We gave it an A
Soul II Soul — whose first album, Keep On Movin’, was one of last year’s most satisfying musical sensations — isn’t exactly a band. It’s something like a brand name, identifying people who began by supplying dance music for London underground clubs. They then sold clothes and records in Soul II Soul shops, and only after that began recording music of their own.
That history might suggest that their music is purely commercial, created to capitalize on their marketing success. But as Jazzie B, the leader of the group, tells it, the truth is just the reverse. What Soul II Soul mainly markets, he likes to say, isn’t a product, but the optimistic message that lies behind the music: Black people can build institutions that nurture them and give them power.
Certainly that’s the message of ”Get a Life,” the first song on this new album, Vol. II 1990 A New Decade, and a current hit. But it’s a message that could apply to all people. ”Don’t be afraid to experiment,” Jazzie B raps in his quiet, reassuring voice. ”Go ahead and implement your ideas.” The beat is enveloping; it feels like a slow-motion caress. Children’s voices ask, ”What’s the meaning? What’s the meaning of life?” ”Free your soul,” sings a woman. ”Let your body take control.”
Other songs expand on these thoughts, sometimes loftily (as in ”1990 A New Decade”), sometimes in a more lighthearted mood (as in ”People,” where, to the pulse of a house-music beat, comments on crowds passing in the street evoke a vision of the humanity all of us share). Trust yourself, the lyrics say; trust and love others.
This album sounds more unified than Keep On Movin’, but less informal. There’s no full-scale rap number, as there was on the earlier album, and no a cappella song (though there is an instrumental cut featuring saxophonist Courtney Pine, showing that Soul II Soul’s imprint can extend even to jazz).
The group’s acclaimed singer, Caron Wheeler, is gone. But she was only one of three lead vocalists on the last album. This time there are four lead singers, all new; as a musical group, Soul II Soul functions more as a flexible collective than a band with fixed membership. Marcia Lewis sounds light and lithe. Lamya is warm, intimate, and fanciful. Kym Mazelle seems more eager than the others. Victoria Wilson-James sounds huskier and more outgoing.
There’s a cameo appearance by Fab 5 Freddie, the host of Yo! MTV Raps! But the real star of the album is Jazzie B’s beat, which sinks into your bones and embodies the band’s ideas more persuasively than words ever could. Your feet yearn to dance — and your heart feels powerful and reassured.