N'Dambi paraded defiant optimism through much of her sizzling show at the Black Cat on Friday night. One of her most transfixing moments was her "Ode to Nina," a powerful song, from her 2001 disc, "Tunin Up and Cosignin," about a weary woman comforting her no-good man of his trifling ways.
"I ain't complaining/I'm just tired," N'Dambi belted, filling the sentiments with equal parts sass and sadness before the end of verse, "of your comings/your goings/your leavings/your stayings." Inspired by the legendary Nina Simone, the song indeed saw N'Dambi channeling the late heroine's knack for "straight from the hip" poetry as she fully embodied the rage of a protagonist.
After a rapturous applause from the half-packed yet dedicated house, N'Dambi delivered "Can't Hardly Wait," another ode to an amorous deadbeat, from her latest 2009 disc, "Pink Elephant." Addressing a man who spends all her money but spends no quality time with her, N'Dambi sang of a woman stuck in a toxic relationship who wants to leave, yet who still clings on.
Fronting a tight six-piece band, the sylphlike singer with the auburn-tinted hair appropriately rocked a look similar to Tina Turner's character Aunty Entity from the 1985 sci-fi flick, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," only sexier. But for all the tough-girl attitude that she projected through her songs, N'Dambi balanced it with a sweet Southern charm that signals her Dallas upbringing. She possesses a supple, raspy voice, capable of bellowing chesty alto notes, then rising to a crackling soprano. She excelled at evoking southern R&B songstresses such as Ann Peebles, Betty Wright and Denise LaSalle but without the throwback contrivance associated with retro-soul.
Still navigating slightly below mainstream R&B's radar for more than a decade, N'Dambi continues to get mileage out her now-classic 1999 debut, "Little Lost Girl Blues." The audience showered her with enthusiasm when she rendered that album's bittersweet "Lonely Woman," a lament dedicated to her late Aunt Eva, who lived an unfulfilled life in constant martyrdom.
She packed another emotional wallop with the rueful "What's Wrong With You," also from that album.
And although "Pink Elephant" hardly got the attention that it deserved and that could have made N'Dambi more of a household name, her devoted fans cheered when she charged into some of its material such as the misty-eyed "Nobody Jones," the sensual "Ooo Baby" and the sobering, hard-hitter "L.I.E.," on which N'Dambi sang of a married man, dangerously leading a double life.