The Colored Section
Record label: Giant Step
Format: LP/CD
Release date: 3 December 2002

"I'm not a nigga, I'm a Ne-g-ro. If I become a nigga I will let you know." - Donnie, "Beautiful Me"

The singularly named singer Donnie has been around Atlanta's underground soul scene for a couple of weekends, about as long as his fellow soulster India.Arie, whom you may have heard of. In fact, the two were once the stuff of local legend in the mid 90s. At the fondly remembered acid jazz venue Yin Yang Cafe, Donnie stood in for his stage-namesake Donny Hathaway with Arie in a moving duet of Roberta Flack's "Be Real Black for Me."

But his journey toward potential superstardom has taken a different and longer turn. Arie signed with a major label and then fought to creatively control and maintain the true expression of her art. Her persistence has paid off for her in an unusual confluence of factors. Donnie was not willing to take the chance and has rejected label after label before settling with the relatively artist-friendly indie label Giant Step.

It's a good thing he stuck to his guns. Scores of hip hop and R&B artists spew verbal sewage and sweaty-sheet croons onto glorified drink coasters in self-proclaimed efforts to "keep it real." The rare line of social commentary is drowned out by mechanical production, covered with the aforementioned four-letter sewage, or just lost in the glare of the bling. The overwhelming ethos appears to be: "Move dat ass, f*** freein' the mind -- that's what weed is foe." But I digress.

Donnie's The Colored Section could never have been made at a major label. He's too controversial. The music is too organic. The lyrics are too controversial. The hooks are too intelligent. He sounds too much like Stevie Wonder (who in his peak sounded like Hathaway, who is obviously Donnie's major musical influence) at his most socially militant. I mean, look at his subject matter. Lynching. Slavery. God. an attention-getter. Black Power.

Hard to dance to that. Makes you think too much. Thinking music? Whoops, there goes the crossover appeal.

Take "Cloud 9." Sounds a bit like an innocuous Stevie ballad from the 70s. Listen a little deeper and you hear a message that sounds an awful lot like Black pride pointed in the direction of revolution. We'll forgive him for a bit of zoological ignorance in the jazzy "Wildlife" (for some animals, sometimes, DO kill needlessly) for the critically apt comparison with lynch mobs. "Big Black Buck" uses a rollicking, humorous New Orleans horn sound to soften his thinly-disguised (and sometimes graphic) metaphor of the recording industry as modern-day chattel slavery. No wonder he didn't shop with the big labels.

One might think the musical side suffers under the weight of this sort of Professor Griff-league subject matter. But first and most, Donnie is a singer and songwriter. Half of the album has a very R&B love-ballad vibe similar to the best material from the 1970s. Thankfully, the lyrics, though, do not fall into pablum-land but maintain a sharpness. "Do You Know" is at once a self-affirmation and a kiss-off letter, while "Turn Around" dares to link unrequited love to our "wack society" while the music rolls along in organic soul music fashion. With both "Rocketship" and "Heaven Sent," Donnie revives the lost art of the pure love song, going several levels beyond his lust-ridden, embittered peers. Even on the tracks where he takes a more aggressive stance, he keeps things musically vibrant. The stridently militant title track is balanced with a beautiful end-of-album cooldown vibe. And you won't believe how funky he makes original King James Version scripture sound in the hook to "People Person."

The Colored Section is a classic debut of even greater measure than those of Donnie's "neo-soul" peers. His social commentary is more fearless and incisive. His ballads are more inspirational and refreshingly innuendo-free, and his musical instinct is as sharp as any of those other artists. If the album has a weakness, it's that it's a little too timeless; it sounds as if it could have been made 30 years ago as easily as yesterday. Of course, that is also it's greatest strength: this is a soul album that doesn't merely evoke the greatness of classic LPs like Stevie's Innervisions or Marvin's What's Goin On. Donnie's The Colored Section can rotate alongside such giants and keep stride.

{khari j. sampson}

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