The voice of Shirlette Ammons—soft in a warm Southern way but somehow toughened by both experience and enthusiasm—arrives just two seconds into Language Barrier, the emcee's first album in five years. "Yeah," she says defiantly, stepping over corkscrew bass and electroclash guitars. "Some say life is a bitch/I say that bitch is a diva." Ammons continues to hold court for the next two minutes, delivering the sophisticated verbal tangles of her "Earth Intro Segue" with a confessional candor. It's as if she's still parsing the meaning of the words she has written. After the big, bludgeoning beat has decayed for the final time, Ammons's voice is all that remains for the song's final seconds. "The matter is with the facts," she closes, her voice settling into resignation after a masterful prelude.
But then, just like that, Ammons and her velveteen voice disappear for the bulk of Language Barrier. She slips like a guest, or a ghost, into a project that bears her name.
On Language Barrier's remaining nine tracks, Ammons yields the microphone to a panoply of high-profile guests—both Indigo Girls and Hiss Golden Messenger's Mike Taylor, Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath and Justus League alumnus Median. Ammons wrote the lyrics and crafted the teeming, dynamic backing tracks with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hart. She then, by and large, passed the microphone, rejoining to trade a self-liberating verse with German rapper Sookee or to shout out the chorus of the bewildering and irrepressible title track alongside Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire. Rather than serve as the mouthpiece for her own material, Ammons has chosen to become its spine, connecting the limbs of this strange, gangly body.
This approach may, admittedly, make for a vexing first or even second listen, as the material pivots freely among leading characters and styles. The smooth boom-bap of "Aviator Segue," for instance, chases the punk brashness of "Language Barrier." "Earth Intro" combines hard rock and hard rap, pausing only briefly before indulging the bulbous soul of the brilliant "Dear Nora," delivered by Ammons's clearest lodestar, Meshell Ndegeocello. And the album ends with two unabashed pieces of folk-rock, the peppy and Taylor-led "On the Road" and Phil Cook's bittersweet letter to home, "Travel Light." Over time, though, these pieces push together, like bits of what seemed to be a broken jigsaw puzzle suddenly making sense. Even when she's not singing, Ammons's voice steadily becomes apparent in the text and its treatment. This is her record, after all.
Language Barrier is a keenly modern rap and pop record, wherein the network Ammons has built in order to deliver these songs can speak as much to the essence of the material as the tunes themselves. Her collaborators span racial and international borders, gender and genre distinctions, and the mix of music falls in line with Ammons's imperative. "Now we burning them bridges amidst the broken and brilliant," she raps during a mid-album cameo. "Watch the barriers burst like bubbles scaling a building."
If that's the mission, Language Barrier is entirely accomplished.