Neneh Cherry – ‘Blank Project’

The fearless pop pioneer still sounds fresh on her first solo album for 16 years

The claim may seem absurd considering she hasn’t made a solo album for 16 years, but it’s truly difficult to imagine how the pop landscape of today would look had Neneh Cherry never made music. Twenty-five years ago, the Swedish-born, British-resident singer and rapper spearheaded the fusion of soul, pop and hip-hop, paving the way for the likes of All Saints, Destiny’s Child and Lauryn Hill. She performed the deathless ‘Buffalo Stance’ on Top Of The Pops while visibly pregnant, talked about motherhood and responsibility in songs that were streetwise, sassy and sexy, then when they gave her a Brit Award, she melted it down to make jewellery.

Fearless iconoclasm was always Cherry’s stock in trade, and it’s the fuel that powers an excellent new record that blends fizzing electronica with an organic, rootsy authenticity. For this, we can thank both RocketNumberNine, the east London duo Cherry worked these songs up with, and producer Kieran ‘Four Tet’ Hebden, who had the inspired good sense to strip the tracks back to leave only their most essential components. Almost every instrumental melodic element is electronically processed, experimental – yet the drums, and Cherry’s richly expressive voice, are cleanly, carefully recorded, then left well alone. It’s a winning strategy.

Following the death of her mother, Cherry turned to music to heal herself. “I’m still here, but I keep you deep inside”, she breathes over a heart-stoppingly sparse, percussion-only backing on the gut-punch of an opener, ‘Across The Water’. It gets darker: “You’re like an old friend, or an enemy, holding me down”, she scowls on the stealthy pulse of ‘Spit Three Times’. “Black dog’s in the corner, looking up at me”. If you can hear echoes of Massive Attack’s ‘One Love’ in places, Cherry is certainly entitled to that; she and her husband, the songwriter and producer Cameron McVey, gave the young Bristol crew a lot of help in their early days and were instrumental in getting them their deal.

And yet, even in the midst of the darkness, hope is never so distant that Cherry loses sight of it completely. She comes ‘Out Of The Black’ on a mesmerising duet with Robyn, tension buzzing through the song, paranoia rubbing up against persuasion (“These are the facts, and here is the news/We just want you to want it too”). During the closing ‘Everything’, an insistent earworm constructed from treated vocal samples and broken drum-machine hi-hat rattles, Cherry fronts up to the ageing process (“I can’t hear in my right ear/Can’t see shit in my left eye… Doctor been tellin’ me I got the stress”). But this new music sounds fresh, vibrant and effortless. Let’s hope it’s not another 16 years before the next one.

Angus Batey