Album Review: Dua Saleh - Nūr

I’d like to think that I would have eventually heard about the Sudan-born, and Twin Cities based, non-binary performer Dua Saleh—but the recent and relatively positive review of their debut EP, Nūr, gracing the home page of Pitchfork, certainly helped.

That same day, probably not by coincidence, an internet acquaintance of mine shared the EP’s cover art on Facebook, simply saying, “Holy crap—I’m obsessed.” After he mentioned who it was, the Pitchfork review, as well as the recent Star Tribune profile, were the first two things to come up from my Google search.

Saleh, all of 23 years old, is alleged to be a bit of a reluctant performer—specifically when it comes to music. They have recently graduated from Augsburg University with an emphasis in sociology—an ‘activist’ is one of the descriptors mentioned in both the Star Tribune piece as well as the Pitchfork review. Prior to the release of Nūr, Saleh was making a name for themselves in both the Twin Cities theatre community, as well as with the Button Poetry Live series—their piece, “Pins and Needles,” became a viral sensation of sorts.

Their first attempt at music, a single entitled “Black and Blue,” was released online at some point a number of years ago, though Saleh removed it within a day (all traces of it now have been scrubbed from the internet)—they took it down because they thought, “Does anybody really want to hear this?” They returned in 2017 with another one-off single, “First Take,” which received a blurb via Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current.

In retrospect, you could say that “First Take” is a very early and rough attempt at crafting the sound they would eventually develop over time; Nūr is, in a sense, a long gestating and labored over proper introduction to an alarmingly talented young artist who, with the help of a handful of Twin Cities collaborators, has created a dense, fascinating, and otherworldly soundscape that serves as the backdrop for Saleh’s voice—unique, theatrical, captivating, hypnotic, and at times, unnerving.

A concise five tracks, Nūr is the kind of EP that walks that line between trying not to overstay its welcome, but also is compelling enough to leave you wishing it were slightly longer.

The collection opens with the raunchy, lusty, jaunty, and satirical “Sugar Mama,” where Saleh, over a minimalistic but quick tempo, more or less pats themselves on the back for their own mysterious, worldly sexuality, or at least how it’s interpreted by others outside of their Sudanese culture—first by saying they made a woman’s “pussy melt” like a glacier; then, near the end of the song, makes the bold statement, “creaming extra heavy ‘cause my head game is so good-ah.”

The entire time, Saleh rarely, if ever, takes a break, and is unrelenting in their cadence and delivery—playful, but also delivered with a straight faced seriousness at times, all of which shows off their background with as an actor as well as a spoken word poet.

As the rest of Nūr unfolds, you get a feel for the sound that Saleh and their collaborator, like the Twin Cities based producer Psymun (who has worked with The Weeknd and Young Thug), are creating. The Star Tribune piece likens it to something between the sultry modern R&B of F.K.A. Twigs and the idiosyncratic electronic charm of Bjork. And yes, sure, you can make those comparisons, but in even listening to Nūr once all the way through, you can hear that Saleh is in a class all to her own, making expansive, challenging, accessible, and fearless music.

The high point, or at least most startling piece on Nūr comes in its centerpiece, “Warm Pants.” Part of that has to do with the production—the very intentional rhythm with which the percussion hits, leaving large gaps of silence that, in turn become instruments themselves; the icy atmospherics that coast just underneath the song’s main layer; and the muffled, quaint riff that more or less powers the whole song.

The other part, though, is the way Saleh delivers their vocals; it’s not just a delivery—it’s a real performance, full of tension, drama, and it’s crafted to make you mildly uneasy, but it’s fascinating in such a way that you need to continue listening, even though you’re not sure where Saleh is taking you.

One of the many astounding and admirable things about Nūr is how well rounded of a release it is from start to finish. Following that lusty opener, Saleh slinks to a borderline whimsical groove with the infectious “Albany”—and the EP concludes “Survival” and “Kickflip.”

The former is the set’s moodiest, which features a guest turn from Jeremy Nutzman, a.k.a. Velvet Negroni, a similarly minded in sound, incredibly esoteric performer also based out of the Twin Cities; the latter features minimalistic, reserved takes on glitchy, electro-infused pop—bringing Nūr full circle in a way, as it has, throughout the five songs featured, found Saleh commanding the give and take between up tempo ‘fun’ songs, and the more introspective, darker sounding tracks.

Given Saleh’s own reservations about a foray into recording and performing music, it’s difficult to gauge when, if ever, a full-length, or even a follow up to Nūr would arrive; it’s easy to get caught up in the ‘album cycle,’ and want more from an artist right way. Dua Saleh doesn’t own us, as listeners, anything, however; and we should be thankful that they even gave us this moment in time—taking a personal risk with Nūr, Saleh has made an undeniably impressive artistic statement that demands your attention.

Nūr is out now as a digital download from Against Giants.