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Record Review


R&B's indie-friendly, more historically connected subgenre, neo-soul, often presumes to be more deep and sophisticated than its slick, radio-ready brethren. The dirty secret, however, is that underneath the retro-trappings and boho signifiers, the music can be just as lightweight as the mainstream stuff.

The relatively few recordings Atlanta crooner Donnie made before this year are not the most grievous examples of the above. But they tend to be far smoother and more facile than his image implies and his talent deserves. The good news is that Donnie's long-awaited debut full-length, The Colored Section, features a half-dozen songs that are not only his meatiest, most powerful yet, they're perhaps the most substantial, sophisticated and downright soulful tracks anyone has offered in neo-soul's lifetime.

Donnie's singing has never been in question. But The Colored Section also reveals a surprisingly crafty songwriter. An opening stretch of stunners begins with "Welcome to the Colored Section," a spare introduction full of clever wordplay, and continues with the confrontational "Beautiful Me," which sets Afro-centric validation and an aching soul cry to a beat that comes as close to hip-hop as Donnie gets. Following "Cloud 9"'s sunny pop stride, "People Person" offers a funky call-out on hypocrites that manages to be sympathetic and embracing. Most impressive is "Big Black Buck," which adopts an old-timey jazz/cabaret flavor driven by muted trumpets and singing clarinets to compare the carnival horror of slave trading and the spending habits of African-Americans in the modern U.S.

Unfortunately, The Colored Section's second half relies mostly on older material ("Heaven Sent," "You Got a Friend") that, more often than not, settles for trite sentiment and smooth R&B/acid-jazz-lite. But a climactic return to full power with "Our New National Athem" and a reprised title track finale elevates the end.

While not consistently extraordinary, The Colored Section's highs are high enough to place it among the most notable debuts of the year. And with Donnie finally shedding old material , one can only guess what he'll accomplish on his next record.

Donnie performs at a CD release party Mon., Nov. 4, at the Riviera. On Sat., Nov. 9, he plays an acoustic set at Tower Records and opens for India.Arie at the Atlanta Civic Center.

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