FEATURE: Raw, Blank and Broken: Neneh Cherry at Fifty-Five: The Playlist



Raw, Blank and Broken

IN THIS PHOTO: Neneh Cherry/PHOTO CREDIT: David Burton for W Magazine  

Neneh Cherry at Fifty-Five: The Playlist


I do not mark every big birthday in music...


but I felt I had to pay tribute to Neneh Cherry. Her fifty-fifth birthday is today and I think back to when I first discovered her music. I was six when Raw Like Sushi, her debut album, came out and songs like Buffalo Stance and Manchild struck my mind. On that album, Cherry talks about motherhood, her upbringing and education - and it resonated with critics. Not only were the lyrics mature and different from what was being produced in Pop – aside from peers like Madonna (who released Like a Prayer a few months before) – but the clash of genres throughout the album was incredible. There were a lot of great songs from Raw Like Sushi and (the album) was a bold introduction from a unique talent. Critics and fans fell for Cherry and, whilst she did not enjoy the same success as bigger mainstream stars, her debut proved she was something special. In this retrospective review, AllMusic assessed Raw Like Sushi in these terms:

Those arguing that the most individualistic R&B and dance music of the late '80s and early to mid-'90s came out of Britain could point to Neneh Cherry's unconventional Raw Like Sushi as a shining example. An unorthodox and brilliantly daring blend of R&B, rap, pop, and dance music, Sushi enjoyed little exposure on America's conservative urban contemporary radio formats, but was a definite underground hit. Full of personality, the singer/rapper is as thought-provoking as she is witty and humorous when addressing relationships and taking aim at less-than-kosher behavior of males and females alike... 

Macho homeboys and Casanovas take a pounding on "So Here I Come" and the hit "Buffalo Stance," while women who are shallow, cold-hearted, or materialistic get lambasted on "Phoney Ladies," "Heart," and "Inna City Mamma." Cherry's idealism comes through loud and clear on "The Next Generation," a plea to take responsibility for one's sexual actions and give children the respect and attention they deserve”.



Future albums would see Neneh Cherry explore new ground and, on 1992’s Homebrew, she stepped up another gear. Alongside co-writer Cameron McVey – there were a couple of other writers/producers but they were the core – the album, again, gained great reviews but didn’t catapult Neneh Cherry into the mainstream fully. Maybe, with bigger peers around her releasing huge albums, it was hard for her to gain new ground. The three-year gap between albums was seen as a bit too long following a promising debut but Cherry was busy crafting new sounds and finding fresh inspiration. Documenting everything from mainstream evil to the toughness of the inner-city, it was another tough, intelligent and varied record. After the success of 1996’s Man – boasting songs like Woman and 7 Seconds (with Youssou N’Dour), Cherry took another step. Although Cherry has only released five albums since 1989, every one of them has been a cracker. 2014’s Blank Project marked her longest period between records (eighteen years). A lot of the material was a reaction to her mother’s death in 2009 and, as such, there is a sparser sound compared to her previous records – a change of tone that did not compromise reviews and sales. A more challenging listen with fewer big mantras and rebellious anthems – there was more spirituality, mournfulness and less-colourful compositions.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Mehdi Lacoste for the Evening Standard

Last year’s Broken Politics followed similar compositional lines to Blank Project. I have mentioned this before but a lot of the lyrics were, again, compelled by personal aspects. If Blank Project was, in part, inspired by her mother’s death than her father’s death in Sierra Leone compelled some of Broken Politics’ songs. Cherry also looked at modern politics and tried to make sense of decreasing community and greater fear. Reviews were good – as one would expect – and it is amazing to think that every album Cherry has released has been met with warm acclaim. In the review from The Guardian, Laura Snapes had this to say:

Poignancy has accumulated at 54 – an age her voice carries beautifully. “Don’t live for nostalgia, but the impact of everything resonates,” she sings on Synchonised Devotion. Cherry still has “an allergy to my realness, like my own self-worth”, she sings on Natural Skin Deep – a simmering, almost angry outlier – but refuses to give into it: “Don’t have anywhere to go / Nowhere to hide / All of me is now.” Cherry’s sage perspective weaves through these tender, bristling tracks, and elevates Broken Politics from being simply a beautiful record to a revelatory one. “Just because I’m down, don’t step all over me,” she warns on Fallen Leaves, and promises to remain open to risk and common sense: an admirably holistic approach to a shattered world”.

She is a constant inspiration and, in these broken times, the music of Neneh Cherry is a source of comfort, inspiration and education. She is fifty-five today and I know there are many more musical years in her. Let’s raise a glass and celebrate the music of…



THE peerless Neneh Cherry.