Malaysian soul diva Ning Baizura unleashes her 8th full length solo Malay album DEWA after a wait that seams almost an eternity. In a span of seven years since her last Malay opus ‘Erti Pertemuan’, significant changes occurred in the chanteuses life. On a personal level, she has found and married the love of her life while professionally, she broke free from her previous management and pursued to chart her own career path independently.
The Malaysian music scene has also evolved tremendously during that time span as well. The rise of indie bands and talented singer-songwriters had invigorated the flagging local industry, bringing much needed freshness and excitement. To remain relevant, long established performers like Ning did not simply rest on their laurels and stick to what is known and familiar. Instead, like she always does, continued to reinvent and adapt to the changing status quo. As such, in her latest offering, she took considerable risks by changing her sound to feature edgier production and the use more of her lower vocal register in lieu of her signature soprano. Yet she did so with such confidence and panache that the set is destined to become a credible contender for best album come the end-year accolades.
As with her English release ‘EastToWest’, Ning expanded her love for electronic and dance music in the new album, while at the same time elevating her forte of pop, R&B and soul to the next level. In hindsight, perhaps it is indeed fitting that her special collaboration with Jac and Shila on ‘3Suara’ released early in the year offers vestiges of her ‘old’ sound as a final reminder for fans, acting as a prelude prior to unleashing her latest transformation.
DEWA, which means ‘light’ in Sanskrit is truly a reflection of Ning’s present stage in her career, love and life. While producer extraordinaire Audi Mok very much created a sonically forward landscape for the new, self-funded album, it is also as much a retrospective of some sorts: Ad Samad and Nurfatimah seems to have the uncanny ability to tap into the diva’s psyche and penned highly intimate lyrics that offers insights and glimpses of what defines her as an artiste, a wife and a woman. Also, there is a deep sense of spirituality seeping throughout the album, most apparent in the slower numbers.
Perhaps no other song defines the new Ning sound more effectively than the lead single, MAMA PAPA, a miasma of heavy bass beats and edgy synths designed to complement her digitized delivery about the ups and downs of marital relations. An infectious chorus and clever wordplay by Ad Samad made quite the impact on local airwaves. The groove continues with the second single, the blistering club banger RAKSASA. Here, Ning showers unbridled adulation to her love and praises his confidence and larger than life persona. However, not one to mistake that confidence with cockiness, she cheekily reminds her man not to get ahead of himself: Awas langkahmu, jangan terpijak orang berjiwa kecil. Meanwhile, the edgy PROPAGANDA, with lyrics written by Ning herself is addressed specifically to all the duplicitous individuals throughout her career who abused her trust by offering sweet lies and empty promises. The ‘angry’ vocal delivery, lashing almost, should serve as a stern warning to all who dare take advantage of her again.
The three up-tempo tracks are counterpointed with a curated selection of ballads. An interesting side note here are the tracks SAMPAI and BILA, which are basically two sides of the same song. Audi Mok produced both versions in two interesting yet distinctive directions, while Ning’s expertly reinterprets her vocal delivery accordingly, revealing the subtle nuances of Nurfatimah’s verses about regret, acceptance and moving on. On SAMPAI, Audi created a futuristic and almost militaristic soundscape, with the diva’s singing serving as a rallying call and personal anthem to women in particular. But if the first version finds Ning on the offensive, the latter finds her on the defensive. On BILA, the version ultimately selected as the third single, the production is contrastingly paired down to a rock ballad vibe, with the singing warmer, more emotive and vulnerable yet belies an unwavering strength: Sampai bila harus ku sabar? Sampai bila harus ku dengar perbalahan dua jiwa? Pergelutan hati perasaan.
Perhaps the most sophisticated and accomplished track in the whole album is the ethereal and utterly sublime slow burning number PENCARIAN. Featuring a lush and sweeping string arrangement, Ning’s vocals are a master class in understated elegance: starting off in her low, husky tones and eventually soaring high towards the climactic end. Delivering some of the most intimate lyrics on the set, here we find her in a position of a wizened sage, one that after having amassed a lifetime of experiences can she dispense the wisdom that the only never-ending journey and conquest in life is to find true love.
As mentioned earlier, there is a spiritualistic vein that runs deep in the album. And no other song enunciates that sentiment more beautifully than the inspiring and optimistic ballad ALHAMDULILLAH, easily the beating heart of the entire set list. Set against a piano accompaniment and gradually building in instrumentation, Ning’s vocals are clear and soulful and features some off her best R&B vocal runs to date (you know it when you hear it). The track is indeed a joy to listen to and is sure to uplift the mind and senses. The album bookends with AKU BUKAN DEWA, another autobiographical number with a strong declarative message that now is time to be herself having nothing left to prove and that, like everyone else, is only human and not without flaws.
Clocking at less than 30 minutes, DEWA succinctly yet clearly reflects Ning’s artistic vision and current musical direction. This highly listenable and accomplished album should sustain her legion of fans and even entice new ones into the fold for years to come.
- Raksasa / Audi Mok; Pam Yuen; Ad Samad*****
- Sampai / Audi Mok; Nurfatimah*****
- Mama Papa / Audi Mok; Ad Samad****1/2
- Bila / Audi Mok; Nurfatimah*****
- Pencarian / Audi Mok; Nurfatimah*****
- Propaganda / Audi Mok; Ning Baizura****1/2
- Alhamdulillah / Audi Mok; Nurfatimah*****
- Aku Bukan Dewa / Pam Yuen; Ad Samad****