Asa – Asa (2009, Mercer Street)
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Folks in my line of work have been predicting a great pan-cultural pop culture shakeup for years now; it seems like every time someone who isn’t lily-white enjoys a career breakthrough in the States, we take to our keyboards to discuss the tremendous significance of, say, Margaret Cho. But as wrong as we’ve been thus far, predicting this stuff is like predicting the weather — if you say it’s going to rain enough times, eventually you’re going to be right, and in 2009, it feels like rain.

Take a look, for instance, at our man Jon Cummings’ favorite film of the moment, Slumdog Millionaire: It stars a bunch of brown people that few non-Bollywood enthusiasts had ever heard of before the Golden Globes were announced, but at a screening I recently attended in the rather old and extremely Caucasian town of Sarasota, there was a line out the door. This wouldn’t be happening if the movie wasn’t thoroughly awesome, of course, but one or two decades ago, Slumdog wouldn’t even have received a wide release, let alone become a hit (and the same thing goes for M.I.A.’s “Paper Airplanes,” which receives prominent placement on the Slumdog soundtrack).

And oh look, here’s Asa, the single-monikered singer/songwriter who was born in Paris, raised in Lagos, and is now serving as MTV’s ambassador to South Africa and opening for Akon, John Legend, Beyonce, and Snoop Dogg. Have you ever heard of her? Probably not — and honestly, there’s very little on her self-titled debut that suggests she’ll reach even an M.I.A.-sized audience in ’09 — but as a bellwether of cultural phenomena, she might be one of the more interesting artists of the new year.

Asa has received comparisons to Ayo and Tracy Chapman, and both are fair enough; Asa carries a whiff of the tasteful Putumayo world music vibe that yuppie crackers love, as well as strong political overtones. The difference is one of presentation — Asa, for the most part, sweeps aside the folk-soul underpinnings of Chapman and Ayo’s music, opting instead for a fairly slick, pop-grounded approach. It’s a shame, too, because she’s at her best when she’s at her earthiest; songs like “Eye Adaba” hint at a less buttoned-down, commercially obvious approach, and it’s there that Asa‘s brightest moments lie.

Sure, Asa seems to have limited commercial prospects — but you could say the same thing for most albums released these days. And even though these 10 songs don’t really deliver on their promise, they do offer hope that future efforts will come closer to the bullseye.