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Reviewing Adina Howard’s The Second Coming

This piece was originally written for An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision.

The Second Coming album coverIt’s perhaps meaningful that it has been a full decade since Adina Howard has released an album. Do You Wanna Ride was a brilliant ode to the need for sex masking a need for love. It was also hampered by a shitty ad campaign that chose to flatten Adina’s image and leave her flailing in the winds of public and media perception about black woman’s sexuality. Despite Adina’s repeated statements that she considered healthy freaky sex to be wonderful in a committed relationship, media and public perception made her out to be a cheap floosy.

This is to be expected however. Assertive sexuality in black women has always been a catch-22 in contemporary times. On one hand, black woman taking control of their bodies is the ultimate subversive move. On the other, it can sometimes be perceived by those who lack the ability to understand (apparently) difficult concepts like context to be playing into mainstream America’s stereotypical ideas about black women as Jezebels.

But what is unacceptable is how Adina’s handlers didn’t allow the strength of her voice to silence some of the doubters. Many people would have been astonished to have heard her gorgeous rendition with gospel singer Michael Speaks on Rene and Angela’s You Don’t Have To Cry. That should have been a nice live performance to give people both sides of what her debut album was about.

Well, it is 10 years later, and The Second Coming was released independently and Adina Howard gets executive producer credit. This album is more varied and more soulful musically than her debut, but it follows closely what seems to be Adina’s main theme: sex.

But remarkably the album chronicles the lifespan of a courtship from meeting Outside (The Club) to separation Missing You. Like Koffee Brown’s outstanding Mars/Venus each song has a context imbedded in the song and one from its placement in relation to other songs. So the sexy songs are not meant to be about casual sex, but about what occurs when two people are committed. This goes a long way toward alleviating criticism that Adina has been subjected to in the past.

The first 3 songs, Outside (The Club)Wannabe, and Don’t Wait Up are the party songs that depict the initial meetings and attraction between two people. Wannabe is the weakest of the three, simply because it is a lil’ hook heavy and cutesy in execution. The other two are fine examples of creative party songs that feature strong vocals, clever lyricism, and sharp arrangements. Don’t Wait Up, in particular, is a prime example of just how expressive Adina’s voice is. The melody percolates while Adina sings purposefully and passionately. This song was perfect for single consideration.

Missy Elliott’s Crank Me Up is a return to the sharp lyricism of the stuff she used to write early in her career for Aaliyah and 702. It’s the continuation of Don’t Wait Up’s anticipation of sex. In this song, it’s about the first time having sex with the person you are feelin’. What You Need then talks about what each person needs for the relationship to work. It’s perhaps a bit too materialistic, but again, this is a common motif in contemporary black pop, so it’s neither here nor there. The song itself is serviceable.

The meat of the album lies in the middle from T-Shirt & Panties to Buttnaked. These songs are highly sexual and they chronicle the different way in which Adina approaches sensuality. T-Shirt & Panties is teasing seduction, Nasty Grind is a confident subversion of gender roles, and Buttnaked is languorous afterglow. Each of these three songs is remarkably different musically and Adina’s vocals carry each one in uniquely compelling ways. Nasty Grind features strong vocals in Adina’s chest voice, while Buttnaked casts her in her lower register. This creates the feeling perfectly in the song of laying with the man you love after sex. It is similar in tone to Janet Jackson’s last movement of Twenty Foreplay; afterglow.

The last half of the album gets more relationship-oriented as the relationship starts to take different turns. It’s Not Over, the album’s gorgeous highlight, is a duet that shows the deterioration of the relationship before it even starts. Ee De plays the cheating man and Adina is the conflicted lover. Adina’s vocal performance is sharp here. She starts her verse angry and then gets confused saying, You’re makin’ it hard for me and starts to doubt her anger. It’s all in the ways she sings and how she alternates her phrasing. The song achieves its brilliance in the bridge by showing the turn where they go from singing It’s Not Over to Adina singing N*gga, it’s over. You hear the moment where Adina regains her composure and where Ee De makes the fatal mistake, I was drinkin’ baby. The song is gorgeously written, the way a duet should be written and rarely is these days, and flawlessly performed.

Let’s Roll is a call to a man to “put up or shut up”. That Man is the only song that doesn’t use sex as a metaphor for relationships. It is just pure happiness at having a good man. Say What You Want is about diggin’ in and feeling confidence in your love when other people are jealous or think they see problems. And finally, Missing You (her nicely fine tuned solo writing job) is about loss and loneliness when your partner is gone.

The production more often than not bolsters Adina’s sharp vocals. On Wannabe and What You Need the music and lyrics are just a tad too generic. But Adina never sounds lost or confused or exploited in her music. It’s hard to pull off sensuality and sexuality on record in a mature way. But Adina has done it.

Buttnaked, in particular, is a wonderful song because it’s about loving the person’s body in its natural state. After sex, spending time watching your man lay about. She sings, I’m sittin here lookin at your body, baby baby baby/I’ve never seen somethin’ so beautiful here lately lately lately/I love the way the candles bringin’ out your skin tone baby baby baby/Don’t ever put your clothes on again, stay buttnaked baby baby baby. It’s romantic in a completely new way. The song never rises above a murmur and that is what makes it work.

Nasty Grind, I swear, is about penetration of a man by a woman and the intimacy (and taboo…the song is called Nasty Grind) of such an act is treated matter of factly. I could be wrong about that interpretation though:

(One), come over
(Two), turn over
(Three), remember
(Four), you’re a freak like me
(Five, I’m on my knees you’re beggin me please
(Six), nobody’s gonna do you like me
My nasty grind. 

If it is what I interpret it to be, it’s the most remarkably subversive song in decades. If not, than it’s a brilliant song about women’s control of being penetrated. Either way, it’s a gorgeous song.

With The Second Coming, Adina uses sex as a conceit to display different aspects of love and relationships. But more important than the lyricism, which is sharp more often than not, is how varied Adina’s voice is on the album. She goes from controlled intensity of It’s Not Over and Say What You Want to genteel calm on Missing Youto throaty seduction and passion on Buttnaked.

4.5 stars

STANDOUTS–It’s Not OverSay What You WantNasty GrindButtnakedDon’t Wait Up and Missing You

Delusions of Blackness: Reviewing Justin Timberlake’s Justified

This piece was originally written for An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision and does not take into account later information (e.g. that the Pharrell tracks were discarded Michael Jackson songs).

Justified album coverThere are 2 very distinct ways you can look at Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified. You can revel in the lean, slick sound and be carried away by it genuine listenability. Or you can listen closely and recognize that there is not an original note, chord progression, adlib, whatever, on the entire album.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of Justin, but Gone was the rarest of contemporary pop songs — one that managed to evoke its influences instead of just copying them. It was smooth, well-crafted soul-pop and is the one of only two songs of its kind to come out of the recent pop boom. (The other is Backstreet Boys’ If You Stay). That song alone made me think that perhaps a debut Justin album might be worthwhile.

Reviewers are eating this album up and they have chosen to look at the album in the first way. Star Tribune was so enamored of the album that they said, “This might be the first truly can’t-miss stepping-out-of-a-group debut since Lionel Richie left the Commodores.” USA Today, in a short paragraph, makes pains to tell readers he’s not really copying Michael Jackson, but then they back peddle a bit and say (what is probably the truest statement made in the media regarding the album), “at least he sings with more taste and restraint than most of his peers.”

Why then, am I saying Justified is so bad?

Justified is a confusing mess, lyrically and emotionally. On half the songs, Justin’s lame attempts at being down sound just like what you would expect. On the other half, he’s a typical NSYNCer trying to get the girl. The most glaring example of the former would be Right For Me where the affected slang and hip-hop lite braggadocio is hilarious. Senorita is a nice little ditty, but again he just sounds like a little boy who wants so bad to be cool and fails miserably. Take Me Now is corny and not remotely believable. Then of course you get the requisite mid-tempos which are only marginally better than the poseur-lite tripe I’ve just referenced. He seems more comfortable singing stuff like Still On My Brain, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.

There is not an original note on this album. No original vocal production, phrasing, adlibbing. Nothing. Everything on this album is a blind copy. The only songs that manage to rise up and become truly derivative are Cry Me A River and Nothin’ Else. The former is about as sublime a song as Timbaland has ever created. Justin’s real talent may be in his ability to marry simple beatboxing to melodies. He did it to stunning effect on Gone and now on Cry Me A River. Justin’s heartfelt lyric “You were my sun/You were my earth isn’t the deepest, but by the time he gets to The bridges were burned/Now its your turn to cry” he truly grabs you. The song is stellar, but honestly I’ve heard songs very much like it on Ginuwine’s albums, some just as good, if not better. Nothin’ Else is so Stevie inspired that you half expect to hear his harmonica. But that said, the laid back groove and sparse percussive backing track is perfect for Justin’s lower register. The bridge, and the little preceding break, is so beautiful, it’s astonishing. Those are the only truly affecting moments on the album. Too bad the same honesty of spirit and emotion isn’t elsewhere.

And that, friends, is the real problem. Justin is so earnestly mimicking his influences, instead of allowing himself to be influenced, that he actually believes he has created his own sound…he even says it in the liner notes. It’s not hard to like this album, it is well-crafted for the most part. But for me, at times it’s like listening to the best Ginuwine tracks and at other times it’s like listening to Kelis’ Kaleidoscope. What makes it hard to like is the lack of fun that was evident in Justin’s contributions to NSYNC. It is more palatable to listen to lame white boys mimic if they seem to be aware that they are just playing dress up. From his MTV performance, to the Billboard performance, and his vacillation between loverboy and b-boy poseur, it is clear that Timberlake is confused. He is so earnest.

His MJ-lite opening single, Like I Love You would have angered even had he not ripped off entire choreographed segments and the MJ look on MTV. Take It From Here and Last Night are so innocuously catchy that you wanna drill a hole in your head and hope that the melodies fall out. The Brian McKnight contribution is further proof that he should have stopped after One Last Cry(Oh No) What You Got is probably the best of the rest, with Justin actually engaged with the Timbaland track instead of just coasting over it.

The production is not the problem. It’s good…that is if you haven’t heard Timbaland and the Neptunes other work. They aren’t doing anything new on this record. I don’t wanna say they gave him their scraps, because it is clear they didn’t. But it seems that they made an attempt to tailor their production to the thin melodies Justin wrote. I don’t think it really works. He sounds unconvincing and bored.

Many of the Neptune mid-tempos are reminiscent of the work they did for Kelis. But since no one bought that album, Justin is gonna get credit for what will seem like branching out on the Neptunes part. Same goes for Timbaland. Those who didn’t buy Missy albums or Timbs own albums will think this is new for him. Because yes, none of this sounds like Aaliyah, or Britney, or the other people they produced for.

Ultimately, the album is good enough that critics adore it. And that is what he wanted. But answer me this, how many of them do you think heard and reviewed Kaleidoscope? How many of them reviewed 100% Ginuwine? How many of them have heard Donny Hathaway who Justin unconvincingly apes on nearly every ballad? Not many.

But he’s achieved what he was groomed to achieve. To break away and be seen as a serious artist. Is he one? No. Is he capable of becoming one? Absolutely. But this is a fan’s album, a little kid’s work. He made music that he wanted to make and I applaud that, but it isn’t him. I’m just truly disturbed and disappointed that he really believes Justified is an original work. The hype machine is so great on this and around him that he can really do no wrong, and that is dangerous. What he doesn’t realize, I think, is that if he continues to do albums like this, the truth, that he is ripping off black folks, will become a liability. Mainstream media doesn’t really want to acknowledge that it’s all black at the core, so once they’ll let it slide. Shit, maybe twice…who knows? But at some point, someone will have to sound the alarm, right?

So yes, this is inventive. It sounds edgy. (Didn’t Daria show us that “edgy” has no meaning, I keep seen that word in conjuction with this record). Bottom-line. People are so easily bored with Timbaland and Neptunes when they were doing work for Aaliyah and Missy and Noriega. But now it’s all shiny and new.

Except it isn’t.

I guess its a smart move on their part, because they get to work more…but how many preteens are gonna remember Cry Me A River as the great production of Timbaland. Or Like I Love You as great production of the Neptunes.

And therein lies the danger…once again, for the people this will really influence, the next generation, the real musicians, the real artists, will fade to the background, when creatively, they are front and center.

2 each for the two good songs.