No one knew what the hell to make of Yahzarah's video for "Wishing," a cut from her 2003 LP, Blackstar. In dreadlock pigtails, the Durham-bred singer played the part of a love-struck, candlelight-love-letter-writing girlfriend of a naval officer at sea. Suddenly, the heralded ebony soul-seducer with the coffee-shop image was employing the cheap ethos of wartime patriotism to sell records. How would fellow N.C. native Nina Simone feel? Simply put, if Yahzarah's boo was down to fight for a country with a questionable agenda, then who needed her neo-soul?
Of course, by that point, the term "neo-soul" had been tossed around for several years. It was hard enough for any ol' soul vocalist like Yahzarah to find her niche in a national market without being accused of being an Erykah Badu clone. It didn't help that she sang background vocals for Badu before breaking camp. So, maybe she did need a gimmick. Either way, her fans didn't buy the concept and hardly anyone else bought the album.
But with her new EP, The Prelude, Yahzarah ends a several-year furlough by reintroducing herself as the well-dressed Purple St. James. Right now, all it takes to qualify as an R&B vocalist is as a vocoder and a rapper's guest verse. Less attention is paid to the singer than to the song and its hook. But, with the Purple St. James of The Prelude, you get the feeling she could care less if there was music behind her or not: All at once, her voice confabulates, celebrates, massages, cries.
Indeed, if you loathe the term "neo-soul," you might embrace the neologism "Raw & B" after a couple of listens. Beginning with the Khrysis-produced "Four Alarm Fire," Purple St. James' cottony attitude cloaks everything. She wildly executes the intense warm-up filled with stacked mating-call screams, all motioning to grown-woman lust. After the orgasm comes a night's worth of coddling: On the creamy duet "Come 2 Me," pillow talk ensues when Purple swaps affections with ballad laborer Raheem DeVaughn. This time, Purple St. James embraces a sassy, solipsistic id that just might advance her career. This time, she won't need an elaborate scheme or industry machine to market an image that was suspect from the start.
Purple St. James/ Yahzarah plays The Pour House with Mosadi Music Wednesday, Aug. 6, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.