Natalie Stewart, the Londoner who music fans know as The Floacist, has strong views on the pressures faced by black musicians. Those pressures came into sharp relief in the period leading up to the dissolution of Floetry, the group that made Stewart and fellow singer and childhood friend Marsha Ambrosius, famous. Floetry, one of the few alternative soul groups to achieve mainstream success, earned multiple Gold Records and Grammy nominations with the duo's blend of sung vocals, spoken word that featured mature lyrics and intimate instrumental arrangements. The Floacist (Stewart) and The Songstress (Ambrosius) refined that sound over the course of three albums.
Yet by the time Floetry released Flo’Ology, their third album, the label was ready for a change. Stewart told NPR that the suits zeroed in on her. She said they wanted her to shift from spoken word to rap and to “dumb down” her lyrics. Stewart, who wanted Floetry to retain the so-called neo-soul sound, resisted. Ambrosius, however, was ready for a change. She moved to the US and released the highly regarded R&B album Late Nights & Early Mornings.
The Floacist also stayed busy, releasing Floetic Soul in 2010, Floetry Rebirth, the 2012 album that included a remake of Floetry’s best known song, “Say Yes,” and the upcoming Rise of the Phoenix Mermaid.
In a sense, the divergent roads traveled by The Songstress and the Floacist are logical. Ambrosius enters an R&B market distinguished by tight playlists and a slavish instinct to copy what works (defined as what yields hits). However, what works encompasses the hip-hop infused R&B of Beyonce, the conceptual stylings of Janelle Monae, the sultry adult sounds of Ledisi and apparently the rock/funk/soul of Liv Warfield.
Does that level of stylistic diversity exist for female rappers aspiring to mainstream success, or would The Floacist find herself intruding in territory pretty much spoken for by Nicki Minaj? Stewart righty concluded that the latter scenario is closer to the truth and stuck to a genre that she helped refine, is true to her principals and also has the advantage of making her distinctive.
So The Floacist releases The Rise of the Phoenix Mermaid, a solid 13-track album that touches on topics ranging from love and romance, female empowerment, commentary on the debilitating effects of materialism and sentimental yet eloquent musings on the wisdom of the family matriarch and motherhood.
The rhythmic “Broken Heart” is a bass and drum driven piece that finds The Floacist using her skills to implore a young lady to resist the despair that often accompanies a painful breakup. Her flow moves close to rap as her vocals move in concert with the upright bass.
The Floacist dives into her Afro-Jamaican roots on the political “Heat It Up,” a track that serves as a cry for us to assert our collective humanity at a time when commercial values reign supreme. This is probably the type of record the folks in corporate hoped Stewart would eschew, but the song’s theme is The Floacist to the core.
Whether The Floacist is singing or flowing, the strength of her lyrics remains constant. Tracks such as the inspirational “On It,” the romantic “If You Really Wanna Know” and tribute song “Grandma” confirm that her decision to stand on principal was the right one for The Floacist and her fans. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes