As the many sounds of world music bang on America’s cauled and uncaring ears, there is probably nobody more frustrated than Youssou N’Dour. A Senegalese pop sensation by the time he was 16, a hit maker in Paris by the mid-’80s, long championed by U.S. critics as ”the next Bob Marley” (a kiss of death if ever there was one), this immensely talented, equally ambitious singer-songwriter-bandleader has tried any number of ways to cross over to English-speaking listeners. After the mild fiasco of 1989’s The Lion — which was made with the help of patron Peter Gabriel and sounds mostly like a substandard Gabriel album — N’Dour turned around and delivered 1990’s incredible Set: short, super-confident, a perfect melding of Top 40 form and exotic content. And still nobody listened; discouraged, his American label dropped him.
The aptly titled Eyes Open finds N’Dour, 33, spreading his stylistic wings again, this time for filmmaker/entrepreneur Spike Lee’s new record label. More relaxed and arty than Set, the album also has a tightness of focus that keeps it out of The Lion‘s flabby jaws. And it sure is ambitious: Ingredients in this brew include pop, jazz, fusion, Philly soul, rap, crunching rock, tribal drums, tight horn charts that lick like flames, gentle acoustic balladry, electronic wizardry, burbling New Age synths, snaky Muslim airs, and, on ”Yo Le Le,” a grungy Afrofunk groove with talking drums and a bass line that sounds as if it crawled from the primeval mud. It would all be showing off if N’Dour didn’t have a simple genius for melody, and if his keening, Arab-inflected voice weren’t so compelling (singing in English, French, and Wolof, he at times toys with his lyrics like a West African Van Morrison). There’s a playful new maturity at work here too, as if N’Dour had finally given up trying to figure out what Americans will or won’t like. He politely dares us to keep up with him, just as politely insisting that it’s our loss if we refuse to follow. A-