Ursula Rucker

Ursula Rucker's world is rarely an easy place to visit. Her words are fierce, her imagery is overwhelming (wrap your head around the synesthesia of "his voice comes in my hair"), but her third album, Ma'at Mama, is mostly difficult because it's such a surreal trip. Rucker's work is precisely poetic, but there's a hallucinatory musicality in her voice and attitude that elevates it beyond standard spoken-word fare. Not so much a pit bull in a skirt as a scorpion, her sweet tone takes its time to paint her words' broad strokes (be they about justice, bleeding-heart equal opportunists, or why girls turn into video hoes). Less captivating than Rucker's persona are her backing tracks, which at best signal a light trip-hop revival, and at weirdest echo post-NPG — Prince at his pseudojazziest. But of course her own music is no match for her: Rucker may not be a conventional pop diva, but her absolute command over her expression and work makes her one all the same. And she does it all without a bit of melisma. How's that for assuredness?

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Rich Juzwiak