Album Review: Sade's "Soldier of Love"

According to the rumor mill, Kanye West and hip-hop's newest "it" boy, Drake, reached out to Sade, the reclusive chanteuse, for a possible collaboration. She said she'd have to do some research to find out who they were before she could say yes. The story is apocryphal at best, but is spreading at an urban legend's pace because, like the best urban legends, it confirms what we already thought. Sade, the notoriously press-shy songstress who has stingily parceled out music since the mid-'80s, seems like the type to have never heard of Kanye West. She doesn't keep up with music; music keeps up with her.

Soldier of Love is Sade's first album in eight years, and is being met with a level of buzz that seems almost unwarranted. The Internet was abuzz when the album was announced, earning mentions in the Twitter feeds of 20-somethings who were still in utero when Sade's debut, Diamond Life, was released. The adoration isn't all about the music. The music is part of it, but she doesn't release it often enough for that alone to win loyalty—there were another eight years between her last album and the one that preceded it. Sade can casually drop back in to a warm reception because she has built the pop-music equivalent of a luxury brand.

Part of the Sade brand just comes from who she is: born to a Nigerian father and English mother, raised in London, blessed with a beauty that looks barely weathered at 51. She's the exotic, alluring foreigner. Her music is essentially pop, but heavily flavored with music styles favored by the elite. It's not jazz music, but it's jazzy. It's not world music, but it's worldly. Sade's music is staple of the "smooth jazz" radio format, but her original songs and the focus on her sumptuous voice (as opposed to a gaudy saxophone) elevate it above mere dentist's office filler.

Her most compelling songs are based on novel-ready characters: a bicoastal gigolo in Smooth Operator, a matador's wife in Fear, a suffering Somalian woman in Pearls. Just as we assume Bruce Springsteen's tales of the heartland are based on real people he's met in his travels, we assume Sade has been to the far-flung locales in which her characters are based. And she writes with a literary weight. From Like a Tattoo: "Fourteen years, he said/I couldn't look into the sun/She saw him laying/At the end of my gun/Hungry for life/And thirsty for the distant river." The elements combine in a way that communicates culture and sophistication. You either listen to Sade because you like her music, or because you want to be a person who likes her music.

Achieving an air of timeless value is a difficult feat for anyone, but practically impossible for a pop singer. Consumers of pop music are constantly on the hunt for what's next; there's seldom time for looking back, unless it's to the golden era of white guitar rock that most professional tastemakers hold sacred. Sade is neither what's new, nor the type of old that's typically valued. And because she's threaded this needle, it's all the more baffling that she seems content to tarnish the luxury brand she's created.

Soldier of Love presents, both unfortunately and uncharacteristically, a more contemporary Sade. She's still peddling international intrigue—the cover art shows her in a severe, backless gown facing what appear to be Mayan ruins. The new songs, though, forfeit the elegance of her classic material in favor of sheen and rougher texture, as with the title track, which is more beat-driven than anything she's ever done. Gone are the fascinating characters. The sole ballad, Babyfather, is pedestrian—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy gets girl pregnant—more Jack & Diane than Tristan and Isolde.

There's no way for an artist to change and retain all her fans. There's no way to totally win, and changing too much or changing too little each comes with its own criticism. But there's more peril in it for someone like Sade, who has cultivated a classic image, just as there would be for Burberry if they decided to freshen up their trademark tartan.

Soldier of Love isn't my cup of tea, and I suspect that some will feel similarly, but not say so. Who admits to not liking Maybachs or Vuittons or Audemars Piguets? The benefit of building a luxury brand is that it becomes less about the product and more about the name on the product. The album itself isn't much use, unless you need something in the background during a mimosa brunch, but it'll sure look great on the coffee table.