This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here.
One of the biggest mistakes black folk have collectively made was the assumption that classic soul musicians’ choice to sing secular music over gospel was somehow a categorical indictment of religion and spirituality itself. That coupled with Al Green and Marvin Gaye’s rather public and tumultuous spiritual struggle on wax (and the exploitation somewhat of that fact by everyone involved in their careers) has led to an interesting, if predictable in execution, dualism in what would become contemporary R&B.
This dualism as rendered by Green and Gaye was fresh, interesting and yielded great music from the aforementioned crooners, but as with all trends (well, as with everything) it has been distilled down to its purest extremes in contemporary R&B.
Sex is bad. Period. God and everything having to do with him is good. Period.
No more shading of doubt, no complex intersections of the profane and the spiritual. And worst, none of what made Green and Gaye so great, that is there is no longer an undercurrent of criticism of this dualism itself (especially in how it applied to spirituality).
This trend has turned every young wannabe with half a voice, from Avant to the reigning king of psychosexual spiritual torment, R. Kelly, into a brazen sex fiend who thinks if he sang a little sumthin’ sumthin’ in his home church he was somehow heir apparent to Green or Gaye. For some reason, every brotha who could hire a choir fast enough suddenly felt justified in expressing the most femiphobic filth — as long as they could hide behind the pretense that they were exercising “inner demons” or because they had one or two tracks (overtly or otherwise) about god.
Perhaps it’s the stranglehold patriarchy has so effectively taken on the black male mind in the past 20 years because where as Marvin was a Trouble Man, R. Kelly wants to go half on a baby with a chocolate factory that reminds him of a jeep, Sisqo loves his thongs, and Jaheim can sing full throttle with Mary J Blige about me and my b*tch.
And they want us to take it seriously. And more often than not we do.
But what once was reflective has become projective. It seems that it is no longer about an inner struggle. A yearning to be spiritual and sexual at the same time. It’s about demonizing women’s bodies and almost never about the socialization of men (black men, in particular) to have no sexual self-control. Today’s new jacks want to be hypersexual and then be forgiven for it.
They skip the spiritual part.
So that is why it is refreshing to hear a brother like Tank come along and really capture the pull, the dualism inherent in the great music of 70’s soul without sounding overtly like a throwback. And what’s more he has taken that dualism to an interesting place by keeping the sex and the spiritual separate…on wax, that is.
He’s capable of singing a song that is frank and nasty and not sound guilty and not sound like right after the session he’s gonna go pray because “lord, I’m just so nasty and you know Eve keeps offering me her apple.” And he’s capable of singing more reflective, socially aware songs without bumping and grinding his way to a sloppy metaphor of spiritual sex. Tank is tasteful. He sounds more secure a singer than any brotha singing right now save Rahsaan Patterson.
But you might ask why I went through all of that?
Simple. One, Tank came out at the same time as Jaheim and got unjustly compared to him. And two, yes this is a gospel-inflected album that is very obviously influenced by classic soul music. Tank’s full-bodied voice is like a cross between Teddy Pendergrass’ control and Marvin Gaye’s barely-constrained passion. As such, much of what I’ve talked about here is what many critics have said about Tank’s music in some form or another.
Tank is a member of the crew that Aaliyah rolled with that includes Ginuwine, highly underrated and under appreciated trio, Playa, Missy Elliott, Magoo and Timbaland. Like Playa, Tank is a church boy who likes his women and his music reflects that. And Tank writes a killer melody the way no one this side of R. can do. Songs like My Freak, Bounce And Grind and the annoying What What What (interestingly co-written by Black from Playa) work because they are unabashedly sexual without being aggressively offensive.
My Freak, in particular, is a slow burn about how he might fall in love with a freak. This is a key lyric. The suggestion of loving a fully sexual woman is a rare thing. Later in the song he says, If she can change, I can change and in the hook its, She’s my freak/You don’t have to like my freak thereby making a valiant attempt at defending and protecting this woman’s integrity. By song end, Tank has constructed not only an ode to female sexuality, but a genuine attempt at saying Sh*t, ain’t nothing wrong with it. Does it totally work? Lyrically, no it doesn’t. It’s a little hook-heavy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very good song anyway.
Similarly Tank’s progressive view of females is on display in two of the best songs on the album; the first single, Maybe I Deserve and Lady On My Block. Both songs depict women at the end of their ropes because of a no good man. In the former, a woman who can’t take Tank cheating on her so she goes out with another man and the latter about a prostitute driven to kill her pimp. Neither is a popular take on women, as it does not lay blame on a woman. In the era of Lil’ Kim’s taking control of their sexuality, it might seem a bit backward to depict women as the victims of men. However, this is not really the case. Take Maybe I Deserve. It’s the perfect example of a contemporary singer who has really studied Marvin. This song is not really about a woman cheating…its really about the man feeling so guilty that he imagines the worst when his woman goes out with a homie from upstate. Tank takes us on a journey through his guilt stating (rather passionately) that maybe he deserves it.
Lady On My Block might be the most successful song, lyrically (along with the stellar Kill 4 U). Like Maybe I Deserve, Tank avoids passing blame which makes the killing of the pimp at the end seem less like a revenge fantasy and more like the desperation it really is. He opens with lines like She has no one she can call and asks How can she go from having everything/To having nothing at all. Musically, the track is purposefully laconic to avoid any sap and melodrama. Thus the song has a refreshing every day feel to it that makes it oddly frightening. In mood it has a similar effect as Lauryn Hill’s Every Ghetto, Every City. It’s very simple and relies heavily on Tank’s melody; sparse, no backgrounds, just a few well-chosen echoes.
But his gospel roots are on full display on two very different songs. One is tired playa/drug bullsh*t (Street Life) and the other is a similar idea surrounding crimes of passion (the standout, Kill 4 U). In these two songs, we see the fine line that Tank has created for himself. In the former, he is waxing repentant about his past and doing right for his young so…and it has been done before. Tank is straining vocally. He sounds like he’s in pain…and not the good kind of sangin-your-heart-out-pain. Real pain, like even he doesn’t believe what he’s singing.
But in the Kill 4 U, Tank constructs a fascinating psychological portrait of obsession, wherein he goes to such extremes for a woman that in the end he has to kill her to escape the torment. It walks a fine line of indicting a woman in his psychological downfall and that’s what makes it such a success. Tryin’ to make you realize/That I wanna love you for life/How can I make you see?/You’re the only one for me/Things you never had before/I give you that and so much more/I would go as far as you need/Just to make you see. To be frank…he’s crazy from jump. The song, or rather the relationship itself, takes place totally in his head, much like the cheating is in his head in Maybe I Deserve. Never once does the song say she asks him to, but he does it anyway, and that is what makes the song work.
Much of the album has this kind of lyrical complexity to it, from the oddly affecting depiction of alcohol-induced sex of Designated Driver, the more conventional breakup stuff of Can’t Get Down and I Don’t Wanna Be Loving You, to the ode to slow passionate lovemaking of the sex gospel, Slowly. On each song, Tank’s lyrics are never focused on the woman in an aggressive way. Of note, he makes a full-length song, the gorgeous strings-laden Let It Go, about coaxing a woman into sex with supreme confidence. He never once sounds nefarious, predatory or like he has his own pleasure on his mind.
Musically the album is tasteful as well. Even Budda’s busy production on the party joints Get Your Hands Up and What What What aren’t too busy. And the strings on Let It Go, the electric guitar on Designated Driver and the keys on I Don’t Wanna Be Lovin You enhance the sparse percussion of the productions instead of being flashy and disruptive.
So I guess you are really wondering if I’m over-exaggerating Tank’s progressiveness. No. But to be fair, most of what is progressive is thinly veiled in conventions of contemporary R&Band that…might be his biggest fault. Not going far enough. And being so good that the average listener or skeptic can’t catch the depth of the writing in the first listen.
Tank has constructed an album that thoroughly interrogates the way he sees women and himself, by extension. Even the more conventional songs never sound conventional because Tank’s restraint in sangin’ personalizes every note so you know that even if he is mad at a no good woman in I Don’t Wanna Be Lovin You is not really mad so much as just really sad. Force Of Nature is great because Tank is sensitive and reflective without being overtly so. And so while you can’t put your finger on what is so interesting about his lyricism, you know it’s interesting. And that’s what’s important.
STANDOUTS — Lady On My Block, Maybe I Deserve, Kill 4 U, Let It Go, and Slowly
4.5 stars out of 5.