American R&B fans may not want to admit this, but popular soul music has reached a point where it has become so predictably formulaic that it's almost insulting.
Des'Ree Weekes may change that. The 26-year-old singer, known simply as Des'Ree, has an intensely soulful musical style that doesn't mirror the calculated R&B usually heard on the radio. And though the British singer's music is difficult to categorize, she has found mainstream success. Her album "I Ain't Movin' " has sold more than 1 million copies in the United States alone. Its self-affirming first single, "You Gotta Be," a danceable fusion of Caribbean, soul and folk sounds, is tremendously radio-friendly, and its accompanying video is a stunning black-and-white visual journey.
Critics have compared Des'Ree to Sarah Vaughan, Anita Baker and Vanessa Williams, but there is stronger evidence that she has arrived: Not long ago, "You Gotta Be" was spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."
"Acoustic soul" is how Des'Ree refers to her hard-to-pigeonhole music. "It's acoustic because it's live and it's soulful because it's honest," she says. "It's deep -- it comes from within. It doesn't adhere to an R&B fashion, or a swing beat, or a hip-hop groove, or a British soul feel."
Call it what you will, but hugely successful would be one way to describe it.
The album's sales figures are remarkable, particularly considering the fact that Des'Ree's label, Sony 550, initially had some difficulty figuring out how to market it. "The record company kept saying, Well, you're not black enough for black radio, and you're not really contemporary pop. Maybe we'll approach you through the AC route,' " Des'Ree says. "And I said, Well, what's AC?' That's like adult contemporary.'
"And I said, Well, what's adult contemporary?'
"I have to get used to all of these niches and names," she says ruefully.
Des'Ree's first album, 1992's "Mind Adventures," was a hit in Europe but received virtually no recognition here. "I was very nervous," she says. "I thought, Well, am I going to be able to break through, do I have what it takes' -- because I've seen artists that have what it takes but haven't succeeded in the way in which they should have."
In the past, British acts have rarely made it onto American R&B charts, but recent years have yielded some exceptions, including the sultry Sade; folksy, offbeat Seal; and dance music masters Soul II Soul. Now it seems that America's reluctance to accept the alternative R&B sounds filtering out of Great Britain may be a thing of the past. Subtle changes have already begun, contends Billboard magazne's R&B editor, J.R. Reynolds, citing such examples of "hybrid forms" as jazz and hip-hop fusion and the trendy merging of reggae and R&B. "Kids," Reynolds explains, "are always looking for what's next."
Reynolds cites the success of such artists as Us3, Guru, Me'shell NdegeOcello and Dionne Farris, American musicians who have been able to bring a different kind of R&B music into the mainstream.
"Looking at a black-music point of view, I think we in Britain have always looked to America to produce R&B, to produce the soul, to produce the jazz, because the Americans have always done it," says Des'Ree. "They're established, that's what they do, they do it the best. So we kind of feel, like, anything we do isn't going to be embraced 100 percent because it's not going to be as good.
"But I think that now there seems to be a revolution where British artists are saying, Well, we're just as credible; we're just as innovative and creative as anyone else."
Des'Ree was born in London to immigrant parents (her mother is from Guyana, her father from Barbados), and her early musical influences were fairly eclectic: Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron. For her, the strongest impact was made by reggae avatar Bob Marley. "He was a very proud black man," she says. "He brought his history into his music. He brought his culture and his heritage into his music, and he seemed the type of man who would have died in the struggle, as it were. And we still are struggling in a way, and he still lives on; his spirit's very present."
Des'Ree had no music industry experience when she sent a demo tape to CBS Music (now Sony 550). "I never had musicians who were my friends; I'd never been, like, doing backing vocals for friends of mine or anything," she says. But she sent the tape on a Friday and received an enthusiastic response the following Monday. "I went and saw them, and they said, We love what you do.' " She said she had no studio or touring experience. "They said, We love the fact that you haven't done any of that, because you're raw, and you're fresh.' And next thing I knew I was in a studio in Australia, in Japan, in Europe."
"Mind Adventures" was derived from that demo tape. She describes that album as being her "notions about life."
"You know, like a young teenager -- naive, juvenile, on the outside of the bubble looking in, being like an observer. Interpreting love, I suppose. Childhood, living in the West Indies, divorce, because my parents separated. All of these complicated human relationships and experiences were what I was trying to digest and understand."
Her second album, particularly "You Gotta Be," announces Des'Ree's transition into adulthood: "You gotta be cool/ You gotta be calm/ You gotta stay together."
"It's about the adult now who had participated in life, knew what it was to feel the pain, knew what it was to feel in control, knew what it was to feel good, and joy and pleasure," she says of the album. "And also knowing that in order to have mind adventures, in order to have laughter, in order to herald the day, in order to trip on love, I ain't movin' from my face, from my race, from my history."
The rest of "I Ain't Movin' " doesn't have the same flavor as "You Gotta Be," and Des'Ree hopes that listeners will appreciate a little diversity.
"I think You Gotta Be' doesn't overshadow, but sometimes I think it's making people think, That's 100 percent Des'Ree.' We're all crystals really, and You Gotta Be' is just one side of me," she says. "I think people have only just scratched the surface."
Des'Ree just completed a song for filmmaker Spike Lee's soon-to-be-released adaptation of "Clockers" and is currently on tour with Seal.
And the offers just keep coming. She has been approached by Stevie Wonder and the artist formerly known as Prince, both of whom are interested in working on future projects with her. "I hope to be around for quite a long time. I'm lucky, I think, and it's a lot to do with the commitment of the record company around you. Because there are so many artists who are so talented, they can sing, they can write songs that will move a mountain, but we will never hear them," she says.
"I'm always aware of that, and I say, Well, I've been given the opportunity -- let me not insult the universe by not making full use of it.' " CAPTION: Des'Ree performing her "acoustic soul" at New York's Paramount Theatre: "It's acoustic because it's live and it's soulful because it's honest."