English mother has the dubious honor of being one of the few mixed-race vocalists in a genre that tolerates camouflaged ethnicity but has clearly drawn divisions along color lines. Sade has been both heralded and knocked for her ability to craft contemporary soul-pop safe for the Crate & Barrel set, musical sophisticates that like their aural wallpaper to be as rich as vanilla ice cream.
But there's a big difference in being a fair-skinned lady with a velvety voice and an ethnically mixed artist. And it's a distinction perfectly explained by Chris Rock earlier this year when he was on Larry King Live. The merry inquisitor asked Rock if he liked the British pop diva Dido, and Rock, who used to pen some crafty music writing for the Village Voice back in the day, responded by saying, "Yeah, I like Dido. I liked her when she was Lisa Stansfield. I liked her when she was Basia."
There's simply something a little off about vaguely black-sounding European white women. It's not necessarily a knock, but it's not unbridled support, either. When Whitney Houston or Anita Baker digs deep into vocal pyrotechnics, you know it's coming out of a gospel tradition. And when Dido or Stansfield borrows the vocabulary for polished pop, you know it's none too different than the Stones' "appropriating" the blues boogie of "Prodigal Son" on Beggars Banquet.
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The many human mutts that this modern coil has produced, however, often feel they live with one foot in one parent's culture, the opposite foot in the other camp, while their daily lives unfold in a limbo someplace else. It doesn't matter if that mix is racial or if it's more subtle, as children of Jewish and Catholic parents undoubtedly know. Though Sade shies away from interviews and hasn't addressed that issue directly, it's a tension of cultures that percolates through her music nonetheless.
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Sade's sound is more like a curry. Her delivery is as delicate as Astrud Gilberto. Her phrasing can be as agile as Billie Holiday. Her tone can be as musky as Dinah Washington or as spunky as Magali Noël. And thanks to her longtime collaborators and band mates Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul S. Denman, there are accents of contemporary music's motley stew in the mix as well. For her latest, Lover's Rock, Sade and company have made that two-word title a veritable blueprint. Sade's strength has always been romantic, smoky ballads, but this latest album finds the backing musicians stirring up a tapestry ripe with more rhythmic textures and strummed guitars that's as close as they've ever flirted with conventional rock proper. And while this sort of brew may not be au courant hipsters' cup of tea, it's as classy as pop gets these days.