Artist: Rhian Benson
Album: Gold Coast
Rating: 8 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
Don’t say I don’t bring y’all some culture every now and again. Taking a break from Hiphop is often as important as listening to Hiphop – it allows you to come back to the music that we love refreshed and eager for new material. On my latest break I’ve been listening to this girl. Style of music? Hmmm, think D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Jazzyphatnastees, Amel Larrieux… the kind of stuff that pigeon-holers like to insultingly call ‘neo-soul’. Call it what you will, but its hard to deny that its often superb music to chill to.
So anyway, lets talk about this Benson lady – she was born into the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, West Africa to a Welsh mother who was an established singer, and a Ghanian father who led an acclaimed big band in the ’50’s and ’60’s. In addition her eldest uncle was a popular highlife singer, and her youngest uncle a record producer. With music in her family, its not surprising that Rhian went this route, and her desire to become a musician coincided with a family move to India. Within weeks of arriving in New Delhi, Rhian’s passion was fully ignited: she began playing the piano, and wrote her first song when she was 9. By the time she and her family returned to Ghana, Rhian was fully engrossed in music – both listening and creating.
While music was essential to her, so was education – an apparent paradox for someone so clearly in tune with the creative. The enigmatic Benson left her artistic pursuits behind and pursued a career in the distinctly right-brained field of banking, attending the prestigious London School of Economics and then entering Harvard University to begin graduate study in finance. But while studying in Boston, life intervened: Rhian’s mother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
Rhian immediately went back to London, where her mother was undergoing intense treatment. With her family spread throughout the world, Rhian became responsible for her mother’s day-to-day care. It was during her time at her mother’s side that Rhian rediscovered music: it became a source of strength for her. As her mother began to heal physically, Rhian began to heal emotionally – through music.
Although her mother’s health had improved, Rhian stayed in London – once she recognized the significance of music in her life, she abandoned her plans to return to Harvard – and began performing regularly at small venues, where she was discovered and signed.
In addition to singing and playing various instruments, on this album she wrote all of the songs on the record, collaborating with a close-knit group of talented musicians. During the production process she worked closely with noted producers James Poyser (who has worked with Lauryn Hill, The Roots and Jill Scott amongst others) and Bob Power (D’Angelo, Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu.) With these two on board, its not a big surprise that “Gold Coast” is similar in vibe to albums from the above named artists.
Benson’s voice is warm and mellow, very Sade-esque, if such a comparison is possible to be made. In fact on the opening track, ‘Words Hurt Too’, Rhian sounds uncannily like Sade on the chorus – its a compliment that a relatively new artist’s vocal qualities can sit comfortably beside such an established and well-loved star. ‘Say How I Feel’ sees Poyser blend anthemic strings and pluck-pluck guitar sounds to carry Benson across a crowded room to confront a potential suitor. Unfortunately Rhian can’t pluck up the courage to go with the flow, and regrets her indecision as the unnamed man walks over to her, and then at the last second turns to ask her friend to dance – typical real-life situation for many people, summed up beautifully in four and a half minutes.
Not only does she use her vocal talents extremely well, but her skill with the pen cannot be overlooked. This lady can write songs extremely well, and her use of metaphors and imagery makes the album supremely listenable. ‘Stealing My Piece Of Mind’ is superbly written, confidently sung, and Power’s sharp production supports Benson magnificently.
Tracks like ‘Shake It Away’, ‘Invincible’ and ‘The One’ continue to show Benson’s skills as both a writer and vocallist. Her creative use of words evokes sympathy and feeling for the situations she writes about, especially on ‘The One’, an ode to the special person in her life.
“Will you reach up to the sun, and pull it from the sky?
Will you paint its warmth into my smile?
Will you tell the wind
To blow away each tear that I ever cried?
Are you the one?”
Other areas of life are explored and vividly described – singing to the inner ‘child’ inside us all to create freedom of spirit on ‘Sing To The Child’ and relationship problems in ‘I’m In A Bind’ both stand out as marked examples of ideas well executed.
‘Spirit’ is an apt closer to the album. As Rhian sings the Ashanti ballad in her traditional Ghanaian language over a lilting guitar and strings, her warm emotive voice comes to the fore delivering a sense of serenity, encouragement, and assurance to those seeking their way in life.
Benson’s debut is a mixture of R’n’B and soul with tinges of jazz, reggae and world music. As music to vibe to, it accomplishes its job perfectly – this is an album to have in the background while you kick back and take it easy. Its chillout music, and is highly recommended if you come across it.