Music: Poisonous, exhibitionist fluff - and I love it

He has been compared to Prince but admires the confessional pop of Pulp. Rachid is one black R&B singer who won't be typecast.
THERE'S A portrait on the cover, and that old-stager God tops the names on the huge "Thanks to" list inside the sleeve, but otherwise Prototype, by the artist known as Rachid - who plays his British debut at London's Jazz Cafe on Wednesday - is a long way from your usual R&B album.

Rachid may be, as he terms it, a person of colour, but he appears quite unwilling to be stereotyped by anyone's received idea of what he should represent, despite the fact that his father, Ronald Bell, was the co-founder of Seventies funksters, Kool and the Gang.

While there's enough distressed black dance music beats on the album to keep the R&B constituency fairly happy, there are also some rather avant-garde rock-guitar sounds and an over-riding concern for memorable melodies and killer hooks which make for pure, unashamed pop.

In a "secret" track at the end of the CD, there's even a cover of a Serge Gainsbourg song. But perhaps best of all are the lyrics, which delight in the kind of sexual ambiguity and androgynous posing that's usually the preserve of white men in pan-stick and tights.

Rachid sings of making a deposit in a dirty magazine (naturally, it's a song about going to the bank), and "Prodigal Pete" contains the memorable quatrain: "Get on the bed, that's what they said/You've got to give head to get ahead/The more they spit, the more I'll shine/ Dear mom and dad I'm doing just fine."

Listening to the album, which won't be released until the beginning of next year, although there is a single out soon, is like eating sweets after you have already cleaned your teeth and gone to bed. The taste is delicious - pure pop candy - but it is accompanied by a slightly troubling feeling which is one of guilt, for surely black music isn't meant to be this confessional, or so sickly and sweet?

And as Rachid sings, he does a little trick of putting a falsetto catch into his voice that is pure Prince, and you remember that there's an honourable precursor to this kind of vaguely poisonous, exhibitionist pop fluff in R&B mufti. Everybody compares Rachid to Prince, but to do the analogy justice you really need to go back to the days of "Dirty Mind", when the Minneapolis maestro was at his narrow-tied, American new-wave, poppiest. Prototype isn't that good, but as first-time albums go, it's more than good enough to be going on with.

In person, Rachid, who's 24 years of age, is small and wiry, with a pumped- up body and an elegant, slightly ruffled, look about him. He was brought up in New Jersey by his nutritionist mother and remembers his father as almost always being away on tour.

Though his parents are now divorced, he still sees his father regularly. He graduated in English and French from Sarah Lawrence College, where he also studied theatre, a training which is evident in the role-playing games of his lyrics. "Sometimes I can be telling a real story or exaggerating one, or sometimes I might invent a character and speak through him," he says. "There's also a lot of autobiography but I'm not going to tell people which bits are true. I have felt I was ugly and I have felt I was inadequate, but I over-inflate it. As regards the songs about my sexual identity, those are very human and honest feelings. The album is chock- full of self-flagellation".

The people Rachid likes to listen to are a rum bunch, and very revealing. "David Bowie, Nico, Iggy Pop, and I love that old Seventies punk and goth stuff. I fell a victim to that when I was at college in LA and I really stood out; I was the raisin in the bowl, the cherry amongst the ice-cream. Blacks have it the worst because we have this great tradition of rhythm and blues - which I would say includes people like the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant - and as a result everyone wants to put you in that box. You can have a blue-eyed soulster much easier than you can have a black rocker."

He's also a confirmed anglophile and a fan of British indie bands, from My Bloody Valentine to Curve. "I associate telling stories more with English music, like Jarvis Cocker", he says. "Music is a rock thing in America but in England it's pop. It's not about what colour someone is, it's about the hook and the melody. Even if I'm not white, I'm still allowed to experiment."

Rachid plays the Jazz Cafe, London NW1, on 30 Sept (0171-344 0044). The single, `Pride', is out on 26 Oct on Universal