Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003
Beyonce Knowles is not a singer I would have pegged as a model for Natacha Atlas, but the coincidental similarities between Atlas' new album, "Something Dangerous," and the Destiny Child leader's chart-topping debut solo joint, "Dangerously in Love," go beyond their titles. Atlas dives headfirst into R&B and hip-hop -- styles she's only flirted with on past records and in her work with world-beat exploiters Jah Wobble and Transglobal Underground.
Her fans may be put off by this change in direction, but Atlas has never been as much of a purist as they believed. She also isn't as much of a pretender as die-hard world-music fans claim. The daughter of an Englishwoman and a Sephardic Jew, Atlas grew up in the Moroccan expat community of Brussels, where she learned Arabic and raq sharki (belly dancing). Her music borrows heavily from Middle Eastern and North African styles, but she's primarily a pop artist, having achieved a perfect blend of seductive exoticism and dance-floor excitement on her third album, "Gedida" (1999).
By rights, she would want to take that further, and because she's been moving toward the melting-pot mainstream since she was born, real R&B is the next natural step. Her pipes may not compare favorably with Beyonce's, but Atlas has always used her voice as a complementary instrument rather than a showpiece, and "Something Dangerous" has the emotional momentum that's the hallmark of great soul and which "Dangerously in Love," in its willy-nilly attempt to touch every R&B base, lacks. It makes perfect sense for Atlas to cover James Brown's "Man's World" as a sexual come-on, and the slow-burning title song pits her slinky Arabic phrasing against the soul stylings of Princess Julianna in a way that makes American hip-hop's Asian sampling fad sound like wishful thinking. Europe may not be any closer to Asia, but Natacha Atlas can convince you she's the fountainhead.