During the 1990s, Neneh Cherry acted as a cool and funky older sister of British pop, her status taken on trust since she’d run with the gang that became Massive Attack. And like a cool and funky older sibling, the “Buffalo Stance” singer, daughter of a Swedish artist and an African engineer, wasn’t always around much. In fact, not much beyond the “7 Seconds” it took to have a worldwide hit with Youssou N’Dour. She was absent partly by choice (motherhood being her priority) and partly through circumstance: as she has said of record-company proclivities, “In the black department, [my sound] wasn’t black enough, and in the white department it was too black. So it was this weird middle satellite, floating around.”
Music-industry thinking has shifted a bit now, yet Cherry – transmitting once again – is hardly in the middle of any regular frequency. Blank Project, her first solo album for 18 years, is a darkly soulful, throbbingly rhythmic affair. It has one reaching for the phrase “drum ’n’ bass odyssey”, idle since before Goldie starting appearing on reality TV, but there was a distinctly 1990s flavour to her material at this show, part of the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival.
Emotively, like a post-trip-hop Billie or Nina, she began with “Across the Water”; the music as stark and blue as the set design, which was a simple backcloth illuminated with uplighters silhouetting Cherry and her players, the brothers Ben and Tom Page of RocketNumberNine.
In an Adidas top and a skirt artfully rent into ribbons, her look was pretty 1990s, too. Tribal drums recalling Leftfield’s “Phat Planet” rolled beneath the elastic skank of Blank Project’s title track, which grew increasingly frenzied as the apparent effects of the menstrual cycle unfolded (“On my 28th day, he is my victim”).
The low-end buzz of “Spit Three Times” had the seated crowd head-nodding, while “Weightless” combined what could have been distorted aircraft noise and strafing breakbeats. Cherry’s vocals were sometimes purring, sometimes strident – occasionally treated with murky Vocoding, but with her pop vitality keeping energy and interest high.
The vibrant trio finished with a “Buffalo Stance” repurposed with radiantly spangled krautrock under its infectious hip-hop hook. RocketNumberNine played like a latter-day east London Neu!. Members of the audience flocked to the foot of the stage to dance. The star shooed away the killjoy security man. At 50, Cherry remains cool, funky and big sisterly.