It's taken over a decade, but with her current CD Pink Elephant (Stax/Concord), compelling Dallas vocalist N'dambi may have finally made the breakthrough that leads to wider recognition and commercial success along with critical praise. The disc is getting strong reviews for its mix of soulful, gripping vocals, sophisticated production, and clever, cynical scenarios and lyrics.
Now on a 15-city tour that brings her to Nashville for the first time Friday at Cafe Bella, N'dambi's current situation is another example of the dilemma faced by many black performers whose music cannot be easily placed into a recognizable genre.
"If I could I would have my music presented without a category," N'dambi says. "I enjoy so many types of music and have so many influences. I don't necessarily consider myself a neo-soul artist, but I understand that the industry needs a way of presenting you to the public and getting your songs played on radio.
"If there's any artist out there whose example I'd like to follow, it's Macy Gray. She's been able to get her songs on the radio and her music produced in a fashion that doesn't detract from her voice, yet fits into today's sound."
One of three female vocalists among Stax's early signees when the label was reactivated (the others were Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway), it took almost three years from the time she inked the pact in 2006 until Pink Elephant was released last winter. While her striking contralto voice and delivery are clearly the first things that grab your attention, the studio touches provided by veteran producer Leon Sylvers III whose past clients include Shalamar, Gladys Knight, the Whispers, and Lakeside are also key ingredients.
"Leon wrote most of the arrangements and really worked with me in terms of getting the most out of my lyrics," N'dambi explained. "We weren't trying to imitate anything or anybody, but we did want to make songs we thought could get airplay, but also really reflect where I am now artistically."
The lead single "Can't Hardly Wait" is a scorching indictment of dissatisfaction and disappointment expressed with vigor toward an unreliable man. N'dambi frequently revisits the theme of duplicity, from the two-timing phony depicted in "L.I.E." to the self-deception spotlighted in "Nobody Jones," a catchy and powerful number about a woman constantly questioning herself, yet never seeking real answers to her problems.
But those tunes' dour sentiments are balanced by the sensuality and fire in the funk-tinged "Daisy Chain" and romantic "Ooo Baby," while N'dambi references her jazz roots on "The One." "The World Is a Beat" features N'dambi showing off her skills on drums, while "Mind Blowin' " pays homage via its arrangement and structure to Isaac Hayes, one of her all-time favorites.
Sylvers' subtle musical foundations continually mix and match past sounds (the bouncy foundations and electro-funk from the '80s) with contemporary aspects (hip-hop, driving beats), giving Pink Elephant ample satisfactory material for old school and 21st century urban music fans alike.
Though she cites Otis Redding, The Ohio Players, The Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers along with Hayes as prime influences, N'dambi didn't grow up regularly immersed in their tunes. Instead, she perfected her striking contralto delivery in the Baptist church that's been the laboratory for numerous masterful performers. The daughter of two ministers with very negative views about secular music, she says gospel was the dominant sound in her early life. She credits that gospel background with giving her the technical preparation for her current career.
"You learn in the church about feeling and communication through music, about the impact that music can have in people's lives," N'dambi says. "My first connection to songs and understanding the importance of lyrics and stories came through singing in the choir, so that's a key part of my life that I appreciate, even though neither of my parents wanted me to do secular music."
Yet a love of books and reading that was also cultivated during childhood led N'dambi to initially consider a career as a writer, and to earn a degree from Southern Methodist University in English and creative writing. But at the same time, she was doing session work as a background gospel vocalist, while also moving toward the world of secular music she'd previously ignored. Once she began doing theater, the transition was in full effect, and her early releases saw N'dambi exploring jazz, blues and older musical forms.
Her current style was also bolstered by a stint working as a background vocalist with Erykah Badu. N'dambi says secular music has ultimately proven a better vehicle for her work.
"With secular music you're able to tell more stories about the everyday lives of people," N'dambi says. "There are things you can say, directions you can take and ways you can utilize lyrics and music that offer me more freedom as a performer, although I'll always be grateful and thankful for the years I spent doing gospel."