We have already featured Poppy Ajudha on Sound of Life – in our feature about the generation of artists who are channelling the multicultural, genre-fusing inspiration of their spiritual forebear Sade. But press play on Ajudha’s debut album and you might well think that you are light years away from anything Sade ever did. It kicks off with a short, intense sonic collage of protest chants and drones, and while the opening track proper “PLAYGOD” does drop into a sultry soul groove for its intro, its menace rapidly increases until it explodes in hard rock fury as she tells us all that she is not ready to obey men who like to “play God”.
But then this is a furious album. The Power in Us is not just some generation-me self-actualisation slogan—Poppy Ajudha is a highly political artist in real, material terms, and this record is above all about breaking the immediate functional structures of patriarchy and demanding space for people to be who they are. Indeed Ajudha slots very neatly into the upsurge in British radical soul we mentioned back in June last year. The post-#MeToo, post-Black Lives Matter understanding of the personal as the political puts her right alongside SAULT, Cleo Sol, Maverick Sabre, Kojey Radical, Joel Culpepper—indeed she appeared alongside all of the latter three on producer Swindle’s astounding recent The New World album.
All of which is well and good, but if the music’s not right, then a political lyric sheet is really just a pamphlet. Thankfully, Ajudha has talent and personality in shovelfuls. The St. Lucian-British singer is extremely comfortable in her own voice—which can crack and show intimate softness without ever sounding cute for cute’s sake—and as “PLAYGOD” amply demonstrates, she can exhibit determined power with serious control. She sounds British too, albeit sometimes with a Caribbean edge (as on the demand to protest on “Land of the Free” in which her voice also wrestles with a cyborg AutoTune effect and comes out on top) and sometimes with a America-via-Amy Winehouse jazz-blues huskiness.
The songwriting and production is extremely varied. It ranges from an absolutely transcendent cosmic jazz interlude where Ajudha’s wordless tones intertwine with the flute and saxophone of UK jazz star Nubya Garcia, through the hyper-synthetic hip-hop and dubstep bass of “Land of the Free”, to the early ‘00s radio pop of “Holiday From Reality”. The high point comes in the middle of the album with the immense torch song “Demons”; and the staggeringly intense but instantly memorable hymn to unity in “Fall Together”, with a broken beat and jazz rhythm dancing around the choruses, in turn giving way to the Garcia duet.
If there’s a downfall to this album it’s that this intensity can get dissipated by the sudden rhythmic left turns from track to track. “Holiday…” while perfectly enjoyable in its own right (and as lyrically laser focused as the rest of the record) sounds a little out of place next to the genre-busting ambition of many of the other tunes. But this ambition is not to be sniffed at—there is no question whatsoever that Ajudha is a world-class artist, and this jostling of diverse but powerful tracks against one another is a function of how difficult it clearly is to compress her whole talent and vision into the album format. There isn’t even room for last year’s stone-cold singles “Change Your Mind” or “Weakness”, presumably because they’re more personal (and in the case of “Change…”, wistful) songs that didn’t fit with the political tone of the record.
Don’t be put off by any of that, though: The Power in Us is absolutely rammed with musical and lyrical power, it contains a few instant classics, and it absolutely demands repeat listens to unpick the complexities of its thought and structure. Its quirks signal a vast range of possibility for Ajudha—she has in her both great pop records and the kind of grand experimental structures and deconstructions of genre that could give Björk or Radiohead a run for their money. Watching her pick apart these themes and musical threads and how she develops each of them is going to be truly fascinating—it’s really good to hear a record that delivers such immediate power and promises so much more to come.
Pre-order Poppy Ajudha's The Power in Us here.
Cover Credit: Olivia Rose
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.