ome time ago I referred to Zap Mama as “the African Bjork,” but I now stand corrected by Marie Daulne’s sixth album, on which she announces her candidacy for the post of Afropop’s very own Dido.
Zap Mama’s albums have always meandered into the sticky waters of saccharine pop, aided and abetted by Daulne’s evident ambition; hence the crossover collaborations with Black Thought, ?uestlove, and Michael Franti. Heretofore, however, these wet-kiss moments have been tempered by Zap’s own nomadic aesthetic and the breathy, mild-acid timbre of her voice.
Supermoon is her first album to seek the inhospitably arid, rarified environs of Top 40 airplay. Thence, presumably, the abominable “Hey Brotha,” which is like a Nina Sky cover, in a bad way, vacuous call and response set off by cringing verses from Franti about being thankful for sunshine. Who is writing these songs, melodies nearly as vapid as the execrable lyrics?*
If Zap Mama’s verses have never been profound, the ESL strangeness of her earlier lyrics at least had the latitude of interpretation—see her cooing about “virtual powers” on A Ma Zone’s “Gbo Mta,” one of her better songs. The boho-trite, sophomoric observations on the new songs collapse all interpretations into the plush cushions of a languid, fair-trade coffee shop that is Supermoon’s rightful home.
Hence the title track has all the heft of an Ashlee Simpson outtake, which is uncalled for, frankly. “Go Boy” reprises the melodic superabundance of the earlier albums, but it is all a little too close to a Sweet Honey In The Rock composition to stick, particularly if you catch any of appalling lyrics, which might as well have been workshopped by a UNHCR outreach committee. So much the better then, that one is not often confronted with a particularly recognizable lyric; Daulne sings with Alanis’ phrasing, gratuitous and melismatic in its enjambement.
Strangely, the second half of the album musically improves on the opening salvo, as though after her bid pop princess Zap let her guard down. On “Affection” she takes a shot at something beyond benign platitudes and ends up in the thick of nonspecifically hostile generalization, which Zap still invests them with more bite than they deserve. (I’ll stop talking about the lyrics now. They never improve.) “Toma Taboo” is the only track worth sinking your teeth sunk into, marrying an obdurate Afrobeat guitar figure to a Me’shell Ndegeocello bassline come-on, leaving Daulne in the position of hype man. Yet when she tries to repeat the trick on “Kwenda,” a funky dancefloor callout, the whole thing sounds forced and stumbling, incapable of stretching its legs beyond its rote routine.
Daulne’s accomplished genre-melding and her caustic voice have imparted a remarkable longevity for an artist that falls uncomfortably between shiny pop and the world music ghetto. But for all its apparent accessibility, Supermoon will make her few new friends—it is simply too self-conscious and conniving in its references. Zap Mama has an album of Björk-like genius lurking somewhere in the wings, but in the meantime I’m going back to the cooing restraing of Sabsylma.
*Footnote (now I know who to blame). From the credits:
“All tracks written by Marie Daulne”
followed by eight or so co-writes
“All music and lyrics from THE ONE above.”
Nothing like putting God on a committee.