Damn those Brits. For decades, they’ve been seizing our music, inserting ingredients of their own, and sending it back to us — in new and sometimes improved versions of what they borrowed. You can trace the practice back to the Beatles and Stones, of course, but recent history shows the British just won’t let up. Craig David and his producers construct unruffled R&B smoother than that of his competition here. Mike Skinner (a.k.a. the Streets) has freshened up hip-hop. The Coral, for better and often worse, want to be the Phish of the British Isles.
Now comes Ms. Dynamite, the 21-year-old once known as Niomi McLean-Daley who emerged from London’s dance community last year to become the toast of her town. Her debut, A Little Deeper, beat out the Streets and David Bowie to snag the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize for album of the year. Now the disc is being released in this country by the same label that gave us Eminem and 50 Cent, with the hope that she’ll connect with the American record-buying public in ways many quintessentially British acts (Robbie Williams, say) haven’t.
While it’s too early to predict, Ms. Dynamite stands a fairly good chance. Her music taps into many styles, from dancehall to hip-hop, but ”A Little Deeper” takes most of its cues from our retro-soul movement. After a brief intro, the first full-length track is ”Dy-na-mi-tee,” a flitty novelty that presents her as an updated Spice Girl (and which Ms. Dynamite has denounced in recent interviews, saying the song makes her sound cutesy). That trifle out of the way, she settles on a more somber approach for the rest of the album. Her pinched, murmured singing style recalls that of Erykah Badu and Angie Stone; her combination of simmering groove and PC message is potent enough to make Lauryn Hill very nervous. But rather than sound like a pale imitation, Ms. Dynamite comes across as her own person. The muted, melancholy ”Brother” and the sputtering declaration of romantic independence, ”Sick ‘n’ Tired” (with its kicky ”U can kiss the kitty kitty bum bye-bye” riposte), have the ubstantial melodies and rhythmic twists lacking on too many new-soul albums. With those discs, she shares a degree of humorless self-importance; at times, the album could use a little bit more of the youthful zest of ”Dy-na-mi-tee.” But she also benefits tremendously from her background in dance and hip-hop. Musically, she’s rarely as stodgy as her American peers.
Again and again, Ms. Dynamite wants us to rethink what a diva is — and isn’t — supposed to do. In her native country, she’s known for her activism: appearing at antiwar rallies, donating money to research sickle-cell anemia, and reportedly taking potshots at ”Pop Idol” (the hit TV series on which ”American Idol” was based). Although she addresses the tired topic of scrubs on ”Put Him Out,” she clearly feels R&B queens are supposed to tackle more than just wardrobe concerns. Addressing the ”cold, cold world of war” amid the zigzagging strings and crunchy beats of ”Afraid 2 Fly,” she manages to be both mournful and uplifting. On ”It Takes More,” her target is gangsta rap, in particular its impresarios. But instead of dissing them the predictable way — by offering uplascivious talk a la Lil’ Kim or Foxy Brown — she zings what she sees as the genre’s disturbing, cash-driven hypocrisy. ”Tell me how many Africans died 4 the baguettes on your Rolex?” is not your standard dig, just as the song’s loopy effects aren’t conventional either. (Is that an accordion in there?)
It’s unfortunate that such innovations don’t permeate the entire album. Like Craig David, Ms. Dynamite seems happy to pad ”A Little Deeper” with a few examples of suave, heartsick R&B. Tracks like ”Anyway U Want It” and ”All I Ever” aren’t radically different from what you might encounter on mainstream urban-music radio, although one of these cuts, the indignant ”Now U Want My Love,” has some real backbone. (Then there’s her rather lame moniker: How many albums will it take before she deeply regrets not using her full name?) But in the forceful way she seeks to tweak and reinvigorate R&B, Ms. Dynamite wants to make you think and shake some action, preferably at the same time. Again, the nerve of the British: Why haven’t we thought of that yet?