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Connie Constance - English Rose Music Album Reviews

At turns soulful and spirited, the debut album from the British singer balances rabble-rousing political energy with a nonchalant chumminess.

Connie Constance’s music has a neo-soul sheen and a bloody punk heart. Performing live last year, the British artist moved with Ari Up swagger: She wore pink eye makeup smeared like a bandit’s mask, mashed her feet to the floor, and let her colorful box braids fly. Yet her mutable singing voice can take on the measured care of jazz, and, on her debut album English Rose, convincingly pulls off spiky indie-disco anthems and melancholic pop as well. An unruly energy remains throughout, though, and at times Constance’s serrated rasp sounds like it could tear out of her throat.

Constance, 23, grew up in Watford, a green suburb at the tail end of the London tube line, where she’s said she felt like an “anomaly” as a mixed-race kid. English Rose’s title track revisits the gnawing feeling of being an outsider in your home country with a spare, subversive cover of the Jam’s 1978 song, originally a paean to a fair-skinned beauty. Constance’s should-be-definitive version takes the historically white privileging term “English rose” and refigures it as a symbol for the porous, prismatic nature of British identity. Another of the album’s lyrics sums up her inclusive point of view: “Our British blood ain’t all the same.”

Blunted vowels, dropped consonants, and liberal f-bombs lend a devil-may-care chumminess to Constance’s music, whether singing about relationship strife or airing insurgent political views. Her rakish edge fuels the anxiety-ridden “I Want Out,” where staccato speak-singing and two-tone ska synths construct a slam-poetry “Ghost Town” for the Brexit era. The guitar-driven “Bloody British Me” sends up armchair activists with a hot-blooded fury that’s no less vivid for a couple of lyrical clangers. (“Pick up the penny[...]/But I can’t buy a penny sweet,” she sings. Yes, we know: Everywhere is contactless now.) A nonchalantly lovely chorus is memorable for happier reasons, evoking Lily Allen’s ability to flip from sanguine to sly in the space of a beat. “Stuck in the mud/Can't move forward,” Constance sings sweetly, before raging, “Forward?/What's that?/Fuck that!”—a chant sure to animate any young, impassioned British crowd.

When not rabble-rousing, Constance’s voice takes on scratchy, sonorous depth that brings to mind the subterranean soul of fellow London artists Nilüfer Yanya and King Krule. In less individualistic hands (and with less swearing), the torchy piano ballad “Bad Vibes” could be shmaltz fit for a reality-show montage; on English Rose, it is a rough-cut gem. “Blooming in Solitude,” co-produced by Mura Masa, has a beat like ‘90s trip-hop stuck in reverse, and the lively Dave Okumu (The Invisible) co-write “Give & Take” recalls the wry hyper-literacy of ‘00s UK indie shape-throwers. Meanwhile, the bass groove and sultry sighs of “Yesterday” bring crimson sensuality: “We love like we’re animals,” she sings, one of the album’s many refreshingly frank takes on sex.

While Constance is adept at gear-shifting, English Rose might have felt stronger with a less scattered approach to genre. Still, the record is buoyed by her chameleonic voice and spry lyrical perspective; she co-writes on every song, excluding the Jam cover, adroitly shifting from indignation at systemic racism (“black boy in prison for selling a little green”) to poignant personal reflections on identity. “Same shades making me invisible,” she sings, a plaintive reflection on erasure. Constance’s work has also offered corrective: In a video for the luminous pop-soul single “Fast Cars,” she runs riot in a Marie Antoinette-esque pompadour, a pointed reminder of the central role of women of color throughout British history—a motivating impulse shared with filmmaker Amma Asante’s Belle, or millennium-era R&B star Jamelia’s baroque fantasy “Money.”

Constance’s outspoken mein brings to mind the recent work of black British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge, who powerfully dismantles the phrase “angry black woman” as symptomatic of white patriarchy’s “suffocating dominance and delicate fragility.” A new generation has no time to play that game: Constance sings of herself, with pride, “I can’t put a saddle on a wild beast.” On “Bloody British Me,” she is unapologetic about her ambition, secure in the power of sharp edges to leave a mark. “I won’t be tamed if I want a legacy for my name,” she sings, sounding carefree amid glimmering guitars. Constance’s liberated defiance indicates high promise as her musical focus sharpens; for now, hers is an entirely fresh take on youth in revolt.

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