How can you tell an album is a timeless classic, transcending time, place and chart performance? Every time you listen to it feels like the first time. Fourteen years after the then-former Brand New Heavies frontwoman released her self-titled solo debut, whenever my iPod stops on one of its songs (and it seems to happen at least once a day, thank God), I'm transported back to 1998.
The reason for my near-daily time travel? It's certainly not that the album is dated -- it could be released tomorrow and sound completely of its time. It's that I can still vividly recall the way songs like "Bring It On," "No Never Again" and "Oh Mother Earth (Embrace)" made me feel the day the advance cassette arrived in the mail and I pressed play, because I feel a near-identical rising surge of delight whenever I listen to them now.
N'dea Davenport is one of those '90s albums -- a list that includes k.d. lang's Ingenue, Annie Lennox's Diva, Radiohead's The Bends, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's Painted from Memory, Shara Nelson's Friendly Fire, Morrissey's Vauxhall and I, Joni Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo, Alison Moyet's Hoodoo, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi -- whose songs I actively seek out on my iPod, albums I can listen to from beginning to end and still want to press repeat when it's over.
There must be something about former band members who created uncompromising solo music during that decade. Shara Nelson on Friendly Fire (1995) sounded nothing like she did on Massive Attack's Blue Lines (1991) -- or even on her own 1993 solo debut What Silence Knows, equally great -- and she paid for it commercially. One-off collaborations with dance producers aside, we've barely heard a peep out of her since.
Davenport also played it purposely unsafe. On ND, she was every woman indeed, New Orleans funktress one song, dance diva the next, then soul mama, and later jazz folkie (on "Old Man," the album's only misstep, but mostly because I was never a fan of Neil Young's original, and perhaps neither is Davenport, or she wouldn't have felt the need to restructure it so radically), making all the unpredictable stops in between. Naturally, it would be her final solo stand. (She's since rejoined the Brand New Heavies.)
To both its credit and disadvantage, ND didn't really sound like the sort of album one would have expected the former mouthpiece of the Brand New Heavies to make, as there's no overwhelming acid-jazz influence, which probably would have made it a far more dated effort today. Acid jazz practically screams 1994, doesn't it?
She certainly wasn't have the first band expat to travel to a completely different musical country, though. Sting comes immediately to mind, but to his commercial benefit, the former Police frontman immediately set a new stylistic template on 1985's The Dream of the Blue Turtles and rarely strayed far from it. For Davenport, her musical restlessness did her in -- at least in her home country: The U.S. prefers black female singers -- hell, female singers in general -- to be as stylistically narrow as possible. (See Rihanna, currently typecast as a dance artist, who, after three middling singles from Talk That Talk, is once again flying up the charts with "Where Have You Been," or "We Found Love Part 2.")
Or maybe it's just that Davenport's label V2 Records didn't have enough industry pull to get the word out. I recently met a massive Brand New Heavies fan from Australia who had no idea that Davenport had ever released a solo album. Some No. 1 fan he is, but I suspect he isn't alone, which might be why N'dea Davenport never rose above No. 56 on the U.S. R&B album chart. But it's never too late to give a little belated love to an overlooked should-have-been-a-classic.