Thursday, September 22, 2011

Imani Coppola: Chupacabra (1997)



You can probably find this in a bargain bin near you for $1 or $2 and it's one of those rare cases of such in the CD era when you'll be amazed at the bargain. Imani Coppola is a difficult-to-pin-down R&B-tinged singer-songwriter whose work now sounds somewhere between Ani DiFranco and Macy Gray, pushed and prodded on a major label payroll in the late '90s but retaining at least a convincing illusion of rigorous individuality. She released this album, had a minor hit with the wondrous and valuable "Legend of a Cowgirl," and was unceremoniously dropped from Sony and scarcely heard from again. Which is a pity -- Chupacabra suggests she was far ahead of her time.

Coppola's schtik is more Merrill Garbus or Janelle Monae than Rihanna -- in addition to her compelling, versatile vocals, she is the person you're hearing on the fiddle during the hit, and she is credited with guitars, string arrangements, and keyboards throughout the record. The explicitly feminist "Legend of a Cowgirl" is still a stirring, funny firecracker -- undoubtedly a better, braver song than the one it heavily samples, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" -- with wicked, rapid-fire raps, slippery beats, and a triumphant chorus. No wonder Coppola was critical of Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan; her music actually offers female nonconformity, as opposed to the adult contemporary chameleon acts of the McLachlan - Cole - Colvin set.

If you dig "Legend," and you should, you will almost certainly enjoy the rest of the album, which forecasts the playful, literate, and incredibly versatile soul of The Love Below and The ArchAndroid. That's versatility as a writer, vocalist, and a stylist. Opener "I'm a Tree" is as energetic and wily as the single, but inexplicably never caught on with radio; it's the only thing here that really sounds like "Legend of a Cowgirl." Despite some overly slick production, Coppola investigates a head-spinning number of ideas on the rest of the album. There's watery folk-rock on "Naked City," tribal menace on "Piece" (her finest, most breathtaking vocal performance, somewhat akin to Kate Bush), trip hop bossa nova on "It's All About Me, Me, and Me," traditional alternative rap on "Soon (I Like It)," and true surreal disorientation on the hidden track "My Day," which is as wild and weird as mainstream music gets.

Of course, Coppola's mainstream status lasted barely a fortnight before MTV and her label lost interest; in 1997, the national heart had room for only one unorthodox soul singer (Erykah Badu), and that sadly has not changed. Serious creativity like Coppola's is still blacklisted, and she's roamed the underground ever since. But in an era when audiences for offbeat bands and characters has grown exponentially since 1997, she's ripe for rediscovery and renewal. Something of a prophetic maverick, she continues to record and perform, and deserves to be more widely appreciated. I hope the music business finds room for her again.

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