Soul: Yes, he's a great pretender

Rachid Jazz Cafe, NW1

It could have been a first. The first time, that is, an artist was so desperate for attention that he pretended to throw an epileptic fit on stage. It occurred halfway through the performance, towards the end of a beautiful, noxious little number about the things people will do for fame ("You've got to give head to get ahead" goes the lyric). One minute Rachid was preening himself at the microphone, the next he was writhing about on the floor as if he had suffered a seizure. For a moment it was genuinely unsettling; you didn't know whether to applaud his audacity or jump on stage to ensure that his tongue stayed intact. This being a "Showcase" gig, however, most people just carried on talking.

You can tell when a gig is a showcase because the venue (in this case, London's Jazz Cafe) is half-empty, there are 8x10 glossies of the artist stuck to every available surface, and the record company gets a boisterous round of applause every time it's mentioned. It makes for a decidedly unreal sort of atmosphere, but, then again, Rachid is a pretty unreal sort of guy. The man who would be Prince (at least, if his record company had anything to do with it), is a diminutive, androgynous-looking, 24- year-old singer-songwriter from New Jersey. He mixes rock and R&B modes in a way that promises to attract (or, alternatively, risks alienating), record buyers from both sides of the fence. He also has a neat line in Dot Cotton impersonations, proving he was a "confirmed Anglophile" by treating us to cockney stage patter along the lines of "Awright, innit?" and referring to his band as geezers.

As the son of Ronald "Kool" Bell, the co-founder of Kool and the Gang, Rachid has funk in his genes. But where nurture has played its part, things get tricky: Rachid enjoys listening to Courtney Love, David Bowie and British indie bands. He may also be the only person in the world to admire both Mariah Carey and Nico, once the ice-maiden of pre-punk smack-rock. It all adds up to a very strange brew, but Rachid's debut album, Prototype - due to be released here in January - is actually very good. The rock elements are mostly held in check by a smooth R&B production and a style of singing that is identifiably school of soul, not ghoul.

Tonight though, the singing was a problem. Clearly nervous, Rachid fell victim to what we doctors call Mariah Carey syndrome: a disease that makes perfectly good vocalists break up every single syllable into a series of melismatic moans. As a result, the meaning of what is being sung, and any sense of dynamics, is lost; each word is made to sound as ecstatic as a fake orgasm, even the ands, buts and sos. Otis Redding did this for effect; Mariah does it all the time, probably even while talking on the phone. When Rachid did occasionally hold a note instead of immediately chopping it up into little pieces, he sounded great.

Elsewhere, he was all over the place. With his hair in pigtails, and wearing a black satin ensemble that looked more than a touch Terence Trent D'Arby, Rachid is endearingly sweet. But he's going to have to learn what to do with his hands. Groping at the air, making as if to go for the security of his crotch and then suddenly turning back, as if thinking better of the gesture, his hands took on a life of their own. But give the lad a guitar to hold, and the confidence to sound a little more like himself, and you never know: someday his Prince may come.

Rachid's single 'Pride' (Universal Records) is out on 26 October.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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