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Youssou N'Dour

  • Nelson Mandela [Polydor, 1986] B
  • Immigrés [Virgin, 1988] B+
  • The Lion [Virgin, 1989] B+
  • Set [Virgin, 1990] A-
  • Eyes Open [Columbia, 1992] B+
  • The Guide (Wommat) [Chaos/Columbia, 1994] Neither
  • Lii! [Jololi, 1996] A-
  • Best of 80's [Celluloid, 1998] A-
  • Joko (The Link) [Nonesuch, 2000] A-
  • Nothing's in Vain (Coono du réér) [Nonesuch, 2002] A
  • 7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]
  • Egypt [Nonesuch, 2004]
  • Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) [Nonesuch, 2007] A
  • I Bring What I Love [Nonesuch, 2010] A-
  • Dakar-Kingston [Universal/EmArcy, 2010] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Nelson Mandela [Polydor, 1986]
One NME raver cites Einstürzende Neubauten, which may not turn everybody on but does imply Eurocentrism subjected to underdevelopment and its discontents. I hear a gifted singer making a choppy crossover move. The horns recall the pretentious big-band clutter Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro worked up for a fading Wilson Pickett, and the tama drum is so far up in the mix it tapdances on the groove. N'Dour's high Islamo-Cuban cry and crack Afro-Gallic byplay generate plenty of intrinsic interest, but only on the simple little "Magninde" do they avoid fragmented overconceptualization. If you say it's ethnographic condescension to prefer the more organic effects of Immigrés (Celluloid import), I say it's reflexive progressivism to claim that nobody ever trips going forward--or that every African pop star is a moral force. B

Immigrés [Virgin, 1988]
Cut in Paris in 1984 and now wisely remixed, this isn't as epochal as N'Dour thought it was when he wrote the title tune to his displaced Afro-Gallic brothers and sisters. Just a sample of what happens to soukous when West Africans mix in their own beats (and, especially in the horn lines, their Islamic melodies). And of how beautiful his voice is when he isn't trying too hard. B+

The Lion [Virgin, 1989]
Produced by Peter Gabriel henchman George Acogny, this is no more a rhythm album than whatever Gabriel opus you care to recall. It's just a very good Peter Gabriel record. Gabriel's m.o. is to pump up rock and "third-world" sonorities with grandiose settings and structures, then put them across with a big beat; N'Dour's arrangements are less forced, his beats indigenous enough, and his lyrics better. Sure there are old saws ("Truth will always win against deceit," "You should help those with less than you"), and "Macoy," a compassionate vignette of lost virginity concealed, is overwhelmed by its portentous synth-wash-and-percussion accompaniment. But when N'Dour, who's put down as a "ladies" singer by some Senegalese (men, presumably), advises his four-year-old daughter to follow her "destiny," or collaborates with Gabriel on a feminist anthem you can believe in, I think his quest for fame could be as humanitarian as corporate one-worlders claim. And when he's inspired to write a song about a slavery museum in Africa, the NASA museum in Washington, and his favorite, "the museum town of Old Tucson," his ambition--to grasp the past, change the future, and master the very media to which he's been subject by accident of national origin for most of his young life--suddenly seems heroic. B+

Set [Virgin, 1990]
After five years of struggle he creates . . . a pop record, damn it, a pop record from Senegal and noplace but: 13 shortish songs replete with catchy intros, skillful bridges, concise solos, hooks. Americans should find them emotionally accessible with the help of a trot and musically accessible with no help at all: try "Toxiques," ecology the third-world way, or "Alboury," a list of progenitors you never heard of. As for aura, say he sounds like a citizen who knows exactly what he wants and exactly how to get it. Say occasionally the tama is too hectic and the horns are too hackneyed. Say everything is beautiful anyway. That exotic enough for you? A-

Eyes Open [Columbia, 1992]
The arranged rock song may be slipping beyond the reach of white men. In a context defined by Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson, even a talent like Freedy Johnston risks sounding smug by association, while many women--Sinéad O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Laurie Anderson--escape the taint. So does Living Colour. And so does N'Dour, whose mbalax commitments mitigate any conceptual link to studio-rock. On 14 songs that once would have required double vinyl, he strikes an African tone far from pop's confessionals and attempted empathy. Directing matter-of-fact moral warnings at the powerful and the disenfranchised like the griot he might have been, he's confident of his social function as he tours the world. And for all that the set-piece stiffness seems as outmoded in America as it must seem modern in Senegal. Since N'Dour usually sings in Wolof, the lyric sheet is a necessity. But I wish once in a while I could do without it. B+

The Guide (Wommat) [Chaos/Columbia, 1994] Neither

Lii! [Jololi, 1996]
Global conquest hasn't come easy, so it's a good thing N'Dour was smart enough and a smart thing he was good enough to stay in Dakar. This isn't the rough rhythming of his youth--he's pop-wise now and always will be. You can hear Jean Philip Rykiel's gelatinous Clavier, Cheikh Lô's rival voice. But as N'Dour and Lô both know, there are no rival voices--not really, not with this much clarity, power, ductility, serration. And as N'Dour understands far better than any other Senegalese, tunes are a boon. Here they connect more unfailingly than on any of his U.S. releases, with rhythming to spare. Move over, Tony Toni Toné. He is the world. A-

Best of 80's [Celluloid, 1998]
Not a reissue, or anyway not an '80s reissue, this comprises 1995's Senegal-only Dikkaat and 1997's Senegal-only St. Louis, which in turn comprise a dozen songs supposedly composed (and recorded?) in the '80s, although none of my sources has unearthed them all. I own two: the strictly indigenous title song of Etoile de Dakar's Thiapotholy, and a David Sancious stinker buried at the tail end of The Lion. The former reemerges cleaner, faster, and more professional, none of which are necessarily positives; I'll take the rock sonics of renegade guitarist Badou N'Diaye over Jimmy Mbaye's lithe new jack lines any day. But the latter is improved so much it's almost unrecognizable, rougher and shapelier simultaneously. Everywhere guitars, horns, and tama drums interact with sharper punch and tighter pizzazz than in his wild dance music or his crossover set pieces. And sometimes--I'd single out "Xarit," "Diambar," and the unabashedly beautiful "Njaajaan Njaay"--the songwriting is even more inspired than the playing. A-

Joko (The Link) [Nonesuch, 2000]
Half a decade minding his own business in Dakar has flexed his fusion--every one of these tracks breathes, bends, follows flow. The synthmelt and fancy layering with which he once made nice now subject one-worlders' cosmic creature comforts to a specifically Senegalese technological elegance--and reality. The endlessly gorgeous "Birima" honors the elders with a melody for the ages, "Medemba" defends a beleaguered union boss. And even when he's testing world's most ductile ballad pipes you can feel him getting you ready to dance, dance, dance. A-

Nothing's in Vain (Coono du réér) [Nonesuch, 2002]
Missing any metallic mbalax edge as Jean-Philippe Rykiel squished around in the background, I mistook this for a variation on the fusion compromises of N'Dour's Columbia years. In fact it's an acoustic roots move--hardly a conceptual coup, only often they work. As I've said before and will say again, Super Étoile are the best band in the world. But their function on record is to showcase a heroic voice that gains stature from its willingness to serve the band. Here the voice just serves the songs--the melodies are the most fetching of N'Dour's career, and the roots he embraces include a Parisian chanson he floats through trailing accordion and percussion. First time he reached one of those English-language homilies he always founders on, I cringed. But here "so much to do and so much to give today" are words to live by. A

7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]
An awkwardly conceived recap of N'Dour's '90, '92, and '94 crossover albums, with 2000's Joko also well represented but the '84, '86, or '89 attempts mysteriously passed over. Scanning its titles, you might wonder how many songs he recorded in English, as Columbia hopes. But though English lyrics are commoner than usual--notably the Neneh Cherry title collab--for the most part this is Wolof moralizing as hooky and guitaristic as N'Dour can stand. The low points are "Undecided (Japoulo)," recorded with Euro-American musicians in Dakar, and a mercifully suppressed rendition of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." The previously unreleased-in-America "Please Wait" and "Don't Look Back" are much better, as is the live "Set." But if you're interested in his crossover tendency, which certainly repays the attention, better to swallow it in album form on Set or Eyes Open. [Recyclables]

Egypt [Nonesuch, 2004]
See: Facing Mecca.

Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) [Nonesuch, 2007]
Unlike the two previous Nonesuch albums by Africa's premier pop star--the 2002 ecumenical, the 2005 Muslim--this isn't designed to inspire conversion experiences. But believe that its melodicism and vocal dexterity exceed those of whatever contemporary standard-bearer you favor in those realms, that the clarity and range of the singing epitomize what is usually meant by beauty, and that at 48 this Sufihas got him some beats. Having long realized that crossover was most gracefully accomplished by conceptual clarity, he keeps things organized this time out by tending to business at home. On half the tracks a banjo-like ngoni, which this being Senegal N'dour designates a xalam, gestures toward the Malian desert directly to his north, imparting a capering intricacy and folkish flavor to what remains Dakar dance music. To most Americans, however, it will probably just sound like Africa, and pretty darn good. A

I Bring What I Love [Nonesuch, 2010]
The leader of the world's greatest band has never released a true live album in this country, including this spinoff from the reverential, revealing documentary of the same name. It's softer-edged than his shows, more suasion than arousal or declamation, with percussion quieter and synths gooeyer. That said, it's a keeper and maybe even an entry point. Distributing selections discreetly from across his catalog and underlining his good intentions with translations, the main thing it is is beautiful. I can't imagine owning too many versions of "Birima." A-

Dakar-Kingston [Universal/EmArcy, 2010]
Produced by Bob Marley's former and his own current sideman Tyrone Downie, his reggae sounds a mite mechanical, with tama drum touches reminding us what might be ("Don't Walk Away," "Bamba"). *

See Also