October 31, 2008

Shortcuts—Nora Casey

[img id="76909" align="alignleft"] Nas said it right: Hip-hop is dead. You can kick it, poke it, and light a fire under its limp corpse, but the genre is about as comatose as Mariah Carey’s career. While Nas tries to pump oxygen into his unresponsive art form, a self-proclaimed “Funky White Bitch” by the name of Domenica Costa—Nikka, if you’re nasty—wholeheartedly revives a genre that Teenie Marie defined: blue-eyed soul.

When a “little white girl” was scheduled to open for Erykah Badu in her triumphant 2001 tour, it was clear that either one of Badu’s children was being held for ransom or Costa really was the Funky White Bitch that she confidently declared herself to be. Singing an array of selections from her debut album, Everybody Got Their Something, Costa was so well received that she was almost always persuaded by the crowd to play a longer set than scheduled. Seven years and a sophomore album later, Costa is still humping microphones and crooning above a live band to an urban audience screaming, “You go girl,” as if she were one of their own.

Pebble to a Pearl has been hyped as Nikka’s triumphant return to the music scene after a three-year hiatus and her boldest, most personal record yet. That last part may be a bit of an exaggeration, as the lyrics on this album are as broad and general as those on Alicia Keys’s As I Am. But the album’s mix of soul, funk, blues, and pop gives Pebble to a Pearl all of the ingredients necessary for the revival of soul. Nikka leaves all of her musical inhibitions behind, pursuing an even funkier and more soulful sound than before.

Like B-sides to a Joss Stone record, “Cry Baby” and the current single “Stuck to You” feature bass that lays the groundwork, horns that fill in the crevices, and a soulful voice that makes this house a home, bringing the funk better than Stone ever could. The high-energy “Can’t Please Everybody” telegraphs the spirit of the album in the song’s title, which it drills into your head about as frequently as Britney in “Gimme More.” Costa gives us a dash of the blues in “Love to Love You Less” and “Loving You,” the former a sexy, slinky piece that fits the singer like her signature skin-tight jeans, the latter a melodramatic, soulfully sensual reenactment in music of what Costa does to her microphone during performances.

Costa even essays a protest song in the album’s last track, “Bullets in the Sky.” “Where’s the God in that?” Costa asks those who remain quiet and allow others to make decisions for them in a track that fuses all of the above-mentioned genres into an anti-war diatribe. In its own way, the song encapsulates the broader theme of the album. The title of Pebble to a Pearl suggests more than Costa’s musical liberation: It implies personal growth and the freedom to express yourself however you choose.

—Emale Gray