Arthur, a Black gay gospel singer (who goes secular) and protagonist in James Baldwin’s last novel Just Above My Head says (something to the effect) that a singer cannot simply sing the notes of a song. They have to find themselves in it. It must become their testimony.
No other contemporary singer, as far as I’m concerned, embodies this more than Donnie. The Kentucky raised, Atlanta-based, soul singer doesn’t simply sing his songs. He preaches, he shouts, he praises. He is the embodiment of a soul singer–the sound that is both the sinner and the saved–the choir boy who’s been around the block.
His second album, The Daily News, picks up where his debut, The Colored Section, left off. It’s interesting because Donnie has described The Colored Section as a reflection of his state of mind at the time it was recorded–angry. What’s interesting, is that The Daily News, to me, while the lyrics aren’t as biting (and Donnie sounds more at ease), musically it is the more aggressive.
The CD opens with Impatient People, a jumpin’ soul track that makes you clap and scream like you in church, as good soul music is supposed to do. The song is emblematic of one of Donnie’s greatest skills–the ability to use background vocals to your advantage. First of all to employ the best background vocalists in the business, but also to write the hell out of their parts, so they are very much a part of the fabric of the song. They are sometimes like a choir into themselves, singing with, in response, and sometimes in opposition to Donnie’s lead vocal.
The second track, 911, is probably my favorite (at least right now this is one of those records you have to work with and around for a long time).Donnie apparently lived in NYC when 9-11-01 happened, and when I saw him play Joe’s Pub in 2006, he said that this song was born out of that experience. What is most striking is the line
I’ll trade the World Trade to spend some time with you babe/I’ll trade my racism, my sexism, my homophobia/Trade all my funny ways/My financial center/Gonna be a cold and lonely winter without you, babe…
Has anyone ever told you they’ll trade their racism, sexism and homophobia for you? That’s some deep kinda love when you’re gonna dig up the craziest part of your psyche, and surrender it to be in love? That’s the kind of shit you throw drawers on the stage for, people!
My other favorites are the first single If I Were You, Over the Counter Culture, and the title track (and funky ass hell), The Daily News, but it’s the kinda CD that you don’t listen to once and put on the shelf, or only play your favorite two or three tracks from. And as I am scrolling back and forth through my iPod listening to the songs over and over, I am changing my mind about favorites thinking “Hmm…Classifieds is kinda hot, as is Robot, and For Christ’s Sake got me bobbin my head.” In that sense its a real composition, and forces you to go back over time and listen to everything, because you’re not going to get it all in one listen. That’s intellect. That’s art.
In terms of the sound, Donnie continues his working relationship with producer Steve “the Scotsman” Harvey, which mostly works. It seems as though they heard the critiques (from damn fools, in my not-so-humble opinion) that The Colored Section sounded too much of another era–a Stevie Wonder/Donnie Hathaway lost collection. It’s clear that those are a part of Donnie’s influences, but make no mistake about it, he is his own artist.
Part of the reason for his classic soul sound is the live instruments with harmonicas and tamborines, slinky basslines, and that kinda funk/soul where the melody of the lyrics bob and weave in and out, or come to an abrupt stop in the groove, that you make ugly faces when you listen to it. The music is courtesy of some of the finest musicians to come from the golden era of soul music including Al McKay (Earth, Wind, & Fire), Jimi Macon (Gap Band), Bobby Watson (Rufus, Michael Jackson), and Wayne Linsey (Stevie Wonder, Anthony Hamilton) – and according to Donnie’s PR people, all of whom wanted to work with Donnie because of his unique ability to deliver old school Soul performances that speak to today’s audience.
And Donnie speaks to today’s audience. The Daily News is exactly that. Music about us, today as we are now. And it’s asking us to be better.