With a fusion of Vintage stylings, and a bent for bluntly wrapped lyricism, Amy Winehouse may be modern R&B's most enveloping young star. However irritating it may be to see her on magazine pages, posing with the absolutely distasteful Kelly Osbourne, Winehouse is due considerable recognition. Such recognition is based upon the lengths taken on her recent release on Universal Records, Back to Black. The album is a glimpse that befits the passage of the African musical Diaspora as fostered by British colonialism. Lyrically, it is an ode to urban angst as told through the lens of a bold, if conflicted, young woman.
Inevitable comparisons abound for Winehouse; her voice echoes some of the preeminent Jazz and soul songstresses of the past half-century. Whether you hear glimpses of Billie Holliday or Nina Simone, or rather feel more at ease with more modern comparisons such as Mary J. Blige or Lauren Hill, this voice is both familiar and comforting. Her delicate balance of ska sendups, with early sixties soul, and more modern turns to both R&B and Hip Hop. Her understanding of the musical provenance is remarkable. It seems rare for an artist to exhibit the roots of HER musical joy in correspondence with the very genesis of such sound.
In the late fifties, Jamaican artists like Toots Hibbert and Bob Marley consumed American soul as transmitted by broadcasters as far as Miami and New Orleans that would play the latest by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Curtis Mayfield. These sounds, as bumped by street-savvy DJ entrepreneurs on robust sound systems, would influence countless musicians in Jamaica. This sound can be clearly heard in most early ska releases (particularly those on record labels owned by Leslie Kong and "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Marley's single, "Simmer Down," in particular, comes to mind.
The robust population of Jamaican expats in London undoubtedly left a mark on the local record industry. Fostered by Chris Blackwell of Island Records UK (relocated from Blackwell's native Jamaica), reggae began to influence British culture at a level far more significant than that in the US--likely due to Jamaica's colonial connection to England, and the resulting labor-related emigration of Jamaicans to Great Britain.
The entire album is worthy of your time, but several tunes left a distinct impact. "He Can Only Hold Her" opens with Curtis Mayfield "People Get Ready"-styled guitars; a piano chimes in that is reminiscent of Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)"; and in walks a marching trumpet, dressed with Winehouse's soulful throat--only to be backed by Four Tops-sounding harmonies. "Just Friends" is the most alluring of the ska-inspired tunes, while "You Know I'm No Good" is destined to become a spring anthem of urban and suburban culture alike (particularly a remix of said song that features Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Clan). Burning lyrics like "what kind of fuckery is this," ("Me and Mr. Jones") shows the modern sensibilities of a clearly brash spirit, one that can simultaneously appear confident and vulnerable, capable of burning a lover as she has been.
Plenty has been said regarding Winehouse's predilection for the drink (she readily cops to such assertions, and the single "Rehab" is no less than an admission). The earnest perspective of this album is the open window to her soul--a street-wise child treading closely above the opportunity before her. • Robert Karmin