2020 is already proving a stellar year for women in Roots-derived music. From Lila Iké’s stunning debut EP The ExPerience to the teaser from Nattali Rize’s forthcoming album Worldwide Rebellion – female artists are leading the conscious charge. And now, enter Chyna Nicole.
Chyna Nicole Level of Concern, released via Jumpout Production, is Nicole’s third solo album. With production credits from both seasoned and up-and-coming names, it’s an ambitious and bold project – sweeping in its musical expansiveness and daring in its compositions. The album’s executive producer, Gary Sutherland, is an alumnus of Tuff Gong – having been in the business for three decades. And overall, Nicole and her team pull it off extremely well.
The album opens with Get to Know Me. It’s Dancehall – and with production values from David Clarke which sit equally at home in RnB. The clever compositional trick of taking the usual three-beat, twice a bar Dancehall clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-three’) and mashing it up is used well. The bass uses it in the first half of each bar, before hitting the final two offs. Drums follow a similar pattern, with the first two beats being picked up by the kick, before the snare finishes the riff off. This reduction in the clave gives a Dancehall wind but without the furious, driving momentum. The Afrobeats sound is produced not least by the hi-hats, hitting the first off beat then into the second with a triple time roll, and then the fourth. A delicate synth organ, coupled with some well-placed synths and choral samples compound the genre – and the whole thing is a catchy, glossy and head-rolling cut. Smoothly done.
Top Pedigree – On the Grind is a driving, African-beat creation from Nicole and producer Noel Alphonso. The percussion forces this vibe, with the kick hammering every beat, rim clicks doing dotted quavers on the upbeats and hi-hats tinkering with brief rolls at the end of bars. A walking bass performs a constant rocking motion on the beat, working in four tone jumps – pushing the momentum with the percussion forward, complimented by some extremely busy synths. But what’s so clever about On the Grind is it’s a very unabrasive form of Soca, due to the excellent work of both Nicole and Alphonso. Smoother, more gliding elements are brought in via a cleverly executed piano line, which works off breve chords at points before expanding into additional chords on beamed rhythms. Strings whine in and out, stretching back and forward across the left and right inputs. The consequence of the brisk percussion and bass lines coupled with the other, more static, instrumental ones is that Nicole’s rapid-fire vocal is given full space to command the track; at times, though, slowing down to match the strings. It’s a fascinating version of Soca, and works well.
Nicole changes tack completely with Righteousness Reigns in Mamma Africa. The track uses the late Junior Delgado’s riddim from Storm is Coming – and uses it to potent effect. Roots-driven, producer Lloyd “Pickout” Dennis has included all the expected devices: the keys on a bubble rhythm, a funky, shrill organ, a syncopated, driving bass and a well-arranged and executed melodica line. But the percussive line is not your standard Roots affair. The dominant force is the snare, which uses offbeat rhythms nodding to traditional Afrobeats. But the technique is mixed up, between a rim click in the first part of each phrase, then a full beat on the skin in the second. The hi-hats are a repetitive feature (not dissimilar to their role in a one drop) but almost out of earshot. A shaker and a tambourine finish the Motherland feel off. But the vocal is the most important element, and it is perhaps Nicole’s strongest performance. She shows a superb level of control, flexing between a delicate head voice and a forceful, crying chest – and her emotive and expressive turn on this track is first rate. Beautiful.
Nyah and Bingi sees Nicole team up with “Computer Paul” Henton, known for his works with Shabba Ranks and Akon. It’s a sunny, overly upbeat Roots track which is full of delicate intricacies; not least the cleverly arranged horn section, which veers between more traditional, elongated breves, lilting melodic lines and some rapid-fire, demisemiquaver rolls. The latter is a wonderful piece of anthropomorphism – the fluttering of bird wings which is played out in the lyrics, also represented musically. Nicole shows her versatility again, sounding completely comfortable in a more laid-back, Sunday morning style – smoothly gliding across her register with ease.
Next, and Hero shows Nicole’s grimier side – in a good way, obviously. Producers Melbourne George Miller (from legendary Fire House Crew) and up-and-coming talent Jabari “Jahbar I” Miller take Level of Concern into a curious Afrobeats/Hip Hop/RnB creation. It’s one of these cuts that exceptionally hard to pin down – and fully open to interpretation. The heavy percussive line with its focus on the offbeats is ostensibly Afrobeats but yet feels just at home in Hip Hop. A bass is sparse, absent on beats two and three of the first phrase of its riff, then filling the third in on the second. A feeling of MENA is brought in via what sounds like a synth duduk. This vibe is compounded by the melody working around semitones and a more pentatonic scale than harmonic. It’s a stripped-back, perplexing affair – but in a good way, as it’s instantly catchy. Jahbar I is also the featured vocalist on the track and does a solid and expressive turn – potentially an artist to watch in his own right. Much like Dancehall legend Bay-C’s Holy Temple album, possibly the best way to sum up Hero is “Saharan Soul”. Make your own mind up.
This production team is back on Good Man and Level of Concern, and both show theirs’ and Nicole’s versatility. The tracks are Roots-led, but aside from the ‘usual suspects’ in terms of musical devices, both are significantly different. Good Man is the more interesting Roots track of the two, bringing in rattling Dub synths and a rasping horn section. But the drums are far more syncopated than a standard one drop: multiple hi-hat rolls focus on the space between upbeats; the snare then lands directly on them and a synth hits reverbed and decayed semiquavers on the downbeats. This takes Good Man into a very welcome area: Roots meets that classic late 90s/early noughties RnB sound pioneered by Timbaland and Darkchild – a stuttering, nervy variation on Two Step. Genius work from all involved.
The title track, meanwhile, is more Roots than Good Man’s innovating. It works as Roots, it’s musically competent and Nicole delivers both vocally and lyrically. The melody is extremely well composed, being an instant ‘earworm’.
Blaze It High is perhaps Level of Concern’s biggest potential hit. Superb production comes from Shola Henry, who’s created a brilliant Afrobeats RnB cut – or ‘Afroballad’ in this case, if you prefer. That stretched out Dancehall clave is back across the percussion – and dominantly so, with it being consistent across the track. So, yes – the drums are ostensibly Afrobeats with that clave. But the occasional buzz rolls on both the hi-hats and the snare brings a nice touch of Trap into the mix. The bass focuses on a dotted semibreve-dotted crotchet/semiquaver, unfussy riff – which works brilliantly, as it doesn’t make the track too heavy, leaving rooms for all the other ingenious features to shine through.
The verses and choruses are markedly different; defined by several features. With the latter, a winding Afrobeats grind comes through. Strings fire-off rapid, semiquaver chord-based phrases throughout, emblematic of the genre’s merging with Dancehall and they force the music forward. The drums drop the clave at points, for more tom-tom focused riffs and rolls. On the verses, the strings go while the drum clave stays, as does the bass. But a riffing piano comes in, as do some synth theremin-like effects – and the vibe changes completely, going into that Afroballad territory. It’s an extremely clever musical juxtaposition from Henry (driven by those strings) which marries perfectly with Nicole’s conscious lyrics – creating a smart, fresh and diverse track which sits easily as both chill-out home listening and club banger. Perfection.
Sutherland combines his very versatile production skills with Mark Clarke on Let it Be for Justice. It directly takes the album into straighter RnB/Soul territory – and it gives Nicole the chance to really shine. Musically pleasing, paradoxically it’s probably one of the more straightforward tracks on Level of Concern, in terms of there’s no hybrid, genre-smashing elements. But this wholly works in its favour. The clean drum lines, nicely EQ’d, fulsome bass, funky riffing guitars and heavily harmonised backing vocals have created a classy, intelligent piece of music which matches Nicole’s equally intelligent lyrics and vocal performance perfectly.
There is Love finishes the album, with Henry back on production duties. It’s glorious, stripped back and wound-down Soca, with its ‘oneeeeee-two-three’ bass line, the hi-hats and kick mimicking this and then the rolling bongos. Synth horns repeat the ‘two-three’, at points on half-time and coming in on the third beat, while strings do drawn-out breves across the bar, smoothing the frantic feel of the other sections out. But at points they can’t help but get caught up, repeating the ‘two-three’ but on the final beat of the bar. This heavy focus on the same rhythmic pattern creates an intricate but constantly moving sound, which gives Nicole’s vocal and its backing counterparts ample space to soar across the instrumentation – moving There is Love out of straight Soca into something more soulful. The delicate yet masterful brief switch from the dominant minor key to a major across the word “love” finishes the composition off perfectly. It’s a powerful conclusion to the album – both musically and thematically.
Nicole has a fascinating voice which is on full display across Level of Concern. It’s a highly versatile instrument, sitting equally comfortably across the heavier, BPM-heavy Soca tracks as it does on slower Roots and more experimental cuts. She has an impressive range, dipping down into a high alto then elevating upwards to a mid-high soprano. Nicole uses the contrasts between her head and chest voice well; displays good control in terms of breath and has a deep-seated vibrato; again, a sign of strong technical ability. You can occasionally hear the Michael Jackson influence when she uses her upper register, too: close your eyes on Blaze It and listen closely. But she also shows sensitivity to the lyrics she’s performing – making intuitive use of intonation, dynamics and clipping of syllables to fully bring the messages to life. And the messages she’s constructed are also impressive.
Nicole covers all manner of subjects across the album. Some deal with love (Good Man), others with emancipation (Let it Be for Justice) – but spirituality also features heavily, with the stand-out Blaze It being lyrically as powerful as the music, as she sings praises to Jah. Righteousness Reigns in Mamma Africa is another stand-out, both from a vocal performance perspective and a thematic one – as Nicole muses “No jobs for the poor; does anybody care…”. She’s a talented lyricist, whose evocative and descriptive words are immediately engaging and smartly constructed – at their peak on the album’s powerful closing There is Love.
Chyna Nicole Level of Concern is a brave move from Nicole and Jumpout – one which ultimately has paid off. The compositions are well-constructed, with many of the tracks easily sitting as potential hits due to the first-rate production, arrangement and catchy melodies. The mix of genres is finely balanced, innovative and engaging. The sum of these parts is a strong platform for Nicole to showcase both her attractive, unique and pleasing voice as well as her skill as a lyricist. The album represents another forward-thinking, powerful addition to the growing movement of women coming up and to the side of the Roots movement. No level of concern at all with this impressive release. Chyna Nicole Level Of Concern review by Steve Topple (22nd May 2020).