I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

Music 2003–The Good, The Bad, And The Appropriated

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.

I really really thought this was gonna be a bad year for music.

And in many ways it was. Black music is moving farther and farther into the mainstream and its relevance rapidly becoming inversely proportionate to how many black people are actually having anything financially and/or creatively to do with it. Basically the bigger it gets, the less and less it resembles what was originally so appropriate-able in the first place.

And interestingly, the more and more black music moves into the mainstream the more and more the music itself gives stupid liberals comfort in essentialist ideas about black people (as the music itself seems to be, overall, stagnating in tired cliché) and everyone else fuel for conservative, blame-the-victim-because-changing-the-society-that-created-him-is-SO-much-harder-to-do moralizing.

And the first six months of the year did nothing to thwart most of what allows this kind of “settling-in” to take place. We just kept making sh*tty music, from 50 Cent to drivel like the endless B2K singles.

50 Cent dominated with his own brand of exploit-the-victim-because-changing-the-society-that-created-him-is-SO-much-harder-to-do so-called gangsta rap. That people take this fool seriously isn’t so much a surprise as it is a head grabbing, groan inducing, “Of COURSE they do” kind of reaction.

I have decided not to do a movie write-up this year as I’ve seen so few films this year. The music realm seemed more like the film world this year, ironically enough. It seemed I couldn’t keep up with the plethora of great music being released after September. Everyone from Alicia Keys to Gerald Levert was releasing some of their best work ever.

My list is more or less the same format as always, but hopefully y’all will see some things you haven’t copped yet. I seem to always be in the minority with these things, but that’s the fun. Were I a less secure person, I would begin to think I have sh*tty taste. You decide, I’ve saved the top 10 for last.

BEST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Beyoncé Knowles & Jay-Z, Crazy In Love
B’s song wins out over the much catchier, but now maddeningly annoying Lumidee song, Never Leave You. Frankly as far as singles go, they were the best in terms of sheer ingenuity of production. Neither vocalist is of any consequence, but B wins out because she’s turned into a fantastic performer and she’s never lacked for spunk and personality. Plus Jigga sounds positively inspired. Love is a many splendored thing, huh?

2. Lumidee, Never Leave You
3. Talib Kweli, Get By
4. Big Boi, The Way You Movie
5. Dre, Hey Ya

BEST NON-SINGLE SONG OF THE YEAR–Beyoncé, Speechless
Beyoncé knocked it out of the park on this track from her stellar debut album. Speechless is an incredible ode to being turned out. It might seem crass, but Beyoncé proved with this song that she’s getting it in just the way that she should be. It’s the most revealing moment for an artist this year. Beyoncé drops all the pretense that she’s been groomed to offer the public and gives us a six minute glimpse into her bedroom. Bravo, ma!

2. (tie) 702–Places and Alicia Keys, Karma
3. R. Kelly–You Knock Me Out
4. Anthony Hamilton–Cornbread, Fish And Collard Greens
5. Madonna–Easy Ride

WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR-Christina Aguilera f/Lil Kim, Can’t Hold Us Down
The problem with Christina Aguilera has almost nothing to do with Christina Aguilera. It’s the foolish critics who think just because she hits the notes (actually an astute listener can tell she’s glidin’ in and around them, but does it matter?) and is loud, doesn’t mean she can sing. Technical singing is fine and all, but it has no place in contemporary music if you can’t use it.
This song is trite and unconvincing because well, who the f*ck is trying to hold her down? The critical lambasting she got with the release of Stripped was designed to keep her name in the papers. No one actually believes any of the isht she professes on this album and in countless interviews. It’s sloppily thrown together, the vocals are convoluted and muddy. And Kim has become so much of a self-parody her presence on a song does neither harm nor good.

2. Black Eyed Peas, Where Is The Love
3. Justin Timberlake, Rock Your Body
4. Mya, My Love Is Like…Whoa!
5. Anything by 50 Cent.

MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER-Latif, Love In The First
Latif got lost in the shuffle this year. He’s a victim a classic paradox in music…the talented young artist meant for mass consumption, but too complex for the kiddies. Much of his album is the kind of fun, yet mindlessly well-crafted stuff that you would expect from a 19 year old R&B; artist. But when left to his own devices (most notably on Heavenly, Rain Will Go Away, and the title track) he displays a sharpness of phrasing, a keen eye for melody, and surprisingly thoughtful lyricism. This is not an album that y’all should continue to pass up.

WORST ALBUM–Female R&B; (Mary J. Blige–Love And Life, Monica–After The Storm, Ashanti–Chapter II, Mya–Moodring)
The problem with female R&B; was not so much a matter of craftsmanship as it bad input. Mary had Puffy and her new husband to give her the worst album of her career, sounding rushed and maudlin at exactly the same time. Ashanti has no one to blame but herself since she writes (no, seriously) her own stuff, but being on Murder…excuse me..The Inc doesn’t help. Mya is inconsequential because she as bad a singer as has ever been. She also suffers from lack of personality, as does Monica who manages to continue to squander one of the greatest voices on the planet. On paper a Missy Elliott produced album probably did sound good, but since she didn’t write any of the songs with Timbaland, Missy’s joints were all over the place. Monica and Mary will recover from these disasters, to their credit, they always sound great.

MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Keith Murray, He’s Keith Murray
Back in the early 90’s, in New York City, there were three underground cats that were makin noise all over the 5 boroughs. Notorious BIG, Nas and Keith Murray. Everywhere you went, brothas and sistahs were talking bout this lil’ brotha who made up words and was ill on the mic.
Nas was the best, no question, but Keith Murray was always my favorite. Despite the brilliance of his first three albums, especially It’s A Beautiful Thing and Enigma, Keith never took over the mainstream in the way he was supposed to. He was grimy, but not the most personable of artists, funny but few kiddies would get the jokes, and intelligent in a way no one else is except Canibus…the allusions and metaphors Keith bring to his music were just too much for the mainstream of the mid 90’s. Plus, he got locked up.

When Keith was released from prison, real heads was goin crazy. He got lots of press, because everyone with taste knows that Keith Murray is one of the best out there.

But then He’s Keith Murray dropped and I’m here to tell all y’all that this is a sad sad album. The fire seems to be missing outside of the first two or three tracks. I blame it on Erick Sermon for not producing more, Keith is on top of his game on the Sermon produced tracks, but flounders otherwise. His heart ain’t in it. But Keith is my man so you know I’m coppin his new joint when it drops. Regardless.

2. Chico Debarge, Free
3. Jonny Lang, Long Time Coming
4. Mary J Blige, Love & Life
5. Monica, After The Storm

MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Kindred The Family Soul, Surrender To Love
Kindred did that rare thing in so-called “neo-soul”–they had fun. They managed to make a great album instead of making a flawed album that gets the “they have potential..a few albums from now, they’ll be great” response a la every other “neo-soul” artist save Erykah Badu. This is a joyous album. It’s free of the pretension of nearly every other “neo-soul” in recent memory. This husband/wife duo manages to fuse the life feel of gospel praise and with real passion and weight. The most pleasant surprise given the spotty releases of all them “neo-soul” artists from Philly.

2. Latif, Love In The First
3. Dwele, Subject
4. 702, Star
5. Madonna, American Life

BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR–Tank One Man
Tank is such a mess of contradictions. Probably the most photo/telegenic of R&B; crooners, it is odd that he isn’t plastered all over the place in hopes of making little girls and grown-a** women wet. And his music is so sexually ardent, it would seem that he’d market himself more. But sadly, I think that his record label, one that did a great job handling Aaliyah, has no idea what to do with the guy. His music is far to melodic and not “catchy” enough to really compete for the mindless drones. One Man is ballad heavy too. But regardless, after a full year, it still gets madd spins from me. The bounce of Club to the thrillingly understated So Many Times, Tank is redefining what it means to make “baby-makin'” music…and y’all are missin’ it.

2. Vivian Green, A Love Story
3. Meshell Ndegeocello, Cookie, The Anthropological Mixtape
4. Talib Kweli, Quality
5. Brandy, Full Moon

MOST OVERRATED–John Mayer
He’s rather pompous, but that is more amusing that anything. Actually, the only thing I don’t like about John Mayer is that his music is frightfully boring. It’s melodic, and thoughtful, and all the things music should be…except exciting and thought-provoking. But perhaps he’ll develop into someone with personality, who knows? Who cares?

2. Justin Timberlake
3. Christina Aguilera
4. Jason Mraz
5. dead prez

MOST UNDERRATED–702
702 is the rarest of girl groups. They are classy, without seeming fake or contrived. And they have the rare distinction of making faceless music that they TEAR UP in a live show. Sistah’s can sang! And with this year’s, Star, 702 finally made it work. They got some great (and some average) material and turned in the best R&B; album by a girl group in a long time. Better than the mess that was Survivor. But they might never achieve what they deserve because they don’t seem to be all that into it. Its admirable that they want the music to sell itself, but to look as aloof in interviews and videos is really a disservice to themselves. Cop this!

2. Big Boi
3. Tank

AWARD FOR PROVING ME REALLY REALLY WRONG!!!–Bubba Sparxxx
I hated Bubba Sparxxx when he first dropped. Thought he was average, but worse…uninteresting. And most of that is still true. But the thing about Deliverance is that it isn’t really revolutionary. It doesn’t do anything new. Bubba Sparxxx’s skills are really only minutely better than on his messy debut.Deliverance is the result of confidence. Knowing what one is good at and being really really good at it. Bubba Sparxxx took some great production from Tim, some even better production from The Dungeon Family, and some recycled Tim tracks and made a stunning album. Bubba’s lyricism isn’t much improved, but his awareness of his limitations make the songs soar. They are refreshingly honest and cinematic in scope and his simple yet confident delivery sells every single one of em.

FULFILLMENT OF POTENTIAL…FINALLY!!!–Dave Hollister, Real Talk
When Dave Hollister left BLACKstreet it made sense and it didn’t. The first BLACKstreet album was good, but didn’t make many waves. But his voice, while good, wasn’t exactly the most distinctive. And after two terrible albums, Dave has made a genuine banger with Real Talk deftly blending nostalgic tunes with corny sex metaphors that, mostly, don’t much matter. On this record, Dave has found a voice, a confidence, which is a wonder to see…few could make a song like the title track work. Seems Dave is takin a lesson from Tank and subverting tired playa clichés, mostly.

2. 702
3. Beyoncé Knowles
4. R. Kelly
5. Alicia Keys

WORST TREND–Racebaiting
It seemed this year, that everyone was consumed by race in music, and in all the silliest and most comfortable ways. Its much more comfortable to laugh at Michael Jackson about the whole face thing and his only seeming to be black when he thinks he’ll get something out of it as opposed to the appallingly racist way Justin Timberlake’s Justified was marketed (from the “He’s from Memphis, the soul capital, so it’s in his blood” argument, to his out and out lies about the fact that most of the tracks and melodies were pre-written when he got them). It’s offensive. For some reason, the very real climate of rampant appropriation without remembering who created, or influenced it, is everywhere. Justin is the most obvious example because, well, it’s obvious but no one will talk about it because a) the kid is unquestionably talented b) and entire segment of the industry gets their bread from the kid and c) because most people are afraid of being called racist.

Its not racist to see that what is happening to Michael is less because of his race and more because of the general climate surrounding his eccentricities (which interestingly enough are rooted in a deep self-hatred that we, collectively, never wanna deal with, but that is tangential to the point). It is definitely not racist to say that when black producers make music with and for black people, the industry falls all over itself, until THEY decide its tired and push it off on the first white boy/girl they can and call it brand new.

From the Eminem debacle to the recent spate of white crooners to Michael to the blatant marginalization of legitimate white crooners like Thicke, its clear that while the root of this trend is deeply entrenched in our society, the powers that be, scaredy-cay liberals, and ignorant conservatives will reap the financial and critical rewards of a continuing pillage of black musical tradition. This won’t stop it, but saying Eminem is a racist but Justin is the new king of pop, only proves that a) you are too tuned in to mainstream media without questioning what you hear and b) the problem isn’t racism, but a categorical denial of what the real effects of racism are.

THE LIST

10. MC Lyte–Da Underground Heat Vol 1
The problem with MC Lyte’s triumphant return is that she doesn’t say much. She packs quite a punch, but in the end the “I’m the best” braggadocio wears thin. Not to mention she, like Keith Murray, felt the need to have Jamie Foxx all over her sh*t. He’s tired. He’s hardly funny. And he nearly murders her record. But sadly, all this is still better than 99.98% of the hip-hop released, because its fun, its well-made, and it lacks the self-consciousness that has dogged the genre in the last 10 years. Lyte is still incredible on the mic and for a die-hard like me…it’s enough

9. Meshell Ndegeocello–Comfort Woman
Last year, Meshell had my number one album. Cookie was a masterpiece. Comfort Woman, not so much. It’s great, but for an album that is supposedly romantic, its shockingly cold and passionless, I think, by design. It’s interesting, and on Liliquoi Moon, she creates her greatest single song. The bass is omnipresent and yet unobtrusive. Its Meshell and it is fantastic. Nuf said.

8. 702–Star
Star is about as fun a pop/R&B; album as there is. But even that is an understatement, because 702’s music is far-reaching here. From the soul of Better Day to the janet like sexuality of the albums’ standout, Places, the ladies work it out vocally. Even when the production is less than stellar, Meelah’s lead reigns supreme, stomping all over the song. Clearly, we have a singer here who never allows the production, good or bad, to upstage her.

7. Jay-Z–The Black Album
Hot damn! Jigga’s back. This is the album that should have been The Blueprint. Jay-Z hasn’t done sh*t, album wise, since Vol 2. I dare you to argue. But he is one of the best, no question. And with this album, Jay gives you a glimpse into who he really is. Or at least, who he is most comfortable being for public consumption. Nevertheless, he’s made a stellar album. For the record, I think he should retire. He’s clearly bored, real heads have noticed it for years. And having your finest work be the first and last, is certainly poetic.

6. Erykah Badu–Worldwide Underground
This album was maligned for obvious reasons. 7 minutes songs, no hooks, no verses…wah wah wah. Who gives a shit? This is the funnest Erykah album yet. It chronicles her recent tour and because of that, yes, there is a loose feel to the material. F*ck what you heard, Worldwide Underground is great!

5. Beyoncé–Dangerously In Love
When Dangerously In Love was released, the field was bare. Nothing was good, lots of serviceable pop was being released in the form of John Mayer and the like, but nothing that was fun, good, and creative. Then B dashed out thatt gate, y’all. I didn’t believe she had it in her. I really didn’t. Forget all the piddling reviews praising the singles, the meat of the album lies between Be With You and Speechless. Personal, heartfelt, soulful. Beyoncé did her thing.

4. Madonna–American Life
That people didn’t like this isn’t a surprise. That critics didn’t like this is. I’m not sure how the drivel that was Ray Of Light could win Grammys but this beautifully orchestrated work is slammed worldwide. Perhaps its because this is her third go at electronic music and we are all over it. Which actually proves my point…they only liked Ray Of Light because it was so different, not because it was any good. All this is beside the point, the album is masterfully produced, lushly arranged, and either deeply heartfelt or artfully superficial in a warm way (not really sure). Either way, its terrific.

3. Alicia Keys–The Diary Of Alicia Keys
I’m kinda blown away by the effort Keys put into this. And it shows, but not in an insecure way, but in a “Y’all thought you knew, but you really didn’t” kind of way. All other superlatives that you’ve read are applicable here. She’s a force. Unstoppable.

2. OutKast–Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
I personally love Big Boi’s album. And not because it’s like all the other recent OutKast albums, but because I really love Big Boi as a lyricist and he really does his thing here. I am not a big fan of Aquemini or Stankonia, I think the spectacle of OutKast superseded the declining cohesiveness of their albums. Sure, they were adventurous and fun, but they lacked the complete punch that ATLiens had. Most interesting to me on both these albums, is the undercurrent of rampant misogyny that fuels much of the lyricism…particularly on The Love Below. Of course this makes Dre’s album closer in tone and affect to Rick James than Prince (as many a mag has so incorrectly stated). But regardless, it lends a weight that is profound, disturbing and, yes, genius to the proceedings.

1. Male R&B; (R. Kelly, Chocolate Factory, Anthony Hamilton, Comin’ From Where I’m From, Dwele, Subject, Dave Hollister, Real Talk, and Gerald Levert, Stroke Of Genius, Al Green, I Can’t Stop)
It’s long been considered that when black music makes great leaps forward in artistic genius, women are at the fore. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but reading between the lines of that statement and you find a consistent historical criticism of paternalism in black music…the undercurrents of femiphobia, sexual fervor at the expense of female pleasure, and genuine self-loathing.

Well in 2003 there were some brothers who really turned it out…made some deeply personal, soulful, and subversive music. R. reaffirmed his place in the long line of maladjusted geniuses of music. Chocolate Factory is no less than brilliant because R. has never been this focused, this impassioned, this restrained. And it works…even with that stupid a** Ja cameo. Al Green came back and just showed everyone how it should be done. Anthony Hamilton and Dwele injected some much needed sensitivity and subversiveness (check the sly ode to pimpin’ of Hamilton’s Cornbread Fish And Collard Greens) into male R&B…never; taking themselves too seriously. Dave Hollister pulled out all the stops and made an album of quiet breadth and simple singing. And my man Gerald Levert freaked a sex metaphor like no one’s business…peep the stunning collabo with Eddie and Sean.

With these six albums, male R&B; went a long way toward livening up a tired string of clichés in music…and proved that the fellas could make you cry, sang, dance, and shout as good as the sisters.



Posted on December 28th, 2003 - Filed under Music

Reviewing ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here.

Six Degrees of Separation film posterFor me, Will Smith is the most confounding black movie star to emerge in the 90’s. He wields tons of power but doesn’t seem concerned with developing too many of his own projects, especially of a decidedly black nature. Unlike Sam Jackson (producer of Kasi Lemmons stellar films, Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine) he doesn’t stray to far from what is expected from him.

So after the hoopla surrounding Ali has died down, we are left to contemplate what Big Will’s next move will be. Being a matinee junior Denzel Washington brings in the money and Will does have his Malcolm X. But unlike Washington he doesn’t have a Mo Better BluesCourage Under Fire, or a Devil In A Blue Dress to remind all those who get tired of the &#147Big Will” persona that, yes indeed, this black man can also act. He has never done much character work, which is confounding because his character work is solid, if not stellar, more times than not.

His bit part in the obscure-but-shouldn’t-be ensemble film Where The Day Takes You is notable for its breadth and depth taking into consideration the truncated screen time. In a film with revelatory work by Sean Astin (foreshadowing his triumph in Rudy) and Dermot Mulroney it is understandable that Big Will was overlooked.

This brings me to Six Degrees Of Separation, Will’s greatest triumph. Forget Ali he was undermined by a sh*tty script. This is great work. Studied, complex, and filled with depth. This is not just great technique, an accent, mannerisms…Will gives Paul heart and soul and that is often what is missing from the stage interpretations of the character.

The plot is relatively simple. Flan and Ouisa Kitteridge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a wealthy, posh Manhattan couple who, while entertaining an old friend (Sir Ian McKellan) from South Africa, are bombarded by a wounded Will Smith playing Paul, a young man claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. He dazzles them with his wit, sophistication, and promise of a part in the movie version of CATS (a hilarious running gag). The Kitteridges love him so much they give him a shirt (another funny gag) and set him up in their youngest daughter’s room. But when they discover he has brought home a boy, their fragile sensibilities are shattered. The rest of the movie is a dissection of their odd connection to Paul and trying to find out just who he is and how he got to be who he is.

The acting is perfect. It strikes a delicate balance between its stage roots and the more relaxed style of a film. There are scenes that belie the staginess that couldn’t have been lost in the film translation and they do feel kind of silly onscreen, but they are crucial moments. Paul’s big speech is deep and penetrating, but how else would a philosophical discussion play out…with the occasional “dudes” and “You know what I’m sayings?” No. The sophistication of the language, while seemingly overwritten, exists for a reason. Twofold. One, to skewer the pretensions of upper class America, with its empty conversations, and pompous self-absorption. And two, to depict that very world in order to accurately deconstruct it. Take the film for what it is, that is the only way to appreciate it.

Stockard Channing dominates the movie. Ouisa is a complex woman. She has an endless capacity for empathy and she feels for Paul in a way that is new to her. Channing realizes that she is responding to Paul because he is open to love in a way the people in her world never are, even her children. There is a wonderful helplessness to her scenes with her children (particularly the last phone conversation with her daughter). Personally, I believe Channing deserved the 1994 Oscar. But what do I know, I think Denzel should have got it for Malcolm X? Go figure.

Donald Sutherland has, what I believe, to be the hardest part in the film. Flanders is right on the line of selfish self-importance and arrogance, but Donald’s line readings are right on. The last scene with Ouisa, Paul, and Flan on the phone (the best in the film) is key to understanding Flanders Kitteridge. He doesn’t hate or even pity Paul, he resents the challenge to his life. Sutherland lets us know, from his line readings to his deterioration into a man who is fed up, that he is comfortable and doesn’t enjoy being the butt of Paul’s (perceived) joke. It is an immensely comical performance with a thread of real sadness. Ouisa makes the change, Flanders is incapable of it.

Compared to Ali this is clearly Will’s better performance, although both are fascinating studies in an actor’s commitment to technique (accent, mannerism, etc). Perhaps it is because it is a “normal” person, not a cultural icon. In a sense, Will was never gonna capture Ali. It is akin to someone playing Elvis…the legend and spectacle are larger than method acting could ever recreate. This is not to say his performance in Ali was bad, because it clearly wasn’t.

But Paul has layers that we, as common folk, can readily understand and identify with. He has layers that are part of who he is, not what his persona has dictated like Ali. Paul is the static character. He doesn’t change. He too is incapable, but for different reasons than Flan. He is the catalyst for the Kitteridges (and to some extent, the others he visits) to reexamine their lives. He wants to be a part of their world just as much as he wants to expose it for the shallow selfishness of it.

Smith is astute enough to know that Paul is just as selfish as the Kitteridges are and perhaps even more so. The last phone conversation shows this perfectly. He is unwilling to make a change unless Ouisa and Flan make one first. It can be construed that he doesn’t trust them, and that is part of it, but really it is that Paul doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong (and in a legal sense, he hasn’t) and he really believes his own hype. He expects more of them than perhaps they are willing to expect of him. That conversation is great because we see that with all the knowledge given to him (by a flawless Anthony Michael Hall as Trent) doesn’t change who he is. If it had, then we would have hated the Kitteridges for not being better people for having the same knowledge.

Six Degrees of Separation is famous for its line about how everyone on the planet is connected by a trail of six people, but that is hardly the point of the movie. The movie calls into question just how connected that trail really is and/or can be. Ouisa is the key to this idea. She like everyone of her class in the movie, is outraged (and a little amused) by Paul’s daring, but as the elaborate scheme unfolds there is a sense of being connected to all these seemingly random people that makes Ouisa feel like a part of something. It is a feeling that she has never really had.

The line she repeats at the end, “I will not turn him into an anecdote. It was an experience,” is great because Ouisa is our “in” and its dangerous because on the surface Ouisa’s arc paints her as that paternalistic benefactor that was so prevalent in high society during Harlem Renaissance. She walks a fine line of being genuinely moved by the Paul experience and the experience really just being an anecdote. Her ending joy doesn’t really erase the fact that little in her life has changed but it clearly puts forth Ouisa’s desire to be more than a paternalistic benefactor.

The whole movie is this kind of exaggerated rendering of Paul’s exploits and he nearly is an anecdote, but after that final phone conversation, Ouisa is unwilling to keep talking about the whole ordeal. It truly affected her that she couldn’t help Paul, a man whose real name she didn’t know, a man who she ultimately felt close to. To reduce the experience to anecdote, is to diminish her feelings. To diminish her capacity to feel empathy and care for other people. That is what makes her final moment work.

So Will may never do character work again, and while that saddens me (I hate when black folks and people of color attain a certain status and “get lazy”), we have Six Degrees of Separation, a superb film about what draws people together and what has been keeping them apart. Yes, it is stagy, but it is also astute, heartfelt, and beautifully directed. The film’s set design and cinematography are breathtaking, simultaneously awe-inspiring and cold, allowing us to maybe envy the world of the Kitteridges and still feel like it might not be as great as it seems.

5 stars.



Posted on November 29th, 2003 - Filed under Film

Still Thinking about the Relevance of Kenny Greene’s Death

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision, I liked the original but some things needed clarification for me.

Most people probably don’t even know who Kenny Greene is. Most people don’t even know the buzz that was going on in the industry about this guy before he died in October of 2001 of complications due to AIDS. I could go on and on about how talented he really was and how, at least for the R&B; community, he will be missed. And I will, but there is a greater more meaningful purpose to this editorial. And if it gets even one of you to pick up an album by Kenny’s group INTRO, that’ll be enough for me.

Kenny Greene, a black man, looks to the skyKenny Greene started out as one-third of the R&B; trio INTRO. They dropped their eponymous debut album in 1993 and it spawned the hits, Let Me Be The One and Why Don’t You Love Me. And their astonishingly daring ballad Come Inside may have spawned a generation in the same way Marvin’s Sexual Healing did. And it is just as good a song. Look at any guy or girl’s sex mixtape and I guarantee it is on there. They are credited with taking the New Jack sound farther, giving it what would ultimately be called a “neo-soul” flair. Kenny’s writing and arranging was so critically lauded that he and Dave Jam Hall (you know the guy who actually produced Mary J. Blige’s What’s The 411? and much of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories) tied with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year in 1993. If you don’t believe he is great you know Mary J. Blige’s Reminisce and Love No Limit? Yep, Kenny Greene wrote them.

INTRO’s first album was stellar and more accomplished than any of the debuts by the male groups coming out at the time. If you listen to Shai’s …if i ever fall in love or Silk’s Lose Control, H-Town, Portrait, any of those guys, INTRO’s music is much more assured and complex. Kenny’s arrangements were definitely influenced by the classics, none more than The Blue Notes in my opinion. And over the new jack beats, there is a freshness that is timeless in a way those other albums I’ve mentioned will never be.

But their second and final album together New Life fixes all the small things that were wrong with the first album. The backgrounds are more pronounced and the production is dialed down a bit. The lyrics are much more insightful, none more apparent than on the metaphoric richness of the title track, a Stevie-esque ode to renewal. Kenny Greene’s ability to take simple arrangements and merge them with a modern context made him a hidden gem in a bedrock of more showy neo-soulers who couldn’t find a way to make their influences mesh with a modern context. The fact that he and INTRO didn’t last is a testament to the radical, and subtle songwriting that didn’t quite fit with neo-soul or new jack swing. And it speaks volumes about how knowledgeable the average R&B; listener is NOT about the complexities and nuances of songwriting.

In July of 2001, Kenny Greene came out as a man who had been living a life as a bisexual. It was important for him to do so because he had been irresponsible and the pressure to be a straight man in the alpha-male world of being a black man and a R&B; singer was enormous. He didn’t want to allow the pressures and hate that goes on toward gay and bisexual men in the R&B; world to go on in secret. It was important to him to make sure that people understood that what they see isn’t necessarily who the artist is.

I’m not excusing Kenny’s actions, but it must have been excruciating. Let us remember that this was the early 90’s, pre-Ellen, pre-Will and Grace, before Greg Louganis came out, before Melissa Etheridge was a household name, before the countless gay-themed movies, Queer as Folk , and Rupert Everett and George Michael came out (officially).

And in the black context it was before Dwight Ewell’s gay militant in Chasing Amy or Michael Boatman’s Carter on Spin City . Why do I say that? Well think of other prominent black gay actors or characters in the media. There aren’t any. And Ewell and Boatman aren’t even gay.

The black population is overwhelmingly Puritanical, due almost entirely to the Big Brother-like presence (and importance) of the church in our history and culture. Black people are frighteningly homophobic mostly because black masculinity in this country has historically been linked to his ability to procreate. The more women a black man got pregnant the more valuable he was to the master and the economy of this country. Sexuality and virility in black men is intrinsically linked to economics. But more interestingly, our Puritanical pariah-like faith is a direct response to our oppressors who said one thing in the name of God and did the exact opposite. For black people, it wasn’t about lip service but real spirituality and faith. And while that is changing, the mindset prevails.

Kenny Greene was in a high profile position where he was making very erotic and sensual music and if the public knew it could have been about a man, it would have sent shock waves through the black community…in a way that we may not be ready to deal with. This is inexcusable. In my mind, a population still persecuted should not persecute another, but I’m smart enough to know it is not that simple. The bottom line is Kenny Greene’s music was damn good and no one in our community could have dealt with the ramifications of intense sexual and emotional bonds between men. And since he was bisexual, the not knowing would have made it worse. We like our demons and hatred clear-cut in America. Context is just too much for our minds. He’d have been run out of the industry.

Kenny Greene was a man who never really got the opportunity to really grow. Mary J. Blige got her start with Kenny Greene’s music but since then we’ve gotten a chance to see the woman and artist that she is. Kenny doesn’t have that luxury. The growth between the two INTRO albums is astonishing and those albums are nearly 10 years old. It is daunting a task to think about where he could be. Perhaps he could be where R. Kelly was. Perhaps he could have surpassed him. Possibilities are endless. His time in the industry was just under 10 years and he had only did a handful of stuff. His backing vocals for everyone from Will Smith to Cam’ron will never be indicative of the burgeoning talent in the man.



Posted on October 13th, 2003 - Filed under Music,Sexuality
Tags :: , , , ,

Reviewing Tank’s Force of Nature

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here.

Force of Nature album coverOne 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 FreakBounce 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&#146 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.



Posted on July 20th, 2003 - Filed under Music

Reviewing Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love

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

As I sit here, I am immediately aware that I’m about to gush over Beyoncé Knowles. And I’m real mad about that.

And you might ask why. I’ve said before I thought she is talented. And she is. And I’ve said before that she is far more inventive a singer/songwriter than almost anyone of her generation. And she is. And I’ve said that despite the hype and intrigue and whatnot, there seemed to be, at the core, a young woman struggling to really find her voice as an artist. And she is.

But as I’ve also said, things don’t happen in a vacuum and everything outside of the album itself has smacked of self-serving importance and arrogance that I really had no intention of even listening to Dangerously In Love, let alone coppin’ it. First, Michelle’s solo gospel joint (a decent, if too safe, record) was dropped in the back door with no pub, no love, no marketing.

Then Kelly’s album – and I mean this – was ruined by Mathew Knowles seeming ability to pick the most average, rote songs imaginable. It had more pub, mostly fueled by the by-the-numbers, yet strangely infectious drivel that was the Nelly collabo, Dilemma. It won a Grammy, but who really noticed. By then the promotional blitz of 2003 was already underway for Beyoncé’s album. The title angered me because clearly she was planning to co-opt one of the few great songs from Destiny’s Child’s album, Survivor. Then there were the BET specials where we saw Bey and Solange catting around Houston looking like pampered prima donnas waxing “I’m so over it” about the hectic life of a pop diva. Then there was the over singing of said co-opted song, Dangerously In Love, on SNL. Then the over singing of said co-opted song on VHI. And the Essence awards. And most of all there was the overall blandness of the lead track, Crazy In Love and it’s overly stylized video which managed to make every sexy gyrate and hair toss and strategically placed oversized fan blown hair toss as asexual and calculated as it really, really is.

Dangerously in Love album coverSo imagine my surprise when Dangerously In Love, the album — the work — turned out to be the best thing of its type I’ve heard all year. Imagine my surprise when all the hype about growth, sexiness and experimentation turned out to ACTUALLY be on the album. And imagine me sitting at work going “Damn Bey…I didn’t know it was like that.” Didn’t even realize I said it out loud until cats started askin’ me if I was cool.

Let’s look at what is most notable. B’s voice.

The album is nothing like a Destiny’s Child record. It also isn’t a boring showcase of vocal dexterity ala Christina, Mariah and Co. as most reviews (from Melbourne’s The Age, London’s The Guardian, and any number of American newspapers and magazines, except EW and Billboard) have foolishly and ignorantly stated. Bey’s created a varied and tasteful album where much of what was distinguishable has nearly vanished. There is the astonishingly inventive and believably sexy performances on Baby Boy and Speechless to the more conventional Bey on Crazy In Love. There are only a few instances of the vocal craziness, most notably on Missy’s Signs, a song so glaringly out of place and horrible, it is a wonder it was created for Bey, let alone included. It’s trite, unconvincing and random. I mean what does she mean I fell in love with a Sagittarius? It seems like the song was constructed around the rhyme instead of any characteristics inherent in the Zodiac. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t work.

But let us return to Speechless. Hands down the best declaration of sexual awakening I’ve heard since Janet was pantin’ bout anytime anyplace. When Beyoncé sings them “Yesses”, her voice achieves a pure tonal clarity and a pure sexuality that is astonishing, intense, and totally believable. Without question the best song on the album. No arguments, kids.

The song itself is the prime example of the astonishing growth of Bey’s songwriting skills. On Survivor she could not seem to make the music fit the lyrics or the vocal performance. As I said before, it just sounds bad when you are singing about not liking someone and all the arrangements are flowery and decoratively pretty and airy. It doesn’t mesh. But here, the song starts with “Where you been baby/Waited for you all day” and ends with them “yesses.” The emotion escalates in the lyrics beautifully and thus, Bey’s singing achieves the desired effect. It has somewhere to go.

Me, Myself And I achieves, in lyric, what Beyoncé has been struggling with most: writing an empowering introspective song with real passion and believability. With amazing clarity (“Love is so blind it feels right when it’s wrong/Now that it’s over stop calling me, come pick up your clothes/Ain’t no need to front like you’re still with me, all your homies know“). You really believe that Bey’s belief in herself is genuine and not false bravado and ego. The progression. It’s astonishing. Yes, an ode to waiting, is the strongest lyricism on the album. It’s astonishing. The sharp attempt to detail (“You said I move too slow/I showed you to the door“) is particularly notable. And the same happens on nearly all the songs from the Be With You to Naughty Girl to the oddly muted, but growing on me, Crazy In Love.

And the production is even better. The samples are nearly unrecognizable and do what they should…enhance the existing track instead of providing it. Be With You rides Strawberry Letter 23 with inventive panache and a simple bass line. The sample of the Chi-Lites coupled with Rich Harrison’s sparse, yet inventive production is the only thing really notable about Crazy In Love. And similarly, the track to the lame That’s How You Like It is good.

But hands down the best up-tempo is the engaging and (dare I say it) brilliant Hip Hop Star. It’s a dubious title, confounding really. But damn that snare drum and electric guitar is pure Bryce Wilson without being showy. And damn if she doesn’t sound amazing with those breaths. Blows Britney and Pharrell away with a quickness.

There are missteps, though. Don’t get it twisted. This is not a 5-star album. With the hidden track Daddy and Gift From Virgo, Beyoncé shows that while she is a capable songwriter, left to her own devices she is still inclined to over stuff a melody with as many syllables as she can and is given to trite lyricism about old school tennis shoes and movies. It’s far too nostalgic and wistful to be believable. Come on, y’all. She’s 21. She ain’t nostalgic for nothing. And as I said before Crazy In Love is more a production showcase than a real display of songwriting or vocal prowess. It’s aight. 

With really only two terrible songs (Signs and Daddy) and two average-to-just-around average songs (That’s How You Like It and Gift From Virgo). Beyoncé has constructed an album of unrivaled power in pop. Because every other song on the album is flawless. And I mean that. It’s the album that everyone foolishly, stupidly, thinks Justin Timberlake made with Justified. It’s the album that Christina Aguilera, given her (admittedly) perfect pitch, could never make. It’s the album I selfishly wanted Kelly Rowland to make.  It’s refreshingly straightforward and confident and it manages to make Beyoncé, the woman. full bodied and human, with real desire, thoughts and free (mostly) of pretension.

And for it’s minor missteps it really captures Beyoncé at a time in her life. In later years, we’ll say that sure it wasn’t perfect but it really sounds like a young woman’s thoughts and feelings. And few pop albums really capture that at all, let alone with the style, grace and sheer skill that Beyoncé Knowles has done with Dangerously In Love

4.5 stars



Posted on June 27th, 2003 - Filed under Music