“Where do I go when this world forsakes me?” asks Nneka Egbuna on “My Home,” from her second U.S. full-length, Soul is Heavy. The question is not rhetorical; she really needs an answer. These songs chronicle spiritual despair and confusion, a sense of existential turmoil that in this context sounds larger than one person. Yet, Nneka refuses to wallow in misery, perhaps realizing that it would make for tedious music; instead, the Nigerian singer-songwriter clings to some shred of hope as she tries to rebuild her faith anew.
It’s that sense of reawakening—of determination in the face of tribulation—that gives Soul is Heavy its considerable impact. Already Nneka is a considerable star in her home country as well as parts of Europe, releasing two well-received albums that established her as an adventurous performer. Those two full-lengths were compressed into her 2010 U.S. debut, Concrete Jungle, which introduced her to American audiences as an ambitious synthesizer of world music: not simply African pop, but Jamaican reggae, American r&b, hip-hop, even blaxploitation soundtracks. Her raspily expressive voice earned Nneka comparisons to Billie Holliday, Macy Gray and Erykah Badu, yet she came across more as innovator than imitator.
Soul is Heavy may not be quite as urgent as Nneka’s previous albums, but it does sound more nuanced, more confident in its integration of sources and influences to convey that sense of spiritual conflict. It’s most intense during the first half: “Lucifer (No Doubt)” and “My Home” hit hard, full of emphatic beats, tricky rhythms and soaring horns. As the album progresses, however, it loses some of its heaviness and determination, as the music sheds its ambitions and the song become less and less individual. Running 15 tracks in a full hour, it feels overlong and overstuffed, which means that its grand themes never cohere into a larger statement or narrative. Just when you want to hear something concrete and specific, her lyrics settle into generalities as Nneka throws out lyrics about wearing masks to the world and hatred reflecting boundless love.
Even as Soul is Heavy struggles to balance the earthy and the abstract, Nneka’s vocals prevent the album from curdling into run-of-the-mill radio r&b. Her phrasing is unpredictable, dancing spiritedly around the beat on “Restless” and making good use of her tensile falsetto on the time-stopping “Do You Love Me Now.” “Still I Rise” closes the album on a strong, determined note, with Nneka delivering a spoken-word introduction in Igbo. Amid the dramatic clarinet crescendo, ambient piano, and prominent funk bassline, her vocals on the chorus sound almost like samples rather than live performance, which only reinforces the collagistic quality of the production. It may be the outro, but it’s the centerpiece of Soul is Heavy, a song that sounds wholly idiosyncratic: the sound of a woman overcoming her demons.