Berkeley to Go

Goapele . Change It All . Skyblaze/Red/Sony

A few weeks ago, a black hipster music-industry insider spat snark and truth when asked about Goapele’s music: “She sounds like a weak-ass Aaliyah singing ?India.Arie and Amel Larrieux songs produced by Anthony Hamilton.” In other words, she’s Afro Boho Coffeehouse Quiet Storm fare. This is a genre where the strum of acoustic guitar is complemented or supplanted by soft-focus hip-hop beats ladled from the crock-pot of “conscious” rap (turkey wings, right, not pork?). Goapele’s lyrics are personal and reflective, sympathetic to both the struggling underclass and those searching for love beyond the “What have you done for me lately?” mindset. And her voice has an overpronounced ache that wafts sincerity. It all goes down smoove for those who lament the current state of mainstream R&B, but who also uncritically embrace a host of Kush-scented clichés.

With her 2001 debut EP, Closer, Goapele (“Gwa-pa-lay”) — a prototypical Bay Area biracial beauty — lay the foundation for a cult following that mushroomed after the 2002 release of her full-length follow-up, Even Closer. The LP fleshed out its predecessor with additional songs, and the self-affirming “Closer” became the track that wouldn’t die, setting up house at indie and college radio for the long haul (it’s still in heavy rotation) and settling in as Goapele’s signature tune. But hype overwhelmed reality. Cool points were racked up for collaborations with indie-hop iconoclasts Pep Love, Zion I and Casual, but few of the songs were genuinely memorable. Production was generally flat and hollow and the album was static, mired in a fuzzy midtempo groove. Even the dreadlocked diva’s most hardcore fans were aware of this, rotely defending the album by insisting, “You gotta see her live!”

Artistically, the latest work, Change It All, doesn’t live up to its title. It changes just enough to show slivers of growth and improvement. The intro comprises interview snippets culled from varying accents, across gender lines, with topics ranging from disgust at White House corruption to despair at black-on-black crime. Goapele moans in the background, keys burble on low, fingers robotically snap, and background vocalists oooh Negro-spiritual-style. It’s Berkeley in a bottle. Then the topical title song kicks in, and Goapele dutifully pumps her empathic catch-in-the-throat vocals, letting them irrigate all points of connection: “They’re closing all the schools down/some teachers work for free now . . . Can you see a change in your town/Basically there are people left out . . .”

The only other time she gets overtly political is on the anti-Bush “Find a Way,” an album highlight. Besides the soft-bite content of the lyrics, there’s palpable passion in her delivery: The oh-so-tasteful consciousness that usually permeates her vibe, persona and music curls slightly into a fist, and the song crackles. Other highlights include the new wave–tinged “Love Me Right,” which gyrates like an old Vanity 6 track that’s been cleaned up for an R-rating. As Goapele rides the wave of her own unbridled libido, the paradox of Ms. Positivity jonesing for piece, not peace, humanizes her. “Crushed Out” and the first single, “First Love,” straddle classic R&B structures, the latter gently girded by doo-wop and then laced with hip-hop beats.

Not everything works. “You,” a duet with alterna-Negro poster boy Dwele, never catches spark: It’s meant to be one of those steamy, delicate, tender-groove soundtracks to rainy-day or all-night fucks, but it just lies there. Flaccid.

In those moments on Closer when Goapele relaxes the gimmicky lump in her throat and just sings, she often achieves a gossamer beauty. But even with slightly more inspired production, there’s still not enough variety in tone and mood to carry the disc: It runs out of steam before it reaches the finish line.

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