Ledisi Young’s artistry represents that ever important intersection of black American music. Her story began in New Orleans (her city of birth) and continued in San Francisco. With a name taken from a Yoruba word that basically means “to bring forth”, Ledisi’s music came along at a time not only extremely friendly to black female vocalists. But also when jazz was becoming a very prominent aspect of black American music again. After releasing two albums independently in the early aughts, she signed with Verve Forecast later and released her third album Lost & Found ten years ago this coming August 28th.
Its an album that I heard half a decade after its release however. 2007-2010 was such a crossroads of the soul/R&B/funk world. Hip-hop based music had become the mainstream rather than the underground. And classic funk and soul instrumental approaches-from jazzy 70’s styles to electronic 80’s ones. And from that,many new hybrids were entering that expanded the natural oriented neo soul sound already in progress. Ledisi’s music was a prime example of this when she finally got major label attention. And this got reflected when I reviewed the album on Amazon.com several years ago.
Well it’s the 21’st century and it’s all too easy to become extremely cynical about any kind of art. As the Barenaked Ladies once mused it does seem like it’s all been done. So basically,in a world fraught with that sort of creative fragmentation as modern soul/funk the best thing anyone can hope to do is come upon new ideas without struggling too hard to try. Usually this sort of process works best if it happens organically. And after a number of failed tries on small labels Ledisi emerges on the normally jazz oriented Verve Forecast label.
Then she released an album that got so much of peoples attention that many people,including myself until very recently assumed was her debut album. It isn’t. But that’s important because it shows signs of strong artist development. And that’s on the verge of becoming a lost art in a world of “get-them-record-quick-so-we-can-get-them-a-reality-show” sort of ethic. Whatever the case this native of Oakland,already famous for it’s Black Panthers,Pointer Sisters and Tower Of Power is more than capable as a singer/songwriter here and fills herself out with showstoppers.
Musically one might say this album follows something of an aural concept. Avoiding the usual “retro-neo” soul approach of beginning the album and/or song with a record player being turned on and vinyl scratching this starts out with more the flavor of a jazz record,with “Been Here” beginning and closing out the album with the effect of applause for the atmosphere. And indeed that’s what this album is basically about. Jazzy,swinging and very funky midtempo numbers with some tricky melodic chord changes from “Joy”,”You & Me”,”Alright”,”Thinking Of You”,”In The Morning”,”The One” and “Someday”.
All of these numbers obviously had Sade and D’Angelo in mind to some degree. Yet Ledisi’s style of songwriting is informed more by jazz and gospel than hip-hop,bringing her lyrics about the joys and concerns of life some extra soul than it was even meant to have. When she gets more on the however we’re treated to some of the highest quality funk of this era. On “Best Friend” and “Get To Know You” both blend strong writing with chunky rhythmic grooves. “Upside Down” does the best job of this though with it’s use of bass keyboards for some jazz oriented descending chord changes-one of the most successful channeling of the often used Stevie Wonder style of writing.
That’s because she knows right where that style of writing is coming from. On the title song we have the only true ballad on the entire album,just Ledisi and the piano for the most part again delivering a passionate lyric and vocal. This is one of those people who genuinely does deserve all of the praise that’s been sent her way. And that’s true when it seems most musical sensations are based more in hype than talent. You’d literally have to hear the music before deciding weather these people are worthy of all their praise. Sadly that may have been part of what kept me at arms length with Ledisi.
Especially with female R&B/soul/funk vocalists there’s a lot of what I’d call synthetic commercialism involved. So when a new such individual emerges as “the next big thing” I’ll tend to ignore it. In the end,out of about ten of these artists that are heavily praised only about half of them will actually live up to it. Ledisi for sure is one of them. And it’s an important reminder to enjoy such people while they are so praised because,in a moment they could be as easily forgotten as they were remembered. Hopefully that won’t happen with this. But enjoy her great writing and great grooves for what they are regardless.
The career of Ledisi only continued to increase in scope. In addition to recording a handful of diverse albums since then,she also began collaborating with contemporary jazz innovator Robert Glasper. She also turned to acting-especially in portraying the Gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the 2014 movie Selma. While the sociological backdrop of contemporary black American musicians continues to face both its external and internal challenges,artists as strong and rooted as Ledisi are always worthy of any props given to them. And the Lost & Found album was truly the beginning of her period of greatest success and recognition.