Neighbourhoods, by Olu Dara
Suggested by Matt Smith
I often daydream of being rich.
I’m talking Euromillions win rich, hundreds of millions of pounds. I do enter the lottery, despite the fact that I’m adept at maths. It’s a tax on hope, buy I’m willing to chuck a few quid for the butterflies and crossed fingers. It’s nice to imagine the things I’d buy and do, the acquaintances I’d shower with my beneficence, and the enemies I’d drive to despair with my ostentatious vulgarity.
As a sort-of writer and a one-time actor, I dream that I’d fund a vanity film. I’d don the writing / directing / acting hats, and employ my friends and family in a variety of roles, In certain circumstances there’s nothing wrong with nepotism. It’d be wonderful to give my friends an “in” to the business, so to speak. And I’d certainly enjoy bossing them about.
Whenever Sarah and I watch a new film, we look for nepotism. Maybe the director has given one-line parts to her kids, or the leading actor has insisted that his make-up is done by his cousin. It’s strangely compelling, and very human. If we were in their shoes, of course we’d spread the love.
So I understand this album. Because Olu Dara is the father of multi-platinum rapper Nas. Yes, Olu Dara is a long-standing musician, having played cornet as a sideman on a variety of albums with a variety of acts, even playing on Nas’s 1994 debut, Illmatic. But it wasn’t until 1998 that he released his own album, In The World: From Natchez to New York. Neighborhoods is his second and final work.
Neighborhoods supplies Olu Dara’s apparent signature mix of jazz, blues, funk, African music and reggae. There’s a sense of storytelling here too, which I’ll get to in a minute. Musically, it’s a light, breezy, and populist affair. It’s beautiful, and never threatening, like a hardcore lean into certain styles might produce. It’s jazz but not too wacky, blues but not too morose, funk but not pimped out, reggae but no bongoverload.
It’s nice, mellow, interesting music, on which Olu Dara plays cornet and guitar. So far so good. Then Olu Dara sings, and oh my god what the hell is he doing?!
When Olu Dara opens his mouth, it becomes clear why he had an excellent career as a sideman but never got the frontman gig until (I think) his famous offspring cashed in a few favours. Firstly, his bizarre mix of partly-conversational and partly-bluesman delivery does no favours to either side of that equation. Secondly, he’s flat and atonal on more than one occasion, and thirdly, he’s so freeform and bizarre it appears that no thought at all has been put into the lyric and they simply invited a random pensioner off the street to mumble idiocy into a mic for the price of a hot meal.
It’s a shame. Some of the songs are lovely. Neighborhoods is a swirling triumph, the opener Massamba channels Futurama’s Zoidberg, and my standout Strange Things Happen Every Day is a peculiar yet endearing hard blues number with a side order of quirk. But that voice? It kicks my goodwill in the shins and runs away.
Neighborhoods gets a lukewarm 5/10. Nice music, shame about the singer.