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Youssou N'Dour

  • Nelson Mandela [Polydor, 1986] B
  • Immigrés [Virgin, 1988] B+
  • The Lion [Virgin, 1989] B+
  • Set [Virgin, 1990] A-
  • Eyes Open [Columbia, 1992] B+
  • The Guide (Wommat) [Chaos/Columbia, 1994] Neither
  • Lii! [Jololi, 1996] A-
  • Best of 80's [Celluloid, 1998] A-
  • Joko (The Link) [Nonesuch, 2000] A-
  • Nothing's in Vain (Coono du réér) [Nonesuch, 2002] A
  • 7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]  
  • Egypt [Nonesuch, 2004]  
  • Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) [Nonesuch, 2007] A
  • I Bring What I Love [Nonesuch, 2010] A-
  • Dakar-Kingston [Universal/EmArcy, 2010] *
  • Mballax Dafay Wax [FM, 2012] A-
  • Senegaal Rekk [Prince Arts EP, 2016] A
  • Africa Rekk [Sony Music, 2016] **
  • Raxas Bercy 2017 [self-released, 2017] A-
  • Seeni Valeurs [Jive/Epic, 2017] B+
  • History [Naïve/Believe, 2019] A-
  • Mbalax [Universal Music Africa, 2021] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Nelson Mandela [Polydor, 1986]
One NME raver cites Einstürzende Neubauten, which may not turn everybody on but does imply Eurocentrism subjected to underdevelopment and its discontents. I hear a gifted singer making a choppy crossover move. The horns recall the pretentious big-band clutter Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro worked up for a fading Wilson Pickett, and the tama drum is so far up in the mix it tapdances on the groove. N'Dour's high Islamo-Cuban cry and crack Afro-Gallic byplay generate plenty of intrinsic interest, but only on the simple little "Magninde" do they avoid fragmented overconceptualization. If you say it's ethnographic condescension to prefer the more organic effects of Immigrés (Celluloid import), I say it's reflexive progressivism to claim that nobody ever trips going forward--or that every African pop star is a moral force. B

Immigrés [Virgin, 1988]
Cut in Paris in 1984 and now wisely remixed, this isn't as epochal as N'Dour thought it was when he wrote the title tune to his displaced Afro-Gallic brothers and sisters. Just a sample of what happens to soukous when West Africans mix in their own beats (and, especially in the horn lines, their Islamic melodies). And of how beautiful his voice is when he isn't trying too hard. B+

The Lion [Virgin, 1989]
Produced by Peter Gabriel henchman George Acogny, this is no more a rhythm album than whatever Gabriel opus you care to recall. It's just a very good Peter Gabriel record. Gabriel's m.o. is to pump up rock and "third-world" sonorities with grandiose settings and structures, then put them across with a big beat; N'Dour's arrangements are less forced, his beats indigenous enough, and his lyrics better. Sure there are old saws ("Truth will always win against deceit," "You should help those with less than you"), and "Macoy," a compassionate vignette of lost virginity concealed, is overwhelmed by its portentous synth-wash-and-percussion accompaniment. But when N'Dour, who's put down as a "ladies" singer by some Senegalese (men, presumably), advises his four-year-old daughter to follow her "destiny," or collaborates with Gabriel on a feminist anthem you can believe in, I think his quest for fame could be as humanitarian as corporate one-worlders claim. And when he's inspired to write a song about a slavery museum in Africa, the NASA museum in Washington, and his favorite, "the museum town of Old Tucson," his ambition--to grasp the past, change the future, and master the very media to which he's been subject by accident of national origin for most of his young life--suddenly seems heroic. B+

Set [Virgin, 1990]
After five years of struggle he creates . . . a pop record, damn it, a pop record from Senegal and noplace but: 13 shortish songs replete with catchy intros, skillful bridges, concise solos, hooks. Americans should find them emotionally accessible with the help of a trot and musically accessible with no help at all: try "Toxiques," ecology the third-world way, or "Alboury," a list of progenitors you never heard of. As for aura, say he sounds like a citizen who knows exactly what he wants and exactly how to get it. Say occasionally the tama is too hectic and the horns are too hackneyed. Say everything is beautiful anyway. That exotic enough for you? A-

Eyes Open [Columbia, 1992]
The arranged rock song may be slipping beyond the reach of white men. In a context defined by Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson, even a talent like Freedy Johnston risks sounding smug by association, while many women--Sinéad O'Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Laurie Anderson--escape the taint. So does Living Colour. And so does N'Dour, whose mbalax commitments mitigate any conceptual link to studio-rock. On 14 songs that once would have required double vinyl, he strikes an African tone far from pop's confessionals and attempted empathy. Directing matter-of-fact moral warnings at the powerful and the disenfranchised like the griot he might have been, he's confident of his social function as he tours the world. And for all that the set-piece stiffness seems as outmoded in America as it must seem modern in Senegal. Since N'Dour usually sings in Wolof, the lyric sheet is a necessity. But I wish once in a while I could do without it. B+

The Guide (Wommat) [Chaos/Columbia, 1994] Neither

Lii! [Jololi, 1996]
Global conquest hasn't come easy, so it's a good thing N'Dour was smart enough and a smart thing he was good enough to stay in Dakar. This isn't the rough rhythming of his youth--he's pop-wise now and always will be. You can hear Jean Philip Rykiel's gelatinous Clavier, Cheikh Lô's rival voice. But as N'Dour and Lô both know, there are no rival voices--not really, not with this much clarity, power, ductility, serration. And as N'Dour understands far better than any other Senegalese, tunes are a boon. Here they connect more unfailingly than on any of his U.S. releases, with rhythming to spare. Move over, Tony Toni Toné. He is the world. A-

Best of 80's [Celluloid, 1998]
Not a reissue, or anyway not an '80s reissue, this comprises 1995's Senegal-only Dikkaat and 1997's Senegal-only St. Louis, which in turn comprise a dozen songs supposedly composed (and recorded?) in the '80s, although none of my sources has unearthed them all. I own two: the strictly indigenous title song of Etoile de Dakar's Thiapotholy, and a David Sancious stinker buried at the tail end of The Lion. The former reemerges cleaner, faster, and more professional, none of which are necessarily positives; I'll take the rock sonics of renegade guitarist Badou N'Diaye over Jimmy Mbaye's lithe new jack lines any day. But the latter is improved so much it's almost unrecognizable, rougher and shapelier simultaneously. Everywhere guitars, horns, and tama drums interact with sharper punch and tighter pizzazz than in his wild dance music or his crossover set pieces. And sometimes--I'd single out "Xarit," "Diambar," and the unabashedly beautiful "Njaajaan Njaay"--the songwriting is even more inspired than the playing. A-

Joko (The Link) [Nonesuch, 2000]
Half a decade minding his own business in Dakar has flexed his fusion--every one of these tracks breathes, bends, follows flow. The synthmelt and fancy layering with which he once made nice now subject one-worlders' cosmic creature comforts to a specifically Senegalese technological elegance--and reality. The endlessly gorgeous "Birima" honors the elders with a melody for the ages, "Medemba" defends a beleaguered union boss. And even when he's testing world's most ductile ballad pipes you can feel him getting you ready to dance, dance, dance. A-

Nothing's in Vain (Coono du réér) [Nonesuch, 2002]
Missing any metallic mbalax edge as Jean-Philippe Rykiel squished around in the background, I mistook this for a variation on the fusion compromises of N'Dour's Columbia years. In fact it's an acoustic roots move--hardly a conceptual coup, only often they work. As I've said before and will say again, Super Étoile are the best band in the world. But their function on record is to showcase a heroic voice that gains stature from its willingness to serve the band. Here the voice just serves the songs--the melodies are the most fetching of N'Dour's career, and the roots he embraces include a Parisian chanson he floats through trailing accordion and percussion. First time he reached one of those English-language homilies he always founders on, I cringed. But here "so much to do and so much to give today" are words to live by. A

7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour [Columbia/Legacy, 2004]
An awkwardly conceived recap of N'Dour's '90, '92, and '94 crossover albums, with 2000's Joko also well represented but the '84, '86, or '89 attempts mysteriously passed over. Scanning its titles, you might wonder how many songs he recorded in English, as Columbia hopes. But though English lyrics are commoner than usual--notably the Neneh Cherry title collab--for the most part this is Wolof moralizing as hooky and guitaristic as N'Dour can stand. The low points are "Undecided (Japoulo)," recorded with Euro-American musicians in Dakar, and a mercifully suppressed rendition of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." The previously unreleased-in-America "Please Wait" and "Don't Look Back" are much better, as is the live "Set." But if you're interested in his crossover tendency, which certainly repays the attention, better to swallow it in album form on Set or Eyes Open. [Recyclables]  

Egypt [Nonesuch, 2004]
See: Facing Mecca.  

Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) [Nonesuch, 2007]
Unlike the two previous Nonesuch albums by Africa's premier pop star--the 2002 ecumenical, the 2005 Muslim--this isn't designed to inspire conversion experiences. But believe that its melodicism and vocal dexterity exceed those of whatever contemporary standard-bearer you favor in those realms, that the clarity and range of the singing epitomize what is usually meant by beauty, and that at 48 this Sufihas got him some beats. Having long realized that crossover was most gracefully accomplished by conceptual clarity, he keeps things organized this time out by tending to business at home. On half the tracks a banjo-like ngoni, which this being Senegal N'dour designates a xalam, gestures toward the Malian desert directly to his north, imparting a capering intricacy and folkish flavor to what remains Dakar dance music. To most Americans, however, it will probably just sound like Africa, and pretty darn good. A

I Bring What I Love [Nonesuch, 2010]
The leader of the world's greatest band has never released a true live album in this country, including this spinoff from the reverential, revealing documentary of the same name. It's softer-edged than his shows, more suasion than arousal or declamation, with percussion quieter and synths gooeyer. That said, it's a keeper and maybe even an entry point. Distributing selections discreetly from across his catalog and underlining his good intentions with translations, the main thing it is is beautiful. I can't imagine owning too many versions of "Birima." A-

Dakar-Kingston [Universal/EmArcy, 2010]
Produced by Bob Marley's former and his own current sideman Tyrone Downie, his reggae sounds a mite mechanical, with tama drum touches reminding us what might be ("Don't Walk Away," "Bamba"). *

Mballax Dafay Wax [FM, 2012]
Apparently released in 2012 on the "label" indicated, a welcome sign that the Senegalese activist-entrepreneur counts among his many projects reminders that he'd still be the greatest popular musician in the world if he had the time. There are only three new songs here, apparently concerning children's education, embezzlement in high places, and political commitment in general. The other three tracks, all well over ten minutes, are medleys designated "Pot Pourri 1," "2," and "3." Amid clattering tamas and familiar snatches I can't name because my Wolof isn't up to snuff come instantly recognizable goodies such as "Birima" and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da." And what's this, culminating "1"? Why it's Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom." Hasn't sounded so right in years. A-

Senegaal Rekk [Prince Arts EP, 2016]
Alerted to this May EP in August when a friend in Prague sent me a YouTube link, I playlisted it on Spotify briefly before it vanished, learned that it can be purchased from Apple in Europe but not here, declined free downloads from websites poised to pass my passwords to Carter Page, and finally snagged something I could burn when a magician I know Dropboxed me. The label is a mystery, the title sometimes spelled "Senegal" and/or "Rek," and though I've read that an "international" iteration called Africa Rekk is expected late November, who knows what exactly it'll be. So try YouTube and be vigilant. As someone who's adored him for all of this century, what I hear in these songs I don't understand a word of is more specifically Senegalese than his Nonesuch catalogue and more tightly conceived than 2012's live Mballax Dafay Wax--a tensile spirituality sorely missed from American music in a year whose horrific downside is regularly sidestepped or ignored. The arrangements enact a tempered, unrelenting responsiveness in which lives lived under lifelong pressure aspire to a transcendence that's actively treasured. A voice that has begun to weather rises to moments of startling sweetness and lyricism. The Senegal-raised Akon has a strong cameo that's the dullest thing on the record. A

Africa Rekk [Sony Music, 2016]
Former tourism and culture minister pitch-corrects, synthesizes, Anglophones, and otherwise makes nice on an album whose strongest track--about his Sufi sect, the notes say--led the much stronger Senegaal Rekk EP he released locally six months before ("Serin Fallu," "Gorée," "Money Money") **

Raxas Bercy 2017 [self-released, 2017]
N'Dour having uploaded all the songs from this live Paris concert to YouTube, none with video and most preceded by ads, I have my physical from a friend who took the trouble--in a maneuver well beyond my own know-how--to download them and burn them sans ads onto a CD-R that runs over an hour. Sequence: "El Fénomeno"-"Djino"-"Mbeguël Is All"-"Djamil"-"New Africa"-"Africa Remembers"-"Sama Gamou"-"Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbacké"-"Bul Nangu." Earlier versions of four of these songs are already in my N'Dour iTunes collection, with "Djino" dating all the way back to the strange 1998 Best of '80s. The recent "Mbeguël Is All" is diminished here by a dexterously pro forma guitar intro; "Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbacké" and "Djami" are intensified by female vocals from I don't know who. N'Dour is in undiminished voice as sabar drums clatter everywhere, although after all these years that voice finally has some grit to it--among other things, of course. The nearest thing in my collection is the bootleg (?) Le Grand Bal Bercy 2001 Vol. 2. This is more songful, yet so intense I've played it more than any recent N'Dour except Senegaal Rekk. Happy hunting, reconfiguring, whatever. A-

Seeni Valeurs [Jive/Epic, 2017]
Although I doubt a physical would add much context, this download-only album proves that the Dakar tycoon and sometime pol still knows music is his bedrock--without conveying anything specific outsiders can make out, true, but when the music is N'Dour's, that's usually enough. Six new songs, eight tracks, kicked off by the atypical ululations that announce the atypically relaxed title opener and highlighted by three versions of the apparently Senegal-centric "Mbeguël Is All" unimpeded by the superfluous guitar intro of the live one, as well as two very similar mixes featuring kora master Toumani Diabate. For Wolof speakers, this album may function as a major statement. For me the major statement is that this great musician and fairly great man is unlikely to go away soon. B+

History [Naïve/Believe, 2019]
Between 1999 and 2010, Nonesuch backed four superb N'Dour studio albums and a worthy live recap, but then his discography got hard to track: seven albums/EPs by my count, the three Senegal-mainlys markedly superior to the Euro-American crossover bids. As sheer output, this speaks well of a mbalax tycoon and sometime pol who'll turn 60 in October. But the international product isn't up to Nonesuch standards--too eager to please for such a titan. This one, on the French indie that just backed Salif Keita's first album in nine years, is shrewder. It's a ballad album--there are tama drums, sure, but none of the hectic clatter that's riled up long-legged male Senegalese dancers everywhere I've seen N'Dour except Carnegie Hall. N'Dour's voice is barely diminished, a slight burr detectable here and there. But he has the grace to share leads on four of 10 tracks: two sampled from long-gone, rough-voiced Afro-crossover pioneer Babatunde Olatungi, another by Swedish-Nigerian youngblood Mohombi, and best in show Swedish-Gambian Seinabo Sey's transformation of N'Dour's historical "Birima" into a contemporary pride song of her own. Nor is that the only N'Dour standard reimagined here. The man has world tour to crush. He's got his head up and he's not screwing around. A-

Mbalax [Universal Music Africa, 2021]
This isn't N'Dour's first, what shall we call it, nonphysical or maybe postphysical product--the excellent live Raxas Bercy 2017 was download-only, and there must be Senegal-onlys unknown to me that fit the bill because the man never stops. But it is his first album since he signed with Universal Music Africa, which has a licensing deal with Boomplay, the biggest streaming service in a market long undermined by bootleggers who might finally give up their life of crime should the mass of African listeners leave plastic behind and take to streaming. So for just that reason you can be sure N'Dour took the album seriously while acknowledging that (a) he always takes his music seriously, (b) at 62 his miraculous high baritone has yet to lose clarity or power, and (c) the tama-driven "Gagganti ko," the multilingual "Mama Africa," and the subdued "Ndox-L'eau" are a beginning designed to go somewhere. B+

See Also