A music review
By Stephani Maari Booker
Natalie Stewart, a.k.a. “The Floacist,” has been forging a fiercely independent musical path since Floetry, the duo she formed with Marsha Ambrosius, broke up in 2006. Stewart self-released a downloadable EP titled The Floacist Presents…Spoken Soul Vol. 1 in 2010. Later that year, her first solo CD was released though independent label Shanachie, The Floacist Presents Floetic Soul. The album charted on Billboard’s pop, R&B/hip hop and independent album charts.
Former Floetry “Songstress” Ambrosius has received tons of attention, acclaim and airplay (radio and music video) with her major-label solo debut, Late Nights & Early Mornings. Her lush, lovely and often sex-soaked modern soul sound has roots in Floetry but is definitely far away (pardon the pun) from the duo’s unique blend of postmodern soul, hip hop and spoken word.
Ambrosius and Stewart’s split was definitely contentious according to both sides. The divergent musical and career paths the two have taken would be enough to prove that without either of them ever speaking publicly about it.
Stewart’s current album is also a Shanachie release: The Floacist Presents Floetry Re:Birth, which dropped last November, is an acknowledgement of the 10th anniversary of Floetry’s first album, Floetic, according to the singer/rapper/spoken-word artist. Floetic Soul is also widely available, so this is a review of both Stewart’s albums.
Though the second album is titled Floetry Re:Birth, it’s actually the first album that sounds truly like a Floetry release without Marsha Ambrosius. Floetic Soul has three tracks with Stewart doing spoken word while an accomplished vocalist sings the choruses or hooks: one with Raheem DeVaughn, another with Musiq Soulchild, and the third with Lalah Hathaway. She also has a group of lesser known singers with her on the track “The Stand.” On all these tracks, the singers fill the role Marsha Ambrosius used to play with Stewart in Floetry’s music.
On three tracks, “What U Gonna Do?,” “Go Get It” and “Overtime,” Stewart raps over mellow hip-hop beats, reminding listeners that she doesn’t just flow — she spits, strong and sharp.
However, on six of the album’s 13 tracks, Stewart acts as lead singer, not just lead rapper or verse reciter. Her soft, whispery-sweet singing voice is reminiscent of veteran jazz vocalist Michael Franks, especially on the second album, Floetry Re:Birth.
My favorite track on Floetic Soul is “Let Me,” a slinky, sexy song that flows (sorry for another pun) softly on Stewart’s seductive singing blended with speaking. The sound of this song definitely evokes the Floetry hit “Say Yes,” though it’s no crass rehash. A close second is the atmospheric “Come Over,” featuring the rich, deep voice of Lalah Hathaway.
Though Stewart seems to see herself as carrying on Floetry without her former collaborator, Floetry Re:Birth sounds like a new birth of the Floacist’s own sound independent and evolved from the music she and Ambrosius once created together. There’s no hip-hop beats on this album and no rapid-fire raps. All the tracks feature music played by multiple musicians playing real instruments: drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, flute, strings, sax and others.
Jazz is actually the foundation on which Stewart builds her new musical architecture, along with a healthy dose of Afrocentric and old-school rhythms and melodies. The first song on the album, “Start Again,” sounds like it sampled Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” but it’s actually Raheem DeVaughn’s uncanny voice paired with live music recreating that sound with the Floacist singing encouragement about “rebirth, reborn…evolution”
African vocal harmonies provide background for the next track, “Children of the Sun,” in which Stewart shares vocals with African singer Demi Mseleku-Gibson. Another African singer, Thandiswa Mazwai, acts as the big-voiced hook singer for Stewart’s spoken verse in “Roots of Love.”
On Floetry Re:Birth, Steward sings lead on most of the songs. It’s as if she’s recognized that though it’s nice to have somebody sing with her, she doesn’t need somebody else to sing for her. She asserts this declaration of independence on her remake of “Say Yes” as a lazy, laid-back number where she speaks all the verses and sings the chorus with backup vocalists who do not overpower her.
Probably the most talked-about song on this record will be “Soul,” in which Stewart sings about her side of the break with Marsha Ambrosius: “Never saw myself rolling without friend/Now you want to go out on your own/Where you want to be is not for me/…My father said/I just can’t sell my soul/And my mother said/I just can’t sell my soul…”
Everything on Floetry Re:Birth and Floetic Soul sounds better than anything I’ve heard from Flo’Ology, Stewart and Ambrosius’ last album together (probably a sign of the creative conflict brewing between the two). Natalie Stewart has moved through Floetry and then beyond it to her own music and her own distinct and talented identity.
As separate artists, both Natalie Stewart and Marsha Ambrosius have created great and unique work that deserves equal attention, awards and music sales. If you are a fan of Floetry who has bought Ambrosius’ Late Nights & Early Mornings without buying either of Stewart’s albums, you need to rectify that mistake and cop one of Stewart’s releases now — preferably both of them.
For more information about the Floacist’s albums, go to http://shanachie.com. To see a video of the Floacist performing “Say Yes,” go here (http://www.you tube.com/watch?v=NcsqHzUz_EI).
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to [email protected]