When Sade released Soldier of Love last year, following an extended period of hibernation, it felt as though she was reclaiming a long-surrendered throne. This wasn't just because the album was greeted with universal acclaim, nor that it subsequently rose to the top of the US album charts. It was more than that. There was also an overriding sense that Sade was more relevant now than at any point since her heyday. The decision to release The Ultimate Collection, her second compilation,bears this out. A collection of remastered cuts (plus a DVD of selected videos), this new release spans the entirety of Sade Adu's career as a recording artist fronting the band that bears her name.
During Sade's first period of sustained success in the 1980s, her smooth sound divided critics. Indeed, by the time she began taking longer breaks between albums during the 1990s, this received wisdom had taken hold. The columnist Julie Burchill famously derided Sade as "beige". She made bland, coffee-table music designed to enable stockbrokers to mimic tropes of sophistication.
Mark Sinker, the former editor of the Wire and an active critic during this time, explains: "The mid-1980s were as busy a time as any for new trends. Something noisy or flashy or subtle or silly demanded your attention every week, in among all the new technologies and expanding media. In the aftermath of punk, critics were just terrified of being caught out backing the wrong thing, and very suspicious of the idea of technique.
"Sade obviously had an appeal - with big hits and a big audience - but with what seemed like no backstory. She was just tremendously guarded about herself. Which at the time I think meant she was looked down on critically - there was no handy hook - with a side order of disdain, for someone so determinedly committing to her craft, and nothing more."
Years later, a re-evaluation of her work has become inevitable.
For one thing, the incremental changes to the Sade sound have gradually become more apparent: the richness of the Love Deluxe (1992) era and the more organic warmth of Lovers Rock (2000) compared to the yacht-friendly leisureliness of her earlier work illustrate that while the world assumed her to be in stasis, Sade was on the move all the while.
Crucially, she is not just a people's artist, she is a musician's musician. Her aesthetic, honed over the years, may bear little relation to current trends - but it has been kept alive by a growing number of contemporary musicians and fans for whom it had struck a particularly deep chord.
In many ways, there are parallels to be drawn between Sade and Kate Bush, another utterly sui generis British musician. Both have a penchant for the lengthy hiatus; both are notorious for keeping their engagement with the press to a bare minimum; both, when not promoting an album, manage to step out of the spotlight in order to live what are apparently lives of quiet, domestic normality. And both, in large part because of their uncompromising determination to go about their business exactly as they see fit, have come to represent sets of values and ideas that they have never needed to spell out themselves.
In both cases, the most interesting manifestations of this are the ones that you have to squint slightly to see. Kate Bush's image as a literary bluestocking eccentric may have inspired a generation of self-consciously quirky singer-songwriters, but her artistic restlessness and sonic adventurousness have, over the years, managed to draw praise from house producers, rappers and classical composers. It is a similarly diverse bunch who now revere Sade for her combination of stately, regal bearing with deep-rooted soulfulness.
She has long been a rappers' favourite, having been namechecked over the years by Nas, Big Boi and Mos Def; last year, Californian producer Droop-E (legendary San Francisco rapper E-40's son) released the BLVCK Diamond Life mixtape of beats all lovingly crafted from Sade originals.
On The Ultimate Collection, Sade returns the favour in kind. Jay-Z guests on a version of The Moon and the Sky, while the Neptunes' remix of By Your Side has been dug out of the vaults and is the only representation of the many sundry reworkings, official or otherwise, of the Sade back catalogue. Tellingly, despite the addition of their trademark stuttering beats and some pretty psychedelic synths, in terms of mood and structure it is about as faithful a remix as one could expect.
Sade's aesthetic may be far removed from the streets, but that's the point: what dropping her name represents to the hip-hop cognoscenti is aspiration and the good life. On Outkast's West Savannah, Big Boi rapped, "Sade is in my tape deck, I'm movin' in slow motion, boy": an earthbound reflection of the jet-set lifestyle she sang about on Smooth Operator, her first-class plane seats finding their mirror image in his cruising convertible. Fast forward to 2010, and her most prominent musician fan is another hip-hop giant, Diddy - one who is no stranger to luxury himself. She is a recurring motif throughout his ongoing Last Train to Paris project. This year saw Diddy-Dirty Money both dedicate a whole song to her on the LoveLove vs. HateLove mixtape (the hypnotisingly sleek Sade) and cover two of Sade's own most epic cuts, No Ordinary Love and Cherish The Day.
Epic, that is, in both sound and emotion. On Cherish the Day, sheer longing hangs heavy over acres of space; while on the seven-minute No Ordinary Love, Sade burns slowly but so fiercely as to push the song into the realm of the otherworldly. Both are taken from Love Deluxe, arguably the album that best crystallised what Sade was about. It's appropriate that Diddy uses those selections to help narrate a tormented, intense love affair: both are emblematic of the beautiful ambiguity that was Sade's forte. Cherish the Day and No Ordinary Love are as overwhelmingly sad as they are blissfully loving - but the melancholy of Sade's voice works with the grace of the music, not against it, and neither detract from the other. A space is opened up between the conflicting emotions and the listener is caught, perfectly poised, inside its desolate gorgeousness.
The Sade strategy for conveying emotion has always been exquisite production - which makes her music a natural fit for electronic acts, too. Back in 2003, Michael Mayer, founder of the Berlin label Kompakt, one of the past decade's most significant, covered Love Is Stronger Than Pride. Nowadays, artists from all walks of club life speak of her as a reference point. Gadi Mizrahi, DJ and co-founder of the lauded New York label Wolf + Lamb, has coined the phrase "Sade house" to describe the more midtempo tracks with relaxed vibes he enjoys playing. Chicago juke producer Jody Breeze's reworking of Cherish the Day, retitled The Way I Move, ratcheted up the tension in the beats while retaining the original's swooning drift. At the London club Night Slugs in March, the highlight of the increasingly in-demand LA DJ/production duo Nguzunguzu's set was their sequencing of Diddy-Dirty Money's Sade and The Way I Move back to back.
On Is It A Crime?, Sade croons almost unassumingly, as though not to break the spell, startling images like "My love is wider, wider than Victoria Lake/My love is taller, taller than the Empire State". Her music is like a swan: the beauty of its exterior is itself seductive, but there's as much complexity and depth going on beneath her regal bearing.
No wonder that, as Nguzunguzu's Asma Maroof states, "Her essence is timeless: people of all ages, from all time zones, can ride her vibe. She is essential."
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.