Loose canon

Ten years after a brush with mainstream fame, Imani Coppola speaks her mind.

IDENTITY CRISIS Imani Coppola ponders her place in society and the music business with The Black & White Album.

IDENTITY CRISIS Imani Coppola ponders her place in society and the music business with The Black & White Album. Photograph: Nikolitsa Boutieros

Back in 1997, a brash young singer from Long Island made a serious splash with “Legend of a Cowgirl,” a breezy single that mixed a sample lifted from Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” with a sassy rap and a catchy hook. The song came from Imani Coppola’s debut album, Chupacabra, issued by Columbia. MTV was all over the playful, sexy video for “Cowgirl.” And then…nothing. Creative differences forced the unseasoned, headstrong artist and the corporate giant to part ways before a nearly completed follow-up record could come out.

This week, for the first time in a decade, a new disc by Coppola hits the stores: The Black & White Album, on avant-rock icon Mike Patton’s Ipecac label. Don’t call it a comeback, though. The set is her third disc, counting 2004’s self-released Afrodite. But when you factor in a string of home recordings Coppola sold on her website—each copy custom-burned and decorated by hand—The Black & White Album is actually her eighth release.

Doing things her own way has been Coppola’s method from the beginning—after all, her Columbia contract was the result of three demo tracks she cut with Digable Planets producer Michael Mangini while she was still in college. Coppola had grown up in a biracial household with a father who jammed in jazz bands until the wee hours, and she took classical-violin lessons alongside her siblings. When it was time to make a second album, Coppola insisted on stretching.

“I was like, Why the hell did I give up my license to explore, to experiment, to actually play and write?” she recalls over coffee in a West Village lounge. “I want to go a little rock, I want to not be fuckin’ typecast. And the label did not want to hear it. I understand them now: ‘They ordered apples; why are you giving them oranges or watermelons?’ ”

When another record deal failed to materialize, Coppola busied herself laying down tracks on an ADAT recorder at home and selling the results via her website. The Black & White Album started out as a home project created with Coppola’s then boyfriend, keyboardist-producer Josh Valleau. It ended up on Ipecac thanks to a connection with Patton, made during her recent work as a singer and violinist for his quirky funk project, Peeping Tom.

Lyrically, the disc mixes Coppola’s characteristic whimsy and innuendo with some of her most directly revealing statements. “Woke Up White,” for example, is a scathing punk-rock blast inspired by the racial friction she has endured over the years, both in the Caucasian suburb of her youth and in her current home of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“I have issues with white people and with black people,” she says. “Black people make fun of my ass: Apparently it’s not big and round enough for their approval. There’s this double standard where the white world went out of its way to stop making fun of black people, but black people feel entitled to make fun of white people and other kinds of people. I’m speaking emotionally, because I’m a little raw and salty from living in the ’hood and not fitting in.”

Several clips of Coppola singing tracks from The Black & White Album with Peeping Tom have turned up on YouTube. Those cameos might be all the stage time she gets to devote to the project, since the newly reactivated S-Curve label has just signed Coppola’s new band, Little Jackie. Songs on the group’s MySpace page (myspace.com/littlejackiewantstobeastar) signal a return to the sample-happy hip-pop of Chupacabra. S-Curve plans to issue an album as early as March, and will be promoting it via Nabbr, an outfit that has created viral-video campaigns for Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse.

“Being on S-Curve is going to ensure that my face is all over the Internet like a disease,” Coppola says. What she’s really looking forward to, though, is playing live. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in the middle of the stage,” Coppola explains. “I’ve been on the side a lot for the past couple of years, and you get kind of used to it. It’s going to be nice to get back to the center.”

The Black & White Album is out now.