You remember being given some coursework, when back in higher education, with various objectives and your task was to choose one to complete? Not really wanting to do it, you go to the student at the top of the class, and ask them what they’ve done. They reply, “ah, not much,” and this gives you the cue to do absolutely nothing. Then, on the day of handing it in, they’ve unexpectedly produced the single-most awesome project, covering all the objectives in one ingenious combination, and you stand there with zilch, except a jaw hanging and an implausible excuse, which you made up on the bus coming in?!
I’d imagine Onika Venus to be just like that. Now Bristol-based, Jamaican-born Onika plays Trowbridge Town Hall on September 18th, so, given reggae is cited as an influence, I thought I’d check out her debut solo album, Everything You Are, which was released back in March.
The title track was chosen as Songsmith’s Song of the Year 2020, and it’s easy to hear why. I’ve not been this blown away by a female vocalist since discovering Minneapolis’s Mayyadda.
Immediately this pushed my buttons, but if this opening title tune is decidedly acoustic blues, with a distant harmonica resounding in the background, there’s a truckload more going on than the first impressions here.
The premise from the beginning is as simple as, Onika Venus has the prevailing soulful voice to carry whatever genre is thrown into the melting pot, and drizzle it over you like hot sauce. It only leaves you pondering how far she will take it. The second tune I pigeonholed as RnB pop, a contemporary Macy Gray or Erykah Badu, aiming for chart success. When I’m Broken carries this concept to a higher height, and is simply, the model formula of popular music every song should aim for.
Yet, three songs in and here comes the Caribbean influence. Friday Love has a clear mento feel, it’s immediately beguiling, a good-time chugging song in the face the despondent romance theme. This will occur again towards the middle the album with Who’s Been loving You. Again, with Shotgun there’s similar appeal, perhaps the most definable as “roots reggae,” and, for me, they’re the favoured sections.
But it swaps back to the mainstay for track four, steady soul with an orchestrated ambience; Everything has its Season, is the ideal equilibrium to bless that heavenly voice and compose this euphoric moment of bliss. After a surprising modern dancehall intro, we’re back to an acoustic guitar riff for the poignant The Storm, using sax to mitigate jazz. I Need You, though, has kick-ass funk, Ike & Tina Turner in their prime.
With only three tunes to go, just when you think influences have been exhausted, there’s a duet with a male voice, supplied by husband, Mark, Mary, sounds classic Americana, as if Joe Cocker just walked into the studio and said, why don’t you try this?!
To keep you guessing what the last couple of tunes will hold, yeah, folk is strapped onto soul, Reaper Man aches of Aretha Franklin, but by this point you just know Onika Venus can carry this off with bells on. Raising the bar of comparisons is justified, believe me. For when it’s funky I’d give you Randy Crawford, Chaka Khan, and when it levels with acoustic and folk, her voice dishes out notions of reggae heroines, of Phyllis Dillon or Marcia Griffiths, and the gospel finale, yeah, Aretha will be justified, if not Sister Rosetta Tharpe; it is this magnificent.
Yet, unlike all these aforementioned legends, the style here is not monocultured, neither does it jerk from genre to genre without consistency and flow. Onika Venus gives volumes to the eclecticism, and it moulds efficaciously into one melting pot, beautifully. Prior to this solo launch, in a band called Slyde, her voice customised their breakbeat, techno and house style, to great effect, and I can well believe it. The flexibility of her skill is captured here, I’d imagine as comprehensively as she chooses personally, and just as the student who bursts in effortlessly, with the homework complete and to an exceptional standard, Onika Venus makes this look easy!
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