Donnie: Big Black Buck + Rocketship
From The Colored Section (Giant Step/Motown, 2002)
From 1st Impression (MP3.com, 1999)
Can an album that was released during this decade already be considered a lost treasure? That’s the question to consider with Donnie’s debut album, The Colored Section, from 2002.
My first introduction to the man’s work came from perusing Dusty Groove’s website and seeing the cover art for his 2001 pre-album EP. Some people think I’m crazy for being able to look at an album cover and being able to tell if I’ll like its contents. This time my “gift” didn’t fail me. There was something about the watermarked image of Donnie with his unkempt afro that told me to cough up the $7. A few days later the UPS man dropped off a package that included this EP and several other goodies.
After an initial listen, my appetite had been whet. I went on a quest to find more Donnie music wherever I could. At that time, MP3.com was a new venture and Donnie had an EP you could buy (both digitally and on CD) called “1st Impression,” which is no longer available, that predated the previously mentioned EP by a couple years. Included on the mp3.com EP was an interview (linked above) as well as alternate/demo versions of “Heaven Sent” and “You’ve Got A Friend,” both of which ended up on The Colored Section. When his debut full-length was released by Giant Step in the fall of 2002, I was on cloud nine. What a gift… to me and to the soul lovers this world over.
To say the album is topical is an understatement. He covers consumerism (“Big Black Buck”), national pride (“Our New National Anthem”), black pride (“Cloud 9”), and loving both others (“Rocketship”) and oneself (“Beautiful Me”) and that’s not even half of the album. Take this lyric section from “Big Black Buck,” for example.
“Mama’s little baby is nothing but a consumer
Never making a profit
Rendering empty pockets
Mama’s little baby is trendy on the rumor
Buying, never investing
While they’re busy in market testing
On your town look around it’s the first of the month
US economy will get its usual jump
We’re creatures of habit, modern slaves
Guaranteed to spend it all in just one place
Mama’s little baby is a dancer and a crooner
Making dough for the man
Whipping that big black buck again”
Heavy stuff? I’d say so. The song continues by making other references to modern day society and slaves on the auction block, driving its point home further with a clarinet-heavy Dixieland backdrop.
Where most soul artists introduce themselves to the world with a basic love-themed album (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Donnie came out with an album that was as socially conscious as any album in the last 30 years. That’s quite telling of an artist’s confidence in himself and in his message.
Take Donnie’s ode to his afro, a refreshing turn in black pride that doesn’t resort to stale or literal metaphors, as another example of artistry with a message.
“Happy to be nappy, I’m black and I’m proud
That I have been chosen to wear the conscious cloud
And I’m fine under cloud 9″
Consciousness, while heavily prevalent, isn’t the only message on the album. “Rocketship” is a lover’s plea. Included here is an alternate take of the song than what appears on the album. I’ve always wondered why this version didn’t appear on the album as it packs a bigger punch. You’ve got an inspired vocal, but it has a funky track to back it (check the soul breakdown 3 minutes in).
The album is very Stevie Wonder-esque in approach. Sure, you have lyrics where you don’t pick up every nuance on the first bite, but there’s also a varied assortment of musical styles by Steve “The Scotsman” Harvey. There’s the aforementioned Dixieland on “Big Black Buck,” the gospel fervor of “Wildlife,” the jaunty, Bobbi Humphrey-inspired flute-tinged “Do You Know,” and the reflective, almost lament-filled closer “Welcome To The Colored Section.” Donnie and Harvey bring an album to the table that is neither a singular appetizer, main course, or dessert – it’s the full-course meal.
While I won’t go so far as to say that the album is a classic – although it’s close – (as I reserve such a title for albums that reshape how we think about music and even society – think Marvin’s What’s Goin’ On) as its influence hasn’t been as widespread as it deserves to be, I will say that it is an essential document in the soul canon that has every right to stand proud with some of the best the genre has to offer. The album may not make you want to get up and dance (although that’s not to say it doesn’t have tempo), but it’s more likely to make you want to join a local volunteer group or help with voter registration. The Colored Section may not be well-known to mainstream society, but it is perhaps the most important soul album of the last 10-15 years, surpassing albums by modern day legends such as D’Angelo, Jill Scott, John Legend, and Alicia Keys.