Category Archives: Music

On Kelly Rowland’s ‘Dirty Laundry’

I think if you’ve followed Kelly Rowland’s career, you’ve always gotten the sense that she was holding something back. Like she was afraid to be as magnificent as we all know she can be. There was always the sense that we weren’t getting the full extent of her artistry. And not because it wasn’t there, but because she didn’t quite believe in it.

Every album had magnificent moments – Beyond Imagination, Haven’t Told You, Love, Like This, Motivation, Keep It Between Us – but they seemed incidental. Accidental. There didn’t seem to be much effort behind anything she was doing. The background singer destined to be a star, but never quite comfortable anywhere but in the back seat.

So when I listen to Dirty Laundry, it plays as a stunning admission of her crushing insecurity more than anything else. Sure, we learn about Kelly having suffered domestic abuse and that she has complicated feelings about Beyonce’s solo success, but that’s just not what the song is telling me emotionally.

“who wanna hear my bullshit?”

It doesn’t feel like we’re reliving something she’s moved through. We’re living something she’s still in…with her. The song doesn’t turn on an awakening. It doesn’t turn at all. We are sitting in her insecurity with her.

Those five little words are almost an aside in the structure of the song. As if she’s still not quite sure. Even now when she’s being as revealing and honest as she’s ever been, I still get the sense that she’s struggling against a profound sense that no one cares at all about Kelly Rowland. It’s riveting, but I have to wonder what is next.

I want this song to represent a turning point in her career. A point that we’ll all look back and say “that was the moment Kelly Rowland started to become a great artist.” But I worry that this will be the only song on the album that gives us something uniquely Kelly.

I sincerely hope she doesn’t think one song is enough.

Thinking about Janet Jackson’s (Alleged) Retirement

Janet with her new husband

Photo Credit: Marco Glaviano, People Magazine

I’ve been thinking a lot about the news that Janet Jackson is allegedly going to retire from the entertainment industry for a minute now.

I think if I were honest, I’d feel the need to say that Janet Jackson has run out of things creatively to say and that she’s been spinning her wheels at least since 20 Y.O, if not earlier. I don’t think it’s an accident that she’s spent the last decade doing more acting than she has really focusing on recording trailblazing music. I’m not sure she was well-served by Tyler Perry films that squandered her natural warmth on weirdly cold characters, but I could imagine how from her perspective there was something interesting about essaying characters so dissimilar from who we know Janet Jackson to be.

I could see how she might feel like her life’s work as an entertainer is complete, even though selfishly as a fan I’d like to get another album or two from her.

But I wonder if there’s something more deeply profound at work here.

Let’s remember that Janet Jackson has been performing since she was 7 years old. She’s 46. That’s 40 years in the public eye. Forty years as a member of perhaps the most celebrated, yet maligned and misunderstood, black family on the planet. Forty years being told she’s the (relatively) sane one. Forty years under an incredibly oppressive microscope. Forty years giving her life to our enjoyment.

I don’t know that we think enough about the health of black people who have to live their lives in the public eye. Michael died at 50. Luther died at 54. Rick James was 56. Whitney was 48. Marvin Gaye was murdered at 44. Both Gerald and Sean Levert died at 40.

These were preternaturally gifted black people who gave their lives to art and music. They were not always loved and adored for it. They were still black. In America. Let us remember that the life expectancy for black people is lower than for white people.

So I think there’s something profoundly healthy about Janet Jackson at 46 saying she wants to step away from all of the pressures of being a black public figure – as much as she can – and just live her life. It’s a powerful gesture of self-preservation that I don’t know black artists always feel so empowered to make.

Read this way, of course the woman who gave us Control would end her career on her own terms. Of course the woman whose masterpiece, The Velvet Rope – a dazzling treatise on the struggle to love oneself amid all the crazy of a life as a Jackson, as a black woman – would decide when she’s had enough.

In her own way, if this retirement is indeed real, Janet Jackson’s decision feels to me like a fitting cap to a career that was, in its best broadest strokes, about black self-determination and black self-love.

The Maddening Arrogance and Elusiveness of Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake’s solo career has always struck me as a profound exercise in insincerity. And his arrogance has always been almost insultingly transparent, but no one seems to notice it – or care.

Take this nugget from his “beggin for a black pass” 2003 Vibe cover story where the woman who taught him how to “sing black” – herself a white woman (lawd!) – basically outs him as a poseur at the very same moment we were supposed to be believing we were getting the real Justin:

Although Timberlake loved R&B growing up, he didn’t perform it professionally until he became a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. His vocal coach, Robin Wiley, who was a producer on the show, remembers how the then 12-year-old had to adjust. “He hadn’t sung a ton of R&B-ish stuff, mostly country, and the show covered whatever was on the radio,” Wiley says.

Or the fact that Justified was really just equal parts Timbaland’s unique brilliance and Pharrell’s “repurposing” of shit he’d written for Michael Jackson. Also from the Vibe article:

The Neptunes could easily have given Timberlake a “Girlfriend Part 2,”and no one would have been mad. “I wanted to break the rules in terms of what people thought we were going to do for Justin,” Williams says. So the producers decided to use Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as inspiration. In fact, they dusted off five songs they submitted for Jackson’s HIStory Volume 1 and Invincible albums that were rejected. Williams rewrote parts of those songs with Timberlake and created new versions of “Senorita,” “Let’s Take a Ride,” “Last Night,” “Nothin’ Else,” and “Take It From Here.”

But I get it. People record other people’s leftovers all the time. Why does Justin doing this bother me so much? Continue reading

On Beyoncé’s HBO Documentary, ‘Life Is But A Dream’


I just finished watching Beyoncé’s documentary, Life Is But A Dream, and I think what I was most struck by is an overwhelming sense that vulnerability is hard for this young woman because she’s trying to live up to an impossible ideal.

I didn’t get the sense that she wasn’t interested in being truly vulnerable so much as unpracticed at  it. I have this profound sense that this is a 31-year old woman who has never allowed herself, or been allowed, to feel deeply.

So this film is an exercise I think in watching Beyoncé learn to be vulnerable. There’s that moment where she says, almost surprising herself, that she can’t do it alone. Or the way she conveyed more deeply the hurt she feels that people would think she would fake a pregnancy than she does relating what it must have been like to have had a miscarriage. 

And then there’s that moment early on when she’s talking about how hard she worked for her father’s approval and how he withheld it, presumably to make her into the very thing she is: this hyper-poised star. This is the most revealing, honest and vulnerable moment in the entire film precisely because I think it cuts to the core, for me, of who Beyoncé is as a figure and a person.

And it helps me understand her vocal approach – the very thing that for me makes her such a frustratingly disappointing artist to listen to. So much talent, but such a profound inability to connect to the emotion of whatever it is she’s singing*. We see her singing “Listen” and “Resentment” and I know it’s supposed to be deep emotion, but it’s not. It’s Beyoncé trying to approximate what she thinks it must feel or sound like, or more accurately, willing herself to get there.

For the first time, I feel genuine empathy and sadness for what it must be like to be Beyoncé. It is just for reasons different than I expected.


*There are exceptions of course, “Speechless,” “Lay Up Under Me,” “Crazy Feelings” – and yes through sheer force of will, “Resentment” – chief among them.

What’s the Best Way to Make Music?

I’m rather opinionated about music. Folks know this.

And while all that frustration criticism comes through loud and clear when I write or tweet, I’m definitely not as good at communicating that I understand and respect how profoundly difficult making music really is.

I thought about this when I came across this Tyrese quote on

“Producers these days are lazy. Making tracks. Sending emails. I’m just saying. When you make music under the same roof, with the actual artist that you’re working with, everybody is praying together, eating together, laughing together. It’s a different kind of nuance that’s created around music.”  (emphasis mine)

I do think there’s something profoundly special about the music that can come from songwriters, producers and artists spending time together crafting music that the artist feels a close connection to because that artist has had some input into making it, but with that understanding comes a deeper understanding that I think critics of black music don’t articulate nearly enough: what Tyrese longs for is the exception in the music industry, not the rule, particularly with black popular music.

In other words, a lot of people aren’t afforded the luxury of getting into a room with the best songwriters and producers and creating something that they can feel has the personal touch because that’s not the kind of artist they are intended to be, whether they know it and acknowledge it or not. We should be honest about this fact.

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