After an 18-year break between solo records, Neneh Cherry has finally released her fourth album, Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound). For a “one-hit wonder,” Cherry has quietly had a staggering influence on the last two decades. It may sound preposterous, but take the video for “Buffalo Stance,” for example. One viewing makes you hope that MIA cut Cherry a check for “inspiring” the Kala campaign. But beyond that, Cherry was an early patron of the collective that would become Massive Attack, and 3D and Mushroom contributed to Cherry’s debut album, Raw Like Sushi. Her patchwork blend of rapping, singing, and the sonic collision of hip-hop, dance, R&B and rock can be heard everywhere from trip-hop to Beck albums to Bjork—it goes on and on. But Cherry’s profile never again reached the heights of her debut to the point where her third record, Man, wasn’t even released in the US.
While many thought that was the end of the story, Cherry dug into a series of collaborations and side projects, such as Cirkus, the band that she formed with her husband and one of her daughters, and The Cherry Thing, an album with experimental jazz trio the Thing. She resurfaced on the pop radar with her turn on Gorillaz’ “Kids with Guns” and her appearance on the subsequent tour, so it stood to reason that she’d strike out again as a solo artist, and the resulting album, Blank Project, is a logical continuation. Four Tet joins Cherry on production duties and brothers Ben and Tom Page, also known as RocketNumberNine, as her backing band on synths and drums, respectively. In a weird way, it echoes the returns of Zak De La Rocha and Fiona Apple, who also chose stripped-down, percussion-focused formats for their respective comebacks.
Anyone expecting the dancefloor ready antics of Raw Like Sushi will likely be stopped cold with the opening track, “Across the Water.” A minimalist meditation and tribute to Cherry’s deceased mother, it’s the type of bracing and sober track that most artists would save to the end. Instead, it’s a mood setter that seems to say that things are different, so get ready. As a whole, Blank Project isn’t a mournful or dark album, but it is way more moody than the casual fan would expect. But while there may not be many ass-shaking joints, there are a number of up-tempo moments. Truckloads of props must be given to RocketNumberNine, whose mix of electronic and acoustic percussion, as well various synth sounds, are nimble and varied and make their relatively minimalist approach seem massive.
But Cherry’s no slouch either. She hasn’t missed a step for all her inactivity. The only slight bummer is that there’s not much of Cherry’s rapping. It does pop up in spots here and there, but the focus is very much on singing. Nevertheless, Blank Project has the type of performances that will delight longtime fans and hopefully new fans. Simply put, it’s a stunning return.