The soul singer Yahzarah lounges comfortably near the window of the Beyú Caffé in downtown Durham, her poise protected from the sweltering mid-July afternoon outside. Her head is shaved, and she dons bright red heels and a short, tasteful animal print dress. In person, she presents the same singular mix of traditionalism and outré cool that defines her new LP, the excitable and often devastating Ballad of Purple St. James.
The Ballad of Purple St. James is a weird record. Not Lady Gaga Fame Monster weird or even Janelle Monae The Archandroid weird, but weird because it's a sprawling, rarefied expression of a uniquely talented artist with a willingness to speak and sing—wonderfully—on very personal and intimate things. It's the sort of willfully individual R&B record you don't hear anymore.
Yahzarah smiles when she remembers handing Phonte Coleman—the Little Brother emcee who had been her frequent collaborator and friend for more than a decade—a draft of what would become her third album, The Ballad of Purple St. James. At that point, she'd been working on it for nearly three years. "He told me, 'Nicolay and I can make you a better record,'" she recalls, surprisingly bemused. Coleman was referring to Nicolay Rook, the other half of his forward-thinking, grown-up soul group The Foreign Exchange. A record produced by these Grammy-nominated critical darlings might have afforded Yahzarah instant legitimacy and attention.
"I don't want a Foreign Exchange album," Yahzarah shot back at Coleman.
Compromises made by Yahzarah—or Yahz, as everyone from our Beyú waitress to the guys who eventually made her record call her—ruined the bulk of her 2003 full-length, Blackstar. She wasn't prepared to turn this album over to others' expectations. Her personality had to remain on the record. Coleman's brash proclamation didn't phase her so much.
His retort, however, did: "I don't wanna give you a Foreign Exchange album."
So they started working. On The Ballad of Purple St. James, Coleman and Rook became Yahzarah's hitmaking team—not in the contemporary sense of the word, where a few producers cyclically, cynically ape the sounds and shorthand of what's already popular and feed some new kid's voice into the song and face into the media. No, this was classic, worker-bee teamwork, in which all available resources were employed in the service of one project. Think the music-nerd geniuses of the past, like Gamble and Huff, who powered The O'Jays and Teddy Pendergrass, or Jam and Lewis, the duo that did the same decades later for the Jackson progeny and a horde of early '90s R&B stars.
"Eleven [of the album's] songs were done in the course of a three-month period," says Coleman, "which is, you know, crazy." Five years ago, Coleman was a rising star on a major label, but his disinterest in playing the music-industry game now runs so intensely that he requested we speak in his car, in a parking lot—no fancy restaurant or swanky location required. Coleman was conditioned to such work extremes from the all-nighters he once pulled in Little Brother, but even he admits this was a marathon.
"I'd walk into the studio at three in the afternoon and leave at eight in the morning," Yahzarah remembers, "but I'd get a full mix from Nic by five o'clock in the afternoon and a second one before I got to sleep that night." Yahzarah had collaborated before, but she'd never experienced something as thorough and involved as these sessions.
Yahzarah's career began during her sophomore year at North Carolina Central University as she worked toward a music major. A friend who was a back-up singer for Erykah Badu was promoted to the position of the iconoclastic neo-soul queen's musical director. Badu needed a new back-up singer. "So I take a jar full of money and my mom takes some money she has, and she puts me on a plane to Dallas." Yahzarah has, of course, told this story dozens of times, but she still seems genuinely slack-jawed by the serendipity: "I audition on a Sunday, and I'm on the road by Wednesday." Yahzarah's glowing soprano—as well as her input on song arrangement—even made its way onto Badu's second album, Mama's Gun.
One year later, Yahzarah recorded her own album. Hear Me is an understated, confident debut, but it sounds a bit too much like the record one of Erykah Badu's back-up singers might make. It's a hedged effort. Still, hints of the raw sincerity that define Yahzarah's latest work lace the album.
"Hear Me is a great record, but I was bringing myself to [label Keo music's] idea of how to make songs," she says, setting up a familiar sequence. "They believed in me so much that I brought a lot of myself to that record. I have no regrets."
That regret even enters the conversation, though, foreshadows the problems Yahzarah encountered with 2003's quasi-follow-up, Blackstar: "[Label] 3 Keys offered me the opportunity to put out nine of Hear Me's songs and do a few new ones." She pauses, summoning her diplomacy. "But later, it became clear the new songs had to be this particular vision and this particular demographic." Blackstar, Yahzarah quips, became her album for paying off student loans and generating a down payment for a house.
Yahzarah calls the experience traumatic, but it helped her refocus, too. She rejected the conventional label model for the fiercely independent route that's now led her to the best work of her career.
Yahzarah continued performing live, gathering songs and appearing on The Foreign Exchange's 2004 debut, Connected, and Little Brother's 2005 album major-label tanker, The Minstrel Show. In 2008, she made a quiet, confident return to solo work with the self-released The Prelude. That EP now looks like the first step toward The Ballad of Purple St. James. Tinged with the harder edges of hip-hop—particularly the Khrysis-produced "Four Alarm Fire"—and dose of wailing soul-funk, it was an uncompromising little record.
"Reality is, you're only as good as your last record, and [Blackstar] confused the shit out of everybody," Yahzarah says, laughing. "The Prelude was a way to Play-Doh my way into showing my fans what my next move was gonna be." That next move would go through three drafts over three years and eventually become The Ballad Of Purple St. James—a collaborative effort between Yahzarah, Coleman and Rook, and one bravely individual statement.
A Dutch flag hangs from the front porch of the modest Wilmington ranch home that Nicolay Rook shares with his wife, Aimee, and their dog, Fisher. An Obama sign rests in the window. Sitting in the living room adjacent to his home studio, Fisher wandering everywhere, the Netherlands-born producer is quick to praise Yahzarah's early version of the album. But he doesn't deny its room for improvement.
"We really liked the album, which is why we ultimately decided to even go there," he says. "But there was some stuff missing." Rook is unintentionally intimidating. He's tall and very sincere and sends new nuggets of music wisdom and theory—his thesis on the connection between Auto-Tune and over-the-top plastic surgery is especially winning—every few sentences. "There's always gotta be that natural progression [to an album]," he intones. Yahzarah's draft just didn't have it.
"She had like 17 songs done," Coleman remembers, "and of those 17 songs we ended up keeping five. And of those five, only like two of them we kept in their original state."
In retrospect, Yahzarah says her draft "consist[ed] of tiny parts of an epic." Rook worried that it didn't touch on the many facets of Yahzarah's personality, which might give it a bit more narrative, maybe making it the epic she'd intended. "We thought that certain emotions weren't there. For instance, anger was one of them. And heartbreak," he says.
The emphasis of these new songs, then, became authenticity and believability—how closely the writing and performances reflected real-life feelings over the saccharine, generalized dross often peddled in pop and R&B. Coleman and Yahzarah used their decade of friendship and personal understanding to, according to Coleman, "buckle out of the stereotypes and examine male-female relationships in a 360 degree way." Yahzarah supplies honest, bravely unsympathetic attitude to the role.
"Why Dontcha Call Me No More" is pure pop—really, if radio weren't irreparably corrupt, this would be a surefire hit—anchored by precise rock 'n' roll drumming and tugged along by the interplay between Yahzarah's vocals and Rook's quiet synthesizers. It steadily builds to a monstrous fuck-off to an ex: "I hope you have a little girl/ And she's the apple of your eye/ Oh, you'll never see her cry," sings Yahzarah. "'Til somebody breaks her heart, the way you did mine/ I hope they make her cry." She repeats that last line a few times and cackles, devilishly. It's one of the best oh-no-she-didn't moments you've ever heard on a record.
"So many break-up songs are like, 'I want you to be happy even though we're apart. I'll always love you' and this, that and the third," says Coleman, a wizened student of R&B who could talk this stuff for days. "It's like, 'Yo, fuck that shit, dude! Nobody feels like that! Especially if you've been hurt."
"I don't care what people say," Yahzarah says about the coda. "[Women] do it. [Women] think it."
"Why Dontcha Call Me No More" is one of three key productions Rook contributes here. With additions to the album's emotional landscape, Rook felt the sonics had to shift, too. Along with "The Lie" and "Change Your Mind," "Why Dontcha Call Me No More" grounds this LP firmly in its emotionally raw concept while shooting it into new musical directions with impeccable timing.
"Change Your Mind" is rock-influenced R&B, tinged with the build-ups of house music and the bittersweet of ambient electronica. It could be an outtake from Leave it All Behind, which also tackles the topic of love with The Foreign Exchange's signature sophistication.
"It's from the perspective of meeting up with an old flame," Coleman explains, "and really wanting to take it there but saying, 'I'm just gonna chill because you got somebody ... but in case that shit don't work out, holla at me." Reflecting the song's emotional calm, Yahzarah adopts a subdued tone and delivers a hook that's a confession and a threat: "I can turn your world around in a heartbeat/ And bring you to your knees again." "Change Your Mind" is about being cognizant of love's power and its responsibilities and choosing not to use them. Yahzarah delivers it all like she's been there.
The same goes for "The Lie."
Another biting kiss-off, "The Lie" informs a wandering boyfriend, "One day, when you run through your list of regrets/ You're gonna see that I'm as perfect as you're gonna get." There's something darker here, too, in its circles of hopeless imagery and a final, desperate interrogation: "But if you gotta go through hell with somebody/ Why won't you do it with me?" Rook starts and finishes the slow-building dance track with atmospheric record hiss, underlining the sense that finding love means a whole lot of going nowhere.
"I can't even take credit for 'The Lie,'" Yahzarah admits. "That's Phonte's rendition of what I would say." Indeed, Coleman wrote "The Lie," but it's ultimately Yahzarah's performance that sells these words. She sings here with the appropriate emotional abandon and restraint, gliding along a trip wire of angst and hubris.
Yahzarah modestly refers to her voice—an academic, emotive coo that turns playful and punkish when necessary—as "a gift," but it is something that she employs in ways that connote taste and thoughtfulness that far exceed natural talent. She only occasionally stretches it to its max—on "Starship," she raises her voice's register and seems to break through the song's spacey vocal effects—and is just as apt to quiet down, as on the calmly assured "Have a Heart." Its power comes in small bits, like when she punctuates a song with a melismatic shout. Her virtuosity is the focus only on "Dedicated to You," a brief cappella track. "If you strip everything away, with just a mic, Yahz can sing you through the fuckin' ground," Coleman says.
The pride in Coleman's voice booms as he says this, and it should: The Ballad of Purple St. James is a complex portrait of a young, immensely talented, female R & B singer—precisely the kind of artist whose personality and style, more often than not, has been subsumed and abused by commercial demands. It's a willfully independent album, boiling over with strange ideas and lyrical conceits and exploding with weird ideas that shouldn't work but almost always do. On The Ballad of Purple St. James, freedom—artistic, romantic and otherwise—is palpable.
"I finally got the courage to say it out loud, to not be afraid," Yahzarah reflects, between the final sips of her coffee. And then her eyes grow larger, like she's finally found the best way to express it. In deference to the ears of other Beyú Caffé patrons, she lowers her voice a bit: "What Phonte said! 'Fuck what they think.'"
On Saturday, The Ballad of Purple St. James' nervy energy mixes with the wizened love songs of Phonte and friends when The Foreign Exchange, Yahzarah, Zo! and Darien Brockington perform live as part of the Soul Picnic at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The explosive vocal histrionics Yahzarah wisely curbs on record are let loose on stage. Be prepared.
Two things are guaranteed at every Foreign Exchange performance: Someone in your vicinity will tear up when "Take Off Your Blues" begins (everybody else should be bleary-eyed by song's end) and, at one point, the band will become a musical mind meld. Producer Nicolay Rook will smile, and it will be clear that you're watching the best R&B outfit out there right now. Throw in the smoothed-out, vibrant synthesizer soul of Zo! (whose Sunstorm is out this week), the openhearted vocals of The Exchange's oft slept-on Darien Brockington and some dope dance moves, and you've got a great live show.
Similarly invigorating performers comprise the rest of Soul Picnic's lineup. The story of Go-go is told not through studio albums but live sets and recordings. The chance to see Godfather of Go-go Chuck Brown, then, is something special. Also, start memorizing the lyrics to "La Di Da Di," because an entire audience is gonna shout them at "the original human beat-box" Doug E. Fresh when he takes the stage. The relatively raw, radio R&B of American Idol winner Fantasia fits more comfortably on this bill than one might assume, and a stirring performance of her new single, "Bittersweet," should confirm as much. North Carolinians Mixed Water and their sophisticated, often melancholy smooth-jazz funk, and neo-soulster Calvin Richardson round out the bill. DJ Skillz mans the 1s and 2s. —Brandon Soderberg
The Soul Picnic begins at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 31, at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre. Tickets are $25-$80. Picnic baskets are welcome. For more, see www.thesoulpicnic.com.