Legend of a Cowgirl: Imani Coppola

I have to make a small disclaimer for this particular essay. Imani Coppola is my all-time favorite living music artist and has been since about 1998 when I first encountered Chupacabra. It is entirely possible that at some point during this writing I will start to sound like a swooning sycophant. I am truly incapable of separating my love of Imani Coppola’s music from anything I say about her. After more than 15 years, that just has not changed.

Imani first came on the scene in 1997 with her Columbia release Chupacabra, a reference to the mythical blood sucking creature with sightings that rival Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. This ode to a blood-sucking monster should have been the first indictation that she was on a whole ‘nother level because the reference to a North American myth fit with Imani’s eclectic style. Her first single, “Legend of a Cowgirl,” not only featured a Donovan sample but also catchy rap couched between a sing-along chorus of a woman’s sexual independence and freedom. What made the song so endearing is that it was a bouncy ode to sexual freedom outside the bounds of R&B and hip-hop with a black woman showing full agency for herself.

And yet, “Legend of a Cowgirl” was only one small part of Imani. Because of that song and the overall carefree feel of Chupacabra with tunes such as “I’m a Tree” and “Pigeon Penelope,” she knew everyone would think she had this sunny personality. But labeling Imani as someone with a sunny disposition ignored the brooding found in tracks like “Piece” and “One of These Days.” It also downplays the whimsy of other tracks like “It’s All About Me, Me and Me” and “Forget Myself.”

With its eclectic style, Chupacabra is a late 90s classic and ranks Imani with other artists crashing the scene around that time including Beck. However, Imani would find herself fighting a battle women such as Betty Davis fought 20 years before her. She wanted to take her music in a different direction with more of her own compositions rather than the sample-heavy tone of Chupacabra. Apparently, the suits felt they knew better and shelved her second album, which would become 2000’s Come and Get Me…What? They were wrong. Imani took that agency and independence she exhibited in “Legend of a Cowgirl” and focused it on her career. Not only had she studied studio composition at State University of New York at Purchase for a year, but she also became a forerunner of artists who went to the Internet to cut out the middlemen in the music industry.

Ironically, the opening track of her album, “Weather Report,” starts with that same vibrant feel that colored much of Imani’s debut and continued with the next track, “You Stole My Fun.” Even though the album was unreleased at the time, Imani got her wish. Under her music direction, the album moves from these fun, danceable tracks to moodier fare like “Sun, Sail and Sea” and “I’m Just a Clone.” Another anthem to sexual freedom and the demand for satisfaction, “Count to 10,” was reworked for the 2000 Sex and the City soundtrack.

And she was just warming up. After Come and Get Me…What?, she released a string of albums independently including the 2002 follow up Little Red Fighting Mood. This release went even further than the previous two efforts with more eclecticism with the simple beauty and sublimeness of “Hey Now” and “The Radio Song” to whimsical tracks like “Cool Beats with My Feet” and “Lotto.” Furthermore, there were a couple of other noticeable changes in Imani’s outlook.

One was race. She blatantly took on race in “Hold Back the Black” after spending years calling herself an alien to avoid the “black or white” question. The other change: The Baha Men. The previous year, Imani collaborated with the group on “You All Dat” after their single “Who Let the Dogs Out” became a summer anthem in 2001. She also toured with Baha Men and featured the group on a track from Little Red Fighting Mood, “Meet Me at the Beach.” (Yes, I own that Baha Men album just because Imani Coppola is on that song. I told you I was a fan.) In 2001, Imani also sang backup for Talking Heads’ alum David Byrne on “Everyone’s in Love with You” for his album Look into the Eyeball.

However, she would work on another self-released album in 2002, Post Traumatic Pop Syndrome, before getting back into the mainstream industry. One of the interesting things about this album is that it includes redux versions of several previously recorded tracks including “Fake Is the New Real,” “Ill Tempered Lover” and “Cool Beats with My Feet.” However, it also includes the gorgeous arrangements of “Prayer” and “Do I Go to You?” Of course, Imani didn’t step too far out of her quirky persona with songs like “Woodstock” and the clever “Brainstorm.”

On a side note, I remember sending a payment for this album even before 2000. The check was eventually returned and I didn’t hear from Imani until 2004. That year, Imani released her first album for a label since Chupacabra. Entitled Afrodite, the album was co-produced by Juan Patiño and also included redux versions of “These Days” and “Hope for the Future” along with new musings on the state of the world like “Reality Radio” that reads like a catalog of the early part of the millennium. Interestingly, the overall album has a moodier and decidedly less bouncy feel than any of Imani’s previous releases. Yet her unwillingness to compromise still appeared in tact.

Perhaps this why Imani’s next three releases were all self-releases. They were all avant garde as well. Tracks such as “Happy Little Toothbrush,” “Yodeling School” and “Martian Chants” feel more like performance art than album tracks on 2005’s The Vocal Stylings of Imani Coppola. In fact, several tracks are between one and two minutes with none even reaching the three-minute mark. Instead, we get a rather delightful ride through spiritual musings (“Dear God” and “New Beginnings”), inner city life (“Fast Money”), interplanetary travel (“First One on the Planet Mars”) and witchcraft (“Evil Witches Brew”). One can just imagine Imani sitting around with friends or alone, since she provides all vocals and instrumentation on the album.

That same year, Imani also self-released Small Thunder, a collection of stripped-down acoustic numbers. While much of Imani’s work can be described as moody, Small Thunder by far has the overall darkest feel than any other album in her body of work. Even though “Be Somebody” (later recorded as “Alive” for 2013’s The Glass Wall) and “Up That Hill” feel more upbeat, the heaviness in tracks like “Gravy,” “Soft Abuse,” “Can I Guess Your Name” and “Dream” come clear through in the acoustic arrangements.

Maybe this is why the 2006 comedy album Audio Blahgs was a spoken word effort and labeled as non-music. Unfortunately, I have never heard this album, which was once a free release on Imani’s website but now is unavailable. However, the next year, Imani was signed with Ipecac Recordings where she released The Black and White Album.

This album combined the eclecticism that colored much of Imani’s work over the past year with a reworking of “Springtime” originally released on Small Thunder and the single “Raindrops from the Sun (Hey Hey Hey)” eventually finding placement in shows such as Grey’s Anatomy. While the avant garde intro and interlude provided color for the album, tracks such as the punk-fused “Woke Up White” and ominous “I Love Your Hair” explored racial politics in funny and frustrating ways. Of course, friendlier sounding tracks like “30th Birthday” and “Keys 2 Your Ass” are more approachable.

However, this is the only album Imani made for Ipecac. In 2008, she moved on to S-Curve Records in a collaboration with Adam Pallin to form the duo Little Jackie. In a VH1 interview, Imani explained the meaning of the name, which was taken from the Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam track “Little Jackie Wants to Be a Star.” And this was Imani’s goal: to finally achieve the stardom that had somehow eluded her the previous ten years.

Interestingly, this attempt at stardom resulted in The Stoop, a retro-fueled attempt that captured part of the zeitgeist of the early 21st century of retro music recalling the early days of popular 60s R&B and soul. The connection was quite a calculated attempt and even made reference to the throwback movement’s largest beneficiary Amy Winehouse with the bouncy burn “Cryin’ for the Queen.” “Black Barbie” took a shot at the culture of celebrity but the title track celebrated Imani’s Bedstuy neighborhood. In a way, the album worked. The lead single from the album, “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” received heavy airplay on VH1 and eventually Imani agreed to let the station use the song as the theme song for one of its reality shows, New York Goes to Hollywood.

While Little Jackie brought Imani back to the forefront of the music scene, she still continued to work on solo efforts. In 2010, she self-released the aptly titled Free Spirit. Like Small Thunder, Free Spirit includes stripped down acoustic tracks including reworkings of “Help the Residents” and the beautiful “Nothing.” From “Already Famous” to “Suckin’ the Devil’s Dick,” Imani offers soul-bearing music reflecting an inner longing and continued wisdom experience brings. As the double meaning of the title implies, Imani frees her soul with this collection. Like previous releases, she also offered free on her website for a time.

Even with the release of Free Spirit, Imani was not done with Little Jackie. In 2011, the duo released more retro funk and soul with the Plush Moon Records release Made4TV. This effort was even cleverer than The Stoop with its innocent sounding musical tracks covering songs with themes like sexual obsession in “31 Flavors” and the awesome turn of phrase in “Cock Block.” Even casual listeners may miss the slight despair in tracks like “Fairy Tale Ending” and “No One Would Ever Know” over the retro soul music.

Apparently, the Little Jackie album was enough to impress the folks at Plush Moon because the next year, Imani got to release another solo album on the label. The Glass Wall was a huge departure from all of Imani’s previous work. The combination of rock, electronica and pop created an album unlike anything else released that year as shown by the lead single “Ave Maria.” The one constant in her work is the focus on futurist (hell Afrofuturist) themes with tracks such as “State of the Art” and “The Future.”

There has also been another constant throughout Imani’s rocky career: her unwillingness to compromise on her vision. Much like Betty Davis before here, Imani has insisted upon a huge degree of agency over her own music. Her crossing and mixing of genres has probably been a deterrent for industry executives who like to put artists in neat little packages and send them out into the world.

Imani Coppola refuses to be boxed. Not even her fans know what she will do next, but we always look forward to new music. One thing is guaranteed: it won’t be boring. Will she do another collaboration as Little Jackie or will she strike out on her own again next? Either way, Imani Coppola will continue to be one of the most creative forces within an industry that constantly sells us bland and blander.