Senegal’s top-selling pop singer, Youssou N’Dour, has taken some hits for sacrificing his African roots in favor of neat pop formulas, easy hooks, and, sometimes, leaden Peter Gabriel rock æsthetics. Here, on this acoustic album, the rock weight is entirely lifted, and N’Dour’s pop sensibility shines through gloriously.
In N’Dour’s case, "acoustic" doesn’t necessarily mean "roots." Sure, there’s a creaky traditional fiddle, a kora harp, and a wooden balafon on the opening track, "Tan Bi (Heat, Breeze, Tenderness)." But the song itself is a friendly N’Dour radio hit. He weaves the cracking polyrhythms of his signature mbalax style into a few tracks — "Doole (Show Your True Mettle)" and "Mbëggéél Noonu La (Because Love’s Like That)" — but the soundscape is lighter, putting the emphasis on his amazingly versatile and expressive voice and his flawless arranging. Choral chants, traditional guitar riffs, and other indigenous West African sounds are all colors in N’Dour’s palette, but he is the master painter, arranging them in ways no one else would. Even when he ventures into the dangerous territory of singing about love in French ("C’est l’Amour"), and yearning for a better world in English ("Africa Dream Again"), the results are hard to resist. No other artist has so effectively transcended the cult of African pop without betraying it.