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Dua Saleh - Nūr EP Music Album Reviews

The debut EP from the Sudan-born, Twin Cities-based singer, poet, and activist reveals an artist with a warm, sophisticated sound and captivating presence on the mic.

Dua Saleh’s first language was Arabic, but they’ve been speaking English for so long that it’s begun to slip away. That detail is, simply, true; it’s also the kind of character note—specific and a little bit sad—that might pop up in one of their songs, which tend to deal with issues of social posture, identity, and heritage in short, impressionistic bursts. Their debut EP, Nūr—that’s “light” in Arabic, as well as a common gender-neutral name—is a superb show of control, lean except when it decides to lash out.

Saleh was born in Kassala, on the Eastern edge of Sudan, but moved to the Upper Midwest after a brief stop at a refugee camp in Eritrea. They’ve established themselves as an artist in the Twin Cities across a variety of disciplines: singer, activist, and poet. That sensibility is clear at times in their music, with its economy and densely-packed details, but what sets Saleh apart from similarly lyric-minded writers is that they resist the urge to make all the other elements of a song subservient to the writing. Nūr has stretches with compelling vocals that do not form words at all, and ones where the vocals are mixed so that the words are nearly masked. Saleh’s voice is powerful enough to contort into nearly any shape without losing its distinctive character.

None of which to say that Nūr is without lyrical flourishes. On the opening song, “Sugar Mama,” Saleh describes a doting, curious neighbor with a rich father and a “pussy melting like a glacier.” The power in the story snaps back and forth—the neighbor rambles about charity work and eats lobster in a romper with gold accent—and ends with the kind of climax that recalls that maxim: everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power. What makes scenes like these tick is that Saleh does not render them academically, and does not hold them at arm’s length—they’re experiential, full of rising heart rates and dilating pupils.

Nūr’s sound is sophisticated, warm but industrial. It’s helmed by the Twin Cities-based Psymun, who produces four of the EP’s five songs. (“Sugar Mama” was self-produced on Saleh’s cell phone.) Psymun’s contributed beats to albums by Future and Young Thug, and has worked with the Weeknd, but excels on smaller, more idiosyncratic stages, like as part of the St. Paul supergroup thestand4rd. He’s the kind of producer whose beats—the airy, sweeping ones or the ones that are small and tightly wound—feel as if they’re being constructed live in front of you on a drum machine, and are liable to spiral out of control at any moment. They never do. There are times on Nūr when Saleh elicits the same effect with their voice, like the way it’s doubled with slightly divergent takes on “Albany.”

Saleh’s live performances, even with the barest production design, are uncommonly intense. This effect comes partly from the spatial—small spaces meeting a massive voice—but more importantly from the way they stalk around the stage, exploding from time to time like a cobra uncoiling. This careful plotting is mirrored on Nūr, specifically on the way “Warm Pants” returns to center after unfurling into the biggest, boldest arrangement on the EP, or the way “Sugar Mama,” with its slowly crescendoing vocal performance, keeps circling back around its beat’s metronomic spine. The journey back is especially dramatic on “Albany,” which unspools in its middle section into a collage that includes minor-key piano and found nature sounds, as if you’re on a bus barreling deep into the woods as your phone is dying. By the song’s end, you’re being lulled to sleep by a lone drum pattern, everything back in equilibrium. It’s disorienting but tactile, confident in its forward motion even when everything else is murky.

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