Though he blends into the mélange of similarly retro-styled R&B performers here in the U.S., Raphael Saadiq plays to huge acclaim and sold-out crowds overeseas. This type of Continental fascination with the persuasive novelty of African-American culture is nothing new, stretching back at least to the export of Josephine Baker and hot jazz in the ‘20s, but it’s become even more complicated in today’s globalized world, as the web of influence and inspiration becomes more and more tangled.
Take Asa, a French woman of Nigerian descent and raised in Lagos, who filters the styles of classic American R&B through the sieve of recent British white-girl soul, channeling the husky gravity of Amy Winehouse and Adele and the playful insouciance of Lily Allen. It’s a dizzyingly complex mixture, and a testament to how beautifully musical influence develops as it travels around the world. But this interesting recipe doesn’t necessarily make for absorbing music, and Beautiful Imperfection ends up sounding disappointingly watery, long on self-assurance and warmth, but also routinely safe and unsurprising.
It seems at first that this dullness can be attributed to Asa’s failure to adequately process her influences. For a person with both Nigerian and French backgrounds, there’s surprisingly little of either exhibited here, and for the most part, the artist behind Beautiful Imperfection could have come from anywhere, the album’s touchstones all pulled from classic radio and old LPs. Bouncy tracks like “Be My Man” and “Dreamer Girl” are propulsive but intrinsically hollow, exercises in faithful reproduction, fringed with horns and B3 organ. “Preacher Man,” which gestures toward the Dusty Springfield hit but contains none of its soul, is a sincere yet ultimately dreary piano ballad with no hints of individual authorship.
The flat presentation, however, isn’t really a failure so much as a calculated choice. Beautiful Imperfection is actually quite good at what it sets out to do, which is present a neat pastiche of classic elements filtered through a modern sensibility. It does offer some hints at Asa’s background, but they’re packaged separately, in three tracks sung in her native Yoruba, which sound like the rest of the album with the words translated. For the requisite foreign nod, there’s the sanctimonious “Questions,” which takes on big issues with a mixture of hackneyed earnestness and third-world exoticism, mostly via its instrumentation and backing vocals.
The compartmentalization of its exotic elements confirms Beautiful Imperfection as a ploy launched at a specific target market, listeners who want to be gently and non-confrontationally challenged, able to enjoy Asa’s spongy neo-soul with the stranger portions served on the side. This brings us back to why singers like Saadiq are so popular abroad: They present an idealized version of African-American culture; he’s a cuddly, sweet-sounding revivalist for a nonexistent past, a black Buddy Holly with no aggression or edge. Asa, while undoubtedly talented, falls into the same mold, offering music that’s smart, smooth, and fundamentally unchallenging.