You imagine Nneka was a quiet, serious child. If she deemed you worthy of a smile, it was a prize awarded.
It still is. Not until three songs into her set last night at the Troubadour did she grin; when her dimples finally deepened, the crowd seemed relieved, almost as if they were beginning to worry she didn't like them. That's partly due to cultural differences. Americans are accustomed to perennial gaiety in our performers, and Nneka is half-German, half-Nigerian. It's also due to personal philosophy. "One should not force anything," she said after singing what's probably her biggest-to-date American hit, "The Uncomfortable Truth."
That title alone explains much about the politically-charged singer with a presence that belies her pocket size ("She's TINY!" chorused the audience while she walked onstage as nonchalantly as if she were about to start dinner). Her songs mince no words. Take the lyrics to "Africans," from her first U.S. release, Concrete Jungle: "It is so comfortable to say racism is the cause, but this time it is the same color chasing and biting us...Wake up Africa!! Wake up and stop blaming..."
Yet--to riff on the Biblical passages Nneka often references--passion without action is dead. Watching Nneka perform is almost like watching a Method actor prepare. Crouched at the back of the stage during a slowed version of "Heartbeat," her face covered by her hands or buried in the crook of her arm, she seemed knocked backwards and breathless by the world. Eyes clenched tight, she panted the lyrics, "Blood, blood, blood, keeps rushing..."
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She flung herself likewise into every song, whether snaking her body across the stage to "V.I.P" (Vagabonds In Power, if you're curious) or seamlessly transitioning from full-bodied belt to fluttery, staccato chirps.
Speaking of her vocal ability, her recordings simply don't do it justice. Smoky no matter whether she's singing alto, skipping to a soprano, or, yes, spitting a verse, she sounds better live, even when the bass is too loud and the reverb too much, as they were at the start of last night's show.
After returning for a one-song encore, which she performed with by then-expected fierceness, she left the stage with as little fanfare as with which she arrived...and no smile.