THE SAVIOURS OF SOUL?

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When hip-hop came into its own about a decade ago, soul music lost a bit of its soul. Hip-hop took with it a chunk of the fight-the-power spirit that had once belonged primarily to soul and rhythm and blues. Back in the day--as the phrase goes--Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder sang of urban blight and soul power, about disintegrating families and spiritual transcendence, about "what's going on" and living in a "pasttime paradise."

When rap came around, however, younger performers found its passionate, insistent rhythms a more fitting vehicle for the messages they wanted to deliver and for presenting the truth of their lives. Groups like Public Enemy carried the flag of black protest, and later, gangsta rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg chronicled the crime-ridden neighborhoods in which they lived in scathing, scatological terms. Soul music was left to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men and the like. Talented performers, yes. Standard-bearers for musical boundary pushing, no.

Yet even in the age of hip-hop, a fair number of musicians, including the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, have managed to create challenging soul. Most recently, there has been a smallish wave from Britain of what could be termed alternative soul, or neo-soul--music by performers who take the traditional songwriting structures and approaches associated with soul and R. and B. and tweak them with twisting rhythms, eccentric melodies and skewed lyrics. That English wavelet includes the solo performers Seal, Des'ree and Tricky and the group Portishead.

Now, in the U.S., a similar neo-soul movement seems to be making a splash. The Haitian-American hip-hop group the Fugees scored a hit with its gritty remake of Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly. The Brooklyn-based R.-and-B. duo Groove Theory, whose songs combine pure pop appeal with slightly avant-garde musical touches, received heavy airplay for its smash single Tell Me and has a new song, Keep Tryin', on the charts. Singer D'Angelo draws fans with music that adds a laid-back '90s twist to the sound of '70s soul. And a multi-act tour is being planned for this summer that's being billed as a kind of Soul-apalooza that will feature the Fugees, the group Spearhead and other cutting-edge neo-soul performers.

The flow will pick up over the next few weeks with three impressive neo-soul releases: seductive crooner Maxwell has an album just out called Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite; in early June singer-bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello will come out with her second album, Peace Beyond Passion; and in July the wistfully named vocalist ambersunshower will release her debut CD, Walter T. Smith.

Each of these new albums also brings something fresh to the pop- soul formula (verse, catchy chorus, hit-a-few-high-notes- at-the-end-to-prove-you-can-sing) that anyone who has listened to pop radio for more than 10 seconds knows intimately. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, harking back to such great '70s theme albums as Gaye's Here, My Dear, is a song cycle that follows a single love affair from eyes-meeting-across- a-crowded-party to marriage proposal. The album's best song,...Til the Cops Come Knockin', is a lingerie-smooth tune with a slightly provocative edge that promises passionate, noisy, wake-the-neighbors love "til the cops come knockin'."

For her part, ambersunshower sings songs that are as unconventional as her name. On Walter T. Smith (named after her late grandfather) her songs bounce, throb and skip along, playful and carefree; what gives them substance is her unusual blend of ethereal vocals, folky acoustic guitar and forceful hip-hop percussion. The most engaging number is the title track, a flitty number about death that's charmingly blithe in the face of sorrow.

NdegeOcello's Peace Beyond Passion is the most emotionally ambitious of these new albums, addressing racial, sexual and religious concerns in lyrics that are by turns inscrutable and revealing. On one song, The Way, NdegeOcello sings, "They say you're the way the light/The light is so blinding/Your followers condemn me your words used to enslave me." Her bitter words are a sharp contrast to the agreeably slick, burbling, bass-heavy groove of the music. On some of the other songs, though, one wishes NdegeOcello's music were as fiery as her lyrics.

In fact, there are more than a few songs on each of these albums that fall short--ending up either not pointed enough or just plain pointless. But the occasional missteps are understandable and mostly forgivable. If you want to get back your soul, you're going to have to take risks.