New band of the day – No 549: Mpho

The pan-generic approach of this pigeon-hole defying artist recalls original future-shock 'pandrogen' Grace Jones

Hometown: London.

The lineup: Mpho Skeef (vocals).

The background: Along with thecocknbullkid, Santigold, Remi Nicole, Ebony Bones and Shingai Shoniwa of Noisettes, Mpho Skeef is part of a new breed of young black, or mixed race, London girls (and look out for American not-soul performer Janelle Monae later this year) who resolutely refuse to make the music that's expected of "women of colour", such as R&B, hip-hop or grime. Their role models, more than any female musicians, are Prince or Andre 3000 of OutKast, drawn as they are to those male artists' uncategorisable, polymorphously promiscuous and pan-generic approach that enables them to do a hard-rock number one minute and a liquid-synth ballad the next, while playing with racial and gender stereotypes and generally doing the "expect the unexpected" thing.

If they do have a female precursor in mind, one on whom they've based their vision of themselves, it's probably the original future-shock "pandrogen" Grace Jones, even if the latter arguably achieved greater notoriety outside of chi-chi nightclub circles for her outrageous couture than she did for her music (how many Grace Jones songs can you name apart from maybe Pull Up to the Bumper and Slave to the Rhythm? Exactly). The point is, there is no evidence that there is, or indeed ever has been, a demand among the British public for such a female performer.

Nevertheless, here is Mpho (pronounced Mmmm-poh), singing on a track called See Me Now, "I'm a superstar, can't you see me shining? I never needed your permission to fly..." On the track, a forthcoming single, and on Box N Locks, her first single, due out in July, the former session singer and music teacher, who was born in apartheid South Africa and raised in a bohemian, racially mixed family of musicians and political/community activists in south London, foregrounds her own attempts to avoid being pigeonholed. Box N Locks, based on a sample of Martha and the Muffins' 1980 new wave hit Echo Beach and produced by M.I.A./Santigold sidekick Switch, is all about defying expectations: she's not, she sings, some "ghetto chick"; she wants regular pop success, only the kind enjoyed by Prince, Andre 3000, even Kate Bush, who manage, by dint of their sheer talent and supreme singlemindedness, to inveigle awkward, avant-garde ideas into the mainstream.

It's not actually her first foray – she sang on Bugz In the Attic single Booty La La and ColdCut's Sound Mirrors album and has done backing vocals for Ms Dynamite and Natasha Bedingfield – but it opens her account as a solo artist on a major label. And it's got the full backing of said label: it comes from her autumn-release debut album, Pop Art, which features writing/production contributions from Switch, Future Cut (Dizzee Rascal, Kate Nash, Lily Allen), Rick Nowels (Belinda Carlisle, Andre 3000) and Rob Davis (Kylie). From what we've heard – the squelchy synth-funk of Paranoid Type and the staccato machine strut of Hips Go Pop – it's a creditable attempt to create a radical black electronic pop sound, and it has more in common with the music of La Roux and Little Boots than it does anyone from the urban milieu. But it's let down by the lyrics: banal critiques of size-zero advertising and the sort of seize-control, be-true-to-yourself proselytising that has so let down black British artists in the past. Instead of telling us what she doesn't want us to think of her, she should take heart from the success of someone like Dizzee and find things to say that are as startling and original as her music (often) is.

The buzz: "The anything-goes aesthetic of OutKast, the bravura risk-taking of Prince, and the your-record-collection-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of De La Soul."

The truth: We hate to sound alarmist, but the fact that Little Boots and La Roux have Done It and thecockbullkid, say, thus far hasn't suggests Mpho might have a point with her pre-emptive lyrical strikes about pigeonholes and black artists.

Most likely to: Party for the right to fight.

Least likely to: Enjoy being proved right.

What to buy: Pop Art is released by Wall Of Sound/Parlophone on 19 October, preceded by the singles Box N Locks (on 13 July) and See Me Now (12 October).

File next to: Janelle Monae, Remi Nicole, Noisettes, thecocknbullkid.


Tuesday's new band: Ghostcat.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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