THE STORY GOES that west London teenager Shola Ama was singing to herself at Hammersmith tube station one day when, in true pop-legend fashion, a record company scout happened by. Taken by her vampish soul style, he signed her up — and by the age of 18 she’d achieved a platinum-selling album and a Brit award. But this serendipitous good fortune is offset by what some might call a manifest lack of charisma — she’s got the voice, the looks and the Rodney Jerkins-produced new LP, In Return, but she hasn’t got the presence that might redeem a show that started 90 minutes late.
Much is made of the fact that Ama is only 20, but this is one of those instances when youth has little to recommend it. Maybe by the time she’s her heroine Aretha Franklin’s age, she’ll have enough experience under her gold silk belt to instil real joy and pain into her sumptuous songs. At the Jazz Café, she relied on Live & Kicking bubbliness (“Thanks, guys, and you’ll probably know this next one”), technical skills and an impeccable band, but all of these were as nothing against the gig’s lack of star quality.
There’s an R&B subspecies called the slow jam that increasingly has cropped up at gigs. It’s a groove-based meander that can go on for up to 10 minutes without reaching resolution or even chorus, giving the artist the chance to wander in and out of the song in patented “soulful” manner. Even the burningly charismatic Lauryn Hill has a hard time making them interesting, so what possessed Ama to base the majority of her set on them? They sedated the audience into head-nodding slumber from which they failed to wake even when the guitarist asked us to sing happy birthday to Shola.
The hits ‘You Might Need Somebody’ and ‘You’re the One I Love’ produced a livelier response, due both to their brevity and Ama’s rousing herself to deliver spirited versions that displayed her elastic range. This is where she should be heading, toward the mainstream regions where Whitney Houston flourishes. And if a little of Houston’s imperious-diva attitude rubs off, so much the better.
© Caroline Sullivan, The Guardian, 11 March 2000