The Black Snob

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Archive for the ‘RnB’ Category

Rants: Feel My Pain

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This week in real life “Snob News” I took dear Mama Snob to see “Cadillac Records.” Despite her disdain for all profanity (and the fact that she hadn’t seen a film in a theater since “Harlem Nights” back in 1989), she wanted to see the film because she is a fan of the blues, hardcore.

Mama Snob spent much of my formative years teaching and torturing my sisters and myself with blues music. Everything from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (who’s doppelgangers were in the film) to B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor (who is actually R&B if you ask my mother), ZZ Hill, Denise LaSalle and Koko Taylor. Some of it I grew to love. Others I still can’t stand to this very day. (I truly do not want to pitch a wang-dang-doodle all night long. Or put on my “wig hat,” as LaSalle suggests on one ditty.) But watching the film and, most notably, Beyonce Knowles’ portrayal of Etta James reminded me of what separates great art from great pop art.

In the film, Beyonce is playing Etta James, a woman with a distinct, passionate voice that hits you emotionally to your core. Some of her songs are joyous. Some are gospel. Some are blues. All hit with an undercurrent of suffering.

Beyonce is a perfected R&B/Pop princess with a pristine, over-worked voice who can kill stylistically, but has never moved me emotionally. Basically, her acrobatics are amazing, but she could also be the T-888 of pop singers.

She has been successful in moving me to the dance floor. That’s been a capability of hers since I was in college and someone would throw on “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She’s the queen of the “all-sass, all-the-time, independent/strong black woman” song. The “I’m so awesome and don’t need your tired ass” song, that — as I’ve mentioned before — is more science fiction than reality in relationships. Yeah, sometimes you get to wave it in a guy’s face and sing “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it,” but most of the time it’s just you, drunk, at home, watching “Mo’ Betta Blues” for the millionth time wondering why-oh-why won’t Denzel Washington come to your house and beg you to save his life?

Did I ever stand in your way, Denzel? Did I ever try to stop you from doing what you wanted to do!?! The only reason you’re here is because you can’t play anymore!

As I watched Beyonce emote her way through the film (and she tried to emote her little ass off), there was something not quite right. Knowles admitted that she really had to dig deep as an actor because of Etta’s anger and inner turmoil, (Etta had it rough and really, really liked liquor and smack, etc., etc.) At the end of the day, she came up with a convincing facsimile of suffering, but I never, for the life of me, believed in that suffering.

It’s not that I don’t think Beyonce has inner drama. Everyone does. Everyone has doubt and failings and pain. My argument is that Beyonce does not want you to know of this drama, any real drama, that is. She’s closely guarded with an even more tightly guarded image. She is more about being the fantasy of what she thinks you want her to be (cue “Sasha Fierce!”) rather than revealing anything of character.

In “Cadillac Records,” Adrian Brody’s character, Leonard Cohen, argues with Beyonce’s James’ lack of emotion in her initial takes of the song “All I Could Do Was Cry.” He makes the point that the song is about a woman watching another woman marry the man she loves. James’ digs deep and finds that pain, albeit it’s not about being dumped by a long-lost love. A scene later you learn about her being the neglected, bastard child of a white man.

Beyonce does good work with the scene, as she does with her few scenes in the movie (the film rushes in so many huge personalities that no one seems to get any justice as a character, including Etta James). But the scene underscores the point that it really doesn’t matter when the song is about pain. The pain has to be real for the song to have meaning. And that’s what separates someone with a wonderful voice who makes an outstanding pop artist from a true artist.

A true artist brings the pain.

I don’t have to convince you that original Fugee’s member, musical genius and lost child, Lauryn Hill has issues. We all know, homegirl has issues. But often, when I wanted to think of a modern song, like Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” or Issac Hayes’ cover of “Walk On By” that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, I think of Hill’s “Ex-Factor.”

“Ex-Factor,” on its face, can be taken as a brilliant love unrequited/love denied ballad, but it doesn’t stop there. As Hill explores deeper and deeper into the song and lays out her blueprint of pain, it becomes very apparent that this song doesn’t have to be about a crappy boyfriend or a wayward husband or a married man who won’t leave his wife for you. By the end of the song it is a plea for undying love, the kind you’re supposed to get from the first man to ever love you — your father. And once you cross that threshold suddenly the song is about abandonment — by anyone. Did your mother abandon you? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you grow up and age out of the child welfare system? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Were you abused as a child? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you spend 35 years as a housewife, raising five kids to find out that your husband has another woman and another five kids, secretly, on the other side of the country? Cry! Ex-Factor is for you.

Hell, you don’t even have to be a woman to cry during Ex-Factor. Just be from the land of broken toys. Be the neglected. Be the rejected. Once you get to the end where Hill pleads, “you said you’d be there for me” over and over she could be singing Pslams for all I know, wondering where is God and why He abandoned her. That’s how universal, yet specific, her vocal pain is.

And what does Knowles have? “If I Were A Boy?” a song, I HATE WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING. It’s a nice enough song. But it’s not particularly deep or painful. It basically entails that if Knowles were a man all she’d do is drink and hang out with guys without question. The video doesn’t hit any harder, which didn’t seem to relate to gender politics at all if you ask any guy whoever had a girlfriend cheat on him with a co-worker. It also resonates if you’re a man who has been routinely emasculated by the woman you love. (BB once sang how he gave you seven children and now you want to send them back!) These things are pretty common place. If anything, I thought the video was about gender equity among cheaters.

Women! We can cheat too! Except, we always have! So never mind!

And, gee. I think Gwen Stefani and the rest of No Doubt addressed this issue better on “Just A Girl” back in 1995. Or Leslie Gore on “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964. Or hey, how about less than two years ago, by Ciara, on a track called “Like A Boy,” a song I actually enjoyed despite it being a blatant Aaliyah rip-off, down to the baggy pants, hair weave and wonderful pop n’ lock routine. At least on the somewhat gimmicky, but fun single it was about being angry that the rules of sex and sexuality were different for men and women. Both Ciara’s and Beyonce’s songs tread similar gender role themes (staying out all night, turning off your phone, etc.) But Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy” is a sappy, whiny “This Used to Be My Playground”-esque ballad about pseudo-feminism.

Ciara is doing her best Leslie Gore of, “how would you like it if I did it to you, huh? You wouldn’t like that would you! We totally aren’t going to prom now!”

And it’s not like Ciara has a catalog of pain to draw back on (that I know of). But she makes it work. Largely because it’s a revenge fantasy, not about how awesome Ciara is and that she could do that to a guy, but that she WISHES she could do that to a guy. Never once does she say, “Screw this. I’m converting to being an ass.”

And I’m not a big fan of Mary J. Blige, but I call feel the capillaries bursting on every one of her tracks. When she sang that she couldn’t be without you, I believed she could not be without that person. Same went for “No More Drama,” another song which makes me cry despite my best efforts, because, in the end, you are responding to her raw emotion, her appeal to wanting to leave a tumultuous life behind and be the person she wants to be.

Some people say Beyonce wants greatness, hence why she chases those who already have it (see James, Etta). I can’t blame her. A lot of us do. This would also explain why at the last few of Grammy Awards she sang with Tina Turner and Prince as if their true measure of pain and “fierce” would rub off by osmosis. She’s obviously a hard worker, but no amount of hard work can fake pain. When Prince sang “When Doves Cry” you may not have known what the song was about in 1984. Maybe you still don’t. But you know he’s broken up over something. A woman. His parents. God. Himself. Ultimately, for me, the song is about obsession. But, sex, Jesus or obsession are good fallback explanations for nearly every Prince song.

Turner is the same way. She didn’t even write “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” yet the emotions, the sound, the pain were all Tina’s. No amount of wonderful song writing can create that.

I’m not saying Beyonce needs to get in a dysfunctional relationship, be abandoned by her family, pick up a drug habit (or several drug habits), becomes completely disallusioned by fame and moved to the islands, become a conflicted Christian who went pop or go nutbar on me but the great ones give up some pain. There’s really no way around it. Without the pain, you’re just a more charming Mariah Carey who can actually dance. Or worse, Janet Jackson with better vocals.

Both Mariah and Janet have outstanding pop careers. And if you want to be a wealthy, beloved, popular singer, you’re on their heels of catching and surpassing them in sales and accolades. But Whitney, the trainwreck everyone routes for, you will not. Beyonce Knowles can’t convince me she knows the blues. It’s her only real flaw as a performer. Her kryptonite. But she shouldn’t feel bad. It’s a pretty common flaw among pop singers. Usher can kiss Dead James Brown’s ass all he wants. He’ll still sound like someone said “just push play.”

Written by blacksnob

December 29, 2008 at 8:15 pm

People I Don’t Want To Be: Solange Knowles

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Did anyone catch Solange Knowles on Letterman Monday night? I caught a glimpse of the performance on accident and was reminded, yet again, how much it sucks to be in the shadow of a sibling/spouse/parent who is bigger, badder and better than you at everything. An individual you will be compared to and will never be good enough to satisfy those who became enamored with your loved one/rival.

Solange is an average, but pretty performer who tries really, really hard and because of this I know that if she weren’t the other daughter of Tina and Matthew Knowles, the parents who produced Beyonce, she would be doing anything but singing. She’d be in college. Or she’d be working at a bank or sewing in your weave. But she wouldn’t be singing for her supper.

Not everyone can be Janet Jackson. Most are Tito Jackson. Not everyone is Eddie Murphy, but if Solange is lucky she can find her own niche like Charlie Murphy whose career was reborn once he started playing a thug life version of himself on the Chappelle Show and famously recounted tales of slap fights with Rick James.

Maybe Solange had slap fights with Rihanna or Jamie Lyn Spears or something. Maybe she got in a scuffle with Jennifer Freeman or Kyla Pratt or Meagan Good or Jurnee Smollette or [insert young blacktress here]. Maybe she’s a better actress than her sister? Or designer? Or she could run for senate? But by singing and performing she is just ramming her head into a giant brick wall of Beyonce.

Every performance Solange gives will be like she just had to come on stage after her sister ripped it up dress in an homage to Josephine Baker while singing “Crazy In Love.” It doesn’t matter if Beyonce isn’t anywhere in the room. That’s what everyone is thinking.

She’s a cute kid. It’s a shame really. Especially the dancing. The dancing looked extra crazy. Some described it as “Suge Avery-esque.” I would have gone with seizure-esque, but see, this, this is what happens when you’re Beyonce’s sister and you have no hips because you’re skinny and you look ridiculous trying to dance like a wild woman like she does.

But shake that weave any ol’ way. You’ll figure it out on your own.

Written by blacksnob

August 27, 2008 at 12:19 am

Is It Just Me …?

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Or does Rihanna’sTake A Bow” sound like a gimmickier version of Beyonce’sIrreplaceable?” I don’t like either song, but they basically tackle the same topic (woman kicking out pathetic man), only Rihanna’s takes on this cheesy theme of equating the man’s pleas to take him back with Masterpiece Theater.

I’m not saying her song blows, but … “you’re so ugly when you cry?

I’m not a huge fan of Rihanna’s although I do like one or two songs by her. And I initially wasn’t that big of a fan of Beyonce’s until “Crazy In Love” came out and I had to concede that she could throw down even if she tends to over do it a bit (which is why I don’t like “Irreplaceable). I also find these sort of songs a little ridiculous.

I prefer furious to snarky when it comes to my jilted woman songs as I wrote in an earlier column. Snarky makes it sound like you’re this superior, arrogant, schadenfreude-loving drama queen. You sound so Holier Than Thou that I’m saying “No wonder he cheated on you” to the radio. There’s no real anger in “Take A Bow.” There’s no real examination of actual pain, no hurt, no damage. Only the fantasy of “You’re perfect and he sucks.”

It’s an ideation of how we all wish we could act in a break up as opposed to what we actually do — which is seethe, cry, possibly plot revenge then tearfully let it go. I’m not saying we all haven’t fantasized about our jerks begging to take us back while we laughed manically, looking fabulous and 15 pounds slimmer, but most of us just gave his stuff to the Goodwill, cut him out of the pictures we wanted to keep, then lied around the house eating ice cream and listening to Sade.

Most of us are not that hard rock about it. We like to think we are, but we’re not. It’s OK to be jealous, hurt and act out as long as you don’t do anything that could get you arrested. You’re not weak if you can’t coolly kick a man to the curb while telling him off ever-so-perfectly. You’re just human. So give me a song about humanity.

And on second thought, “Take A Bow” does blow. I’ve seen Rihanna. She’s cool, but I don’t care what she sings. She does not look like that much of a badass.

Written by blacksnob

June 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

MadLibs: Jayonce Dream Wedding Edition

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Found this on WigCrypt’s Beyonceitis blog (it’s about TIME someone updated it!) It’s a “make your own blog entry on Jay-Z and Beyonce’s wedding” MadLibs.

Click here to create your own!

Written by blacksnob

April 7, 2008 at 2:52 am

Ballads For Tragically Bitter Women

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Ashanti was always a middling singer to me back in the early 2000s I felt she was unfairly benefiting from Janet Jackson’s nasal wheeze and Aaliyah’s untimely death. She was crappy. Her songs were crappy and she couldn’t dance. She was useless to me.

On top of that she made songs with Ja Rule and I felt he was benefiting too greatly from the death of Tupac. (But then so was Masta P and DMX. The Ice Cream Man and the Pit Bull Whisperer would be mere hip hop footnotes if ‘Pac hadn’t managed to get him self shot up a second time.) Then on top of that I learned her voice was the back up on all Jennifer Lopez’ banal pop hits. Then she dated Nelly, which to me was like dating Will Smith’s untalented, tired, sing-songy cousin three-times removed. What was not to hate?

Out comes this song, out of the blue, on the radio and I’m a sucker for a good “chick done wrong” song. From Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughtta Know” to Effie White screaming how she ain’t going no where. I love the raw emotion and pain out of those songs that are like beautiful, violent verbal assaults bellowing, “Mutha fucker, you will not ignore me! I will sing so loud the capillaries in your eyes will burst!”

And you can’t be a decent R&B singer, lounge lizard, Broadway diva, opera diva, jazz crooner or blues singer and not be able to tackle a decent done wrong song. Any respectable female singer needs to have one at her disposal. Who wants to listen to happy songs all the time? That’s boring. Give me songs about bitter ex-girlfriends of No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal and how my body never knew such pleasure and my heart never knew such paaay-eee-yaaay-eee-yain!

I was conflicted when I learned the song was Ashanti’s “The Way That I Love You.” But it wasn’t crappy?! My mind reeled. I can’t. I must’nt like it! Then I saw the video and it was an angry wrong woman smörgåsbord with Ashanti going both “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” on a fella.

It was great.

It was even better than the Beyonce song I’d initially planned on hating – “Ring The Alarm” – because it reminded me too much of Kelis’ infinitely better “Caught Out There.” But Beyonce’s track won me over. It was just so angry! With violent allusions! I couldn’t resist.

Caught Out There” is still the standard bearer for modern, hip hop tinged Valentines to love gone horribly awry. Kelis was the first R&B woman to scream with a grunge rock bravada in the middle of a Neptunes production. Between literally tearing shit up, killing her boyfriend, watching him die and leading a protest of pissed off women of every race in their pajamas, this song was dramatically different from the usual “poor pitiful me,” prettily warbled diatribes of prepubescent pop starlets airing their slights. Kelis was on some Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, angry white woman with guitars and guns shit there. She was both Bernadette “Git Yo’ Shit” Harris and “Dear, Perseus, I’m Killing the Kids,” Medea.

She was the Alpha and the Omega. She was both Godzilla and Mothra. It was great!

That brilliance aside, I will be accepting that I actually like an Ashanti song and I will be downloading it for $.99 when it pops up on Amazon. Or downloading it for free. Whatever. But I’m not buying the album

You can’t trust that Ashanti. She might flip it and do a song with Chingy or something and my high will be blown. I only take full CD purchase risks on Beyonce.

Written by blacksnob

April 4, 2008 at 12:27 am

Posted in Ashanti, hip hop, Kelis, music, RnB

Beats I can dance to. Words I can’t stand.

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It amazes me how far Djays, producers and musicians have come in their quest to make the most mind-blowing, cutting edge beats in the history of hip hop. Wizard-like producers like Timbaland and Pharell. Dan the Automator, DJ Q-Bert, Prince Paul and Gorillaz. And don’t get me started on Kanye West, Danger Mouse (both separate and as part of Gnarls Barkley) and Aphex Twins. It’s a beat revolution out there.

Timbaland and Pharell took the twee falsetto voiced, Britney Spears lovin’, teen pop singer Justin Timberlake from being the dopey kid with the blond afro in Nsync to a soul sex symbol. The first R&B album since Tina Marie’s first joint that had black folks going to the record store, trying to buy that “Justified” while hiding it underneath that copy of Jay-Z and pervert Kells “Best of Both Worlds” LP. Hoping no one would notice.

But a brilliant album is a brilliant album. And when his second album came out it was like he’d transformed fully into a legitimate soul artist, black credentials stamped, ready to go. Black folks could openly say they liked J. Timberlake, even though some folks will stay they just bought it for the beat.

That’s what a good beat, a masterful producer can do for the right artist.

But for every great beat that is given to someone who can throw it up in the air and turn the joint into sunshine (see: Beyonce “Crazy In Love” or Keysha Cole on Diddy’s “Last Night”), there are countless magical baselines and riffs wasted on marginal rappers and singers with borderline tedious lyrics.

Case in point: T-Pain’s “Buy You A Drink” and 50 Cent’s “Ayo Technology”

Both songs in the beat department are beyond excellent. The production quality is futuristic in both cases finding innovative things to play along with the vocals and melody.

On T-Pain’s self-produced track, the melody works it way up to an Ecstasy-laced, euphoric. It’s harmonic heaven — if you don’t listen to the lyrics. For all T-Pain’s skills in crafting the beat, he doesn’t provide jack shit in the way of lyrics. Shallow, the song focuses purely on trying to “buy you a drink” and “take you home with me.” Wow. There’s no songs on the radio about that shit. That’s novel, son. A song about getting a girl drunk and screwing her and calling it “sawty snappin.'” Blacks have only be writing about that since Cab Calloway penned “Minnie the Moocher,” mentioning her penchant for a little cocaine every now and then.

The melody has some complexities and romance, but T-Pain and Young Joc offer up nothing more than the same tired rap cliches, only now within the slightly less sexist confines of R&B.

But as effective as T-Pain was at orchestrating a sonic, danceable sound, the master of making a beat that can truly challenge the listener is Timbaland.

On “Ayo Techonolgy” Timabaland brings his “A” game with an especially novel, future-funk-forward beat that I’d argue is almost as good as Kanye West’s Daft Punk mix on “Stronger.” Everything about the beat is novel. The digital beat is heightened with a modified cell phone-style ring that would have been pitch perfect for a skilled, fast delivery-style rhymer like Chicago’s Twista.

But who do we get? The mush mouthed, lethargic tones of the king of over-rated, 50 Cent.

I’m not going to hide my very partisan view of 50 Cent. I never liked him, not even when Dre and Em were trying to ram him down everyone’s throat with his “second coming of ‘Pac, I’ve been shot” alleged brilliance. It’s been humorous to watch the devolution of his music since his debut. In 2002-2003 he was battling with fellow facsimile, Ja Rule, calling him a “Wanksta” and deriding him for making 10,000 crappy songs with an equally marginal and bland Ashanti in an effort appeal to a more commercial, i.e. “weak,” fan base. He didn’t need to rap with R&B singers.

And then comes this turd of an album in 2007, “Curtis.” And who’s on there playing back up? The whitest falsetto spitting, fey R&B singer boys in the world – Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake.

Justin shows up on “Ayo Technology,” improving this Fiddy-mangled song by trying to interject some life into it. But even he’s dragged down by Fiddy’s anemic delivery and the borderline moronic subject matter of the song.

Fiddy prides himself with being “hood,” but how “hood” can your ‘roided up ass be if your big “hit” is an ode to masturbating to internet porn? At least other sexist rappers actually make it to a titty bar to sing about actual strippers (see T-Pain “I’m N’ Luv Wit A Stripper”). Internet porn is the equivalent of gorging on the fast food of sex. It’s something you do in the dark that you don’t tell anyone else about. You don’t write an ode to it where you ask her to “make it rain” for you.

Fiddy turns a brilliant beat to trash. I’ve never understood who this song was meant to appeal to? It wasn’t romantic enough to get women into it, unlike “Buy You A Drink” which actually involves trite compliments and offers to buy you beverages. I guess the song could pass for being “hood” and attract horny knuckle heads who’s pants hang so low they trip over them, but what are they going to do with it? Slap it on as a soundtrack for their internet porn?

Too many rappers take too many cutting edge beats and render them mediocre with more of the same “let’s get drunk and have sex” paradigm. Or in “Ayo Technology’s” case, “let’s go get drunk and jerk off to internet porn.”

“Buy You A Drink” and “Technology” have beats there are of Gnarls Barkley, OutKast meets Gorillaz level of quality. Yet the songs are reduced to trashy club music to accompany the most stretched-marked of pock-faced, tattooed strippers as they kick up their four-inch clear plastic heels at the Pink Slip in Washington Park.

Why aren’t rap lyrics advancing in creativity and quality at the same pace as the beats? Why is every rapper still exploring territory Ice T, Eazy E and Jay Z gave up on years ago? How many songs about strippers or getting drunk can a person write?

Evolve, people! Evolve!

Or if you can’t be deep, if you only want to write about women, thuggin’ and liquor at least get your flow to match the quality. Even Snoop tailored his lyrics, ever so slightly, to work with the outrageous beats Pharell Williams cooked up. I’m not down with all the Crip talk on “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” but at least that song and his latest “Signs” (which, ironically, features Justin Timberlake), I’m not ashamed to get up and dance.

Written by blacksnob

February 18, 2008 at 6:36 pm