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ALBUM REVIEW: Nikka Costa – Pebble to a Pearl

Though Nikka Costa has been releasing albums since she was nine, her real introduction to America came with 2001’s Everybody Got Their Something, her second album as an adult. As an early beneficiary of the now common practice of breaking songs through ads instead of the radio, “Like a Feather” was first known as “that song from the Tommy Hilfiger commercial” and it’s still hard to buy a pair of jeans or a cheeseburger without hearing the album’s title track playing over the store’s Musak. Even with the exposure, many people still missed that the rest of that album was a rock-solid blend of Hip-Hop, Funk and R&B that, especially then, was an uncommonly smooth integration of influences. After a slightly disorganized follow-up in 2005, Nikka is back to form with Pebble to a Pearl, getting reacquainted with her groove but still continuing to move forward. From the upbeat opener/lead single “Stuck to You” to “Without Love,” Nikka earns her place alongside those Soul legends of her new home, Stax Records. She always sounds like a natural extension of the family instead of a new-jack affecting their style as part of some art project.“Cry Baby” is not a cover of the Janis Joplin classic despite the oft-citied influence. She does reverently cover Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Loving You” and does the song more justice than a certain Brooklyn MC who used it for a lazy bonus cut on his Unplugged album. She puts the same heart into singing Watson’s words as her own on “Something For Everyone,” employing a conviction in her delivery that sets her apart from similar acts. Credit for the album’s successes also have to go to producer Justin Stanley and Nikka’s session band (which include Soulquarians member/?uestlove collaborator James Poyser). The arrangement’s more analog than in the past, but the warm mix balances the advantages of a modern studio with the grit of a classic Stax long-player from the Funk Brothers or Booker T & The MGs.While the obvious nods to Hip-Hop have been put aside, Pebble to a Pearl is still a record that the increasingly mature Hip-Hop audience shouldn’t overlook. The choice might have been more obvious with Macy Gray or Amy Winehouse on the cover, but they wouldn’t do this material any better. If nothing else, someone is bound to try to sell you an SUV from a track off here eventually, so buying the album will save you some time on Google.

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