Thoughtful Hil St. Soul deserves attention

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

March 04, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

Around 1996, the phrase "neo-soul" got folks all excited.

With the emergence of the Fugees and Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell, those keeping up with urban music were relieved to find an alternative to the cartoonish gangsta-isms of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, and the steely eyed, 'hood-rat sass of Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans.

Finally, artists were returning to more organic-sounding material: a Fender Rhodes cascading over looping grooves. Lyrics extolling "brown sugar" skin and butterflies in the "next lifetime." Lauryn rocked dreadlocks; Erykah brought back the head wrap. Performers seemed to be regaling in their natural blackness again and, in the process, pulling droves of music lovers into CD shops and concert halls.

I was entering college around this time. And although I bought CDs by all the aforementioned artists, I still didn't see the point of the "neo-soul" tag. When did soul become new? The artists were borrowing heavily from old-school cats like Roy Ayers, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye, anyway. Besides, acts like Soul II Soul, the Brand New Heavies, Meshell Ndegeocello and Tony! Toni! Tone! had been putting out musically adventurous soul records since the early '90s, presaging this new so-called movement.

Almost 10 years later, "neo-soul" is still thrown around. Although some sets from the genre are tired and trite (think Musiq's new album, Ruben Studdard's laughable debut or anything by Floetry), a few solid ones still manage to keep it real, fresh and engaging.

Like the albums of Hil St. Soul (that's Hill Street Soul) Her last record, 2000's Soul Organic, and her new joint, Copasetik & Cool, which hit stores Tuesday, don't necessarily push the aesthetic. But they're certainly two of the most listenable, well-produced CDs to come out the neo-soul bag in some time.

But, to paraphrase Alicia Keys, you don't know her name. Once you open up to her soothing voice and infectious grooves, you'll appreciate the warmth. She was born in Zambia and raised in London. A dark-skinned beauty with inviting eyes, the woman christened Hilary Mwelwa offers uncluttered, thoughtful tunes on her latest CD.

"It's kind of a continuation of where I left off with Soul Organic," says the artist, who's calling from her London home. "But I wanted the songs to show progression of growth. The second album is more personal, talking about life and talking about relationships."

Along with her musical partner, writer-producer Victor Redwood Sawyer, Hil has concocted a slick, consistent album that's thoroughly modern in its approach (thick programmed beats and spare, well-placed raps courtesy of Roots Manuva) but natural in its feel (live strings, easy melodies, economical keys). Highlights include the subtle gospel touches of "What's Goin' Down," the introspective bluesiness of "Pieces" and the deep bass bounce of "Shine." At the center of it all, Hil's confident vocals glow like an ember -- a sound that, at times, recalls Randy Crawford and Caron Wheeler.

"The majority of the Copasetik & Cool was recorded in London," says the 20-something singer-songwriter. "I worked with the Family Stand and Gordon Chambers, did some writing in Brooklyn. Everything just came together nicely. I learned a lot, and I think the album reflects that."

Before entering the mercurial world of music-making, Hil made sure she had a safety net. She earned a degree in biochemistry at the University of London.

"When I was doing my studies," she says, "I excelled in the sciences. I wanted to get my education in case music didn't work. But I knew that I didn't want to pursue a career in the biological sciences. It's a bit tedious and I don't have a good attention span."

Around '95, just as the neo-soul scene began to bubble in the United States, Hil recorded her demo and hooked up with Sawyer soon afterward. She worked the underground soul scene for a while, singing in clubs before landing a deal with UK's Dome Records, which issued Soul Organic. The album garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. But because of poor distribution and virtually no promotion, the record, to borrow a title from Erykah Badu, stayed in the "worldwide underground."

The New Jersey-based Shanachie Entertainment is handling the U.S. promotion and distribution of Copasetik & Cool. The adult R&B-smooth jazz label may be an ideal home for Hil. Like-minded stations are already spinning her faithful take on the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You" and the first single, the slightly corny but catchy "All That (+ A Bag o' Chips)."

In the spring and summer, Hil plans to play promotional dates in the United States. Her commercial breakthrough may be slow-burning, but this girlfriend is patient.

"I could have pursued a nice, comfortable career path," she says. "I am not knocking the time I spent studying science. I believe that everything you do in life leads you to your ultimate destiny."

And part of that would be wearing the "neo-soul" tag gracefully.

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