DONNIE

"The Colored Section"

Giant Step

FERTILE GROUND

"Seasons Change"

Blackout Studios

Marvin Gaye may be Donnie's second cousin, but Stevie Wonder is his musical and spiritual forebear. Lexington, Ky.-born and Atlanta-bred, Donnie was fired in the same alterna-soul forge as India.Arie, and while there's a similar underlying sensuality and spirituality (not surprising since, like Gaye, Donnie is a son of ministers in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church), it's Wonder's '70s-style soul and socially conscious lyrics that inform "The Colored Section." Even the title is politically charged, as it's a term that recognizes the ugly restrictions and limits of the past as well as the options and opportunities of the future.

"Beautiful Me," built on a chattering rhythm reminiscent of Arrested Development, addresses Jim Crow-rooted judgments ("Head, shoulders, knees and toes / Lips, my eyes my nose / They all go against what society calls beautiful") and preaches self-esteem and pride ("I'm not a nigger, I'm a Negro / When I become a nigger, I'll let you know"). Similarly, the very Wonder-ish "Cloud 9" expresses that self-image in cosmic terms: "Happy to be nappy, I'm black and I'm proud / That I have been chosen to wear the conscious cloud / And I'm fine under Cloud 9." Wonders continue on the light and lovely ballads "You Got a Friend" and "Heaven Sent," as well as "Wildlife," featuring a snappy Wonder-style harmonica vamp above supple Steely Dan grooves.

Donnie's social critiques are consistently sharp, from the languid mix of sorrow and uplift in "Welcome to the Colored Section," to the horn-driven swagger of "People Person," which decries instant judgments based on appearances. Better yet is "Big Black Buck," which uses New Orleans second-line syncopations and caustic Randy Newman-ish irony to compare black consumerism to mental slavery (listen for the "Shortnin' bread" echoes and such sentiments as "Every time we buy into this criminal society / We whip that Big Black Buck again and bring him down to his knees"). But Donnie's optimism also leaves room for "Our New National Anthem" and its vision of "your race my race come together and have a taste of the new day for the remix."

James Collins, keyboardist and principal writer for Baltimore's Fertile Ground, has a similar reverence for the upbeat sounds and spiritual sentiments of '70s Afrocentric soul-jazz, occasionally seasoned with hip-hop sensibilities. The best example on "Season's Change" is "Like Poetry," a collaboration with poet Olu Woods and rappers the Poem-cees that pays inspirational respect to generations of African American poets and griots. There's a charming invitation to astral traveling on tracks like "Star People" and "Take Me Higher," while "Freedom" preaches knowledge of self as empowerment. Other highlights include the romantic languor to "Come 2 Me," the genial party feel to "One Mo Gin" and the entwining of spiritual and physical pleasures on "Dance." The album as a whole proves a fine showcase for Navasha Daya, an Erykah Badu-esque diva in the making.

-- Richard Harrington

Both appearing Friday at the Black Cat. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Donnie, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8110; to hear Fertile Ground, press 8111. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)