A 50’s bouffant hairstyle like the late Winehouse’s, a hoarser Duffy-like voice and a sound that reminds us of the former refugee Lauryn Hill. All of the above is contained inside the first studio album by a twenty-two-year-old Belgian girl called Sanne Putseys, better known by her stage name Selah Sue. Surely is she talented, but indeed she did make good use a little bit of luck.
A barely twenty Selah takes her songs, written between her 13 and 19 years, around Belgium, a country that, even if it promotes incomparable events like Pukkelpop, is not the international music headquarters at all. Between 2008 and 2010 she takes part in some festivals, some talent contests, but the big break doesn’t seem to come. In 2010, as luck would have it, Prince, who lately has been really enjoying putting himself in the talent scout’s shoes (for example, Diane Birch and Janelle Monae), would have been popping out to Anversa by chance: it’s love at first sight. It only takes her being involved in the opening act for the Belgium date of one of the most important american star to find herself thrown to the top chart position, surrounded by big fishes whom she would never thought she could have ever worked with.
The collaborations start from the first track, This World. The sensual bass by Christhoper Meredith, bass player for the historical album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, drags the not too fast verse bpm to the richer chorus, where finally a wind orchestra can explode.
I would have not been surprised if Peace Of Mind had been a b-side from the album The Score, an absolute masterpiece by Fugees. Selah Sue is a very green Lauryn in this merely hip hop track. All the 90’s we loved are there: a drum that sounds like a beatbox, a mc and a vocalist that switch and challenge themselves, all perfectly directed by a dj who plays, rewinds, mixes, has fun with filters and teaches us what the hip hop was before getting its hands dirty in the mainstream.
Deprived of the unnecessary and weak intro for the older version included within the EP Black Part Love, Ragamuffin becomes an amazing forerunner. For the first released single the Belgian singer brings out the best Jamaican sound a white face could ever do. We hear her changing her accent, wear a new skin, a black one. Selah’s muffin differs (and not so little) from the standard dancehall, embracing a more acoustic and pure reggae sound aspect. We recognize it by the short intro on the radio, where her voice is almost only accompanied by the acoustic guitar with no artificial reverb effect, as it often happens during her live perfomances (an intro where, necessarily, the mid-high frequencies lord it). We want to sing it again and again and till the end.
Judging by the vocoder in Crazy Vibes, it seems impossible that its author was only 5 years old when my generation was literally consuming the first self-titled album by Blackstreet. After the smartest ones would have recognized an (involuntary?) quote from Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing for the initial slide in Black Part Love, the track n.5 gives a little room for a series of ballads, bringing what we can describe as the dance part of the album to an end.
Although every single track displays Selah Sue’s skill as an interpreter, the tension recreated by the fifth chromatic scale variation by the organ in Please, preciously featuring the former Gnarls Barkley Cee Lo Green, is the only real positive thing about the four ballads which bring us to a more introspective dimension that perhaps Selah, due to her young age, is not yet so mature to explore. Neither the Meshell Ndegeoncello’s masterly ear, supervising the recording and mixing process for Mommy, is able to save the track from quite expected arpeggios and from a tear-jerking lyric dedicated to a very sweet mother (as usual in songs). In 1996 the Spice Girls sang “Mama, I love you”. Surely Selah can do better.
Actually she already did it. An obvious question would be why Break, the best turned-out ballad in the Black Part Love EP, wasn’t included in this series of touching (really?) slow tracks. Same thing is for Explanations and Summertime. Open chords in easy beach strumming style or romantic arpeggios, filled with some violin or piano notes here and there: nothing really remarkable. The soporific impact would have been less palpable had those tracks been “blended” among the others. A big mistake, really, in terms of tracklist.
Luckily enough Crazy Sufferin Style brings the rhythm back. The reggae-style guitar and an out-of-context as well as really effective steel drum give it a Jamaican flavor. The album gets to its key moment just towards the end. The last but one track, Fyah Fyah, is a little gem, a delicate r&b that is strongly influenced by the queen of the nu soul, Eryka Badu. The misspelled diction shows Selah’s confidence with this genre. Two guitars, an acoustic and an electric one, with Hendrix resonances here and more funky there, have a conversation within the most beautiful track on the album. Stealing here and there from the best 90’s r&b productions, Selah’s voice is a skilled fire-eater playing with fire (the fyah, in slang), being miraculously able not to get burn.
The album closes up in the attempt to explore a much more electronic direction. Just because I do is much more spoken than sang, her voice is often dubbed, the melody repeats itself again and again as it almost was a hybrid trip hop in alienating Tricky style.
So the question comes naturally: when one collaborates with producer and artists as big as the ones Selah met during her path, is it still possible to fail? How much is there of the young Belgian girl and how much of the professionals who guided her step by step in the making of this album? We’ll wait and see for the next few years if this angel face is able to walk on her own feet.
Italian to English translation: Umberto del Giudice
Thumbs up for: This World, Ragamuffin, Fyah Fyah
Thumbs down for: Mommy, Explanations, Summertime
SELAH SUE – SELAH SUE
Prodotto da: Because Music (Indie label)
1. This World
2. Peace of Mind
4. Crazy Vibes
5. Black Part Love
8. Please (ft. Cee Lo Green)
10. Crazy Sufferin Style
11. Fyah Fyah
12. Just Because I Do