Graded on a Curve:
Neneh Cherry,
Raw Like Sushi

It’s long well-known that singer-songwriter, rapper and DJ Neneh Cherry excels at defying categorization, but roughly three decades ago she burst onto the global scene with confidence by exploding the boundaries between the ascendant genres of rap, ’80s R&B and house music. The single was “Buffalo Stance,” a worldwide chart smash; it widened the era’s pop possibilities and helped lay the groundwork for ’90s trip-hop. In 1989, the song opened her full-length debut Raw Like Sushi, and that the subsequent tracks avoided letdown secured the LP as a landmark of stylistic hybridization. For its 30th anniversary, Virgin/UMe has given it 3LP and 3CD editions, both with a 48pg album-sized booklet. There is also a slimmer reissue of the original record sans extras on gold wax. All are available now.

Raw Like Sushi is Neneh Cherry’s debut, but to call her a newcomer to the scene in 1989 is erroneous, as early in the decade she’d sang in The Slits, with membership in Rip Rig + Panic following shortly thereafter. A little later she was a third of the fleeting trio Raw Sex, Pure Energy (responsible for the Falkland Islands War protest 12-inch “Stop the War” b/w “Give Sheep a Chance”) and Float Up CP (basically Rip Rig + Panic reformed under a new name).

Inching nearer to her pop breakout, she collaborated with Matt Johnson on “Slow Train to Dawn” from The The’s 1986 LP Infected and contributed to “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch,” the B-side to the Stock Aitken Waterman-produced ’87 single “Looking Good Diving” by Morgan-McVey (featuring Jamie Morgan and Cameron McVey, the latter Cherry’s future husband).

“Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch” can be described as “Buffalo Stance” in embryo, but the cut has deeper connections to Raw Like Sushi’s whole, as track remixers the Wild Bunch featured Robert Del Naja, soon to be a member of Massive Attack and also the cowriter of Sushi track “Manchild.” The association reinforces the record’s stature as a crucial foundational stone in the architecture of trip-hop, though the deepest credit goes to Cherry of course as she’s long abjured the rigidity of musical format.

Raw Like Sushi is the direct byproduct of that disdain. To be sure, the LP’s refusal to conform in respect to style resulted in a significant portion of its initial popularity, at least in the USA, stemming from music video play rather than radio rotation, especially in the suburban markets of the country, where anything with a rap inflection was still novel on commercial airwaves.

As a woman rapper, Cherry wasn’t a trailblazer; Roxanne Shante, J.J. Fad, and Salt-N-Pepa were predecessors, with MC Lyte and Queen Latifah her contemporaries. What set Cherry apart was her success in combining different genres (a couple, like rap and house, not easy bedfellows at this juncture) and in a way that was natural, infectious and ultimately robust, all while making a record that was essentially pop.

Cherry’s achievement was likened to both Madonna and Prince at the time. Both are understandable, but as she refused to settle into a stylistic niche, it’s the latter that resonates most strongly today. Combining rap with New Jack Swing, servings of pure ’80s pop (which is where the Madonna comparisons were generated; see “Phoney Ladies”) and dance music spice could’ve spelled disaster, but her aptitude for rapping, considerably above average, was augmented by sharp instincts and good taste in producers.

What resulted was an album that is neither boldly eclectic (as said, it’s essentially a pop record) nor saccharine (as evidenced by the lack of backlash to its hybridization). On top of it all, it’s an LP offering multifaceted social commentary in large part concerning the empowerment of women and the deflation of suspect male egos and behavior.

And so, as it’s dated quite well, it’s a disc fully deserving of anniversary tribute, and if you want everything Virgin/UMe has corralled for the occasion, you’ll need the 3CD edition. It’s important to note that the 3LP omits the braggadocio critique “My Bitch,” which was a bonus track on some (but not all) early CD issues. It does include the demo version of “Heart,” that cut opening side three, though vinyl album two is otherwise devoted to remixes of “Buffalo Stance” (plus the variant “Buffalo Blues”).

Amongst them are two by Arthur Baker that really highlight how the threads of dance music, R&B and rap presented a much deeper than surface weave. The third LP also shaves off one of two Massive Attack remixes of “Manchild” and one of two remixes by Smith ‘N’ Mighty of the same track. The other cuts missing on the 3LP are the club mix of “Heart” and an extended mix of “Kisses on the Wind.”

For those who love the record but lack a copy or just want an upgrade, and for whom all these extras seem superfluous, the gold vinyl single LP is the way to go, though I would suggest giving the remixes a digital test drive before simply discounting them, as the range of approaches is wide and bears up to extended and repeated spins. At least in this house.

This anniversary set effectively reinforces that Raw Like Sushi is more than just the record that gifted the world with “Buffalo Stance.” Instead, it’s an album of breadth, smarts, and myriad possibilities. It holds up like a champ.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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