[Originally published on January 9, 2012 at the FBB mothership. Slightly edited for clarity. Most of this still applies,]
Let’s talk about music. I love soul/rhythm and blues music, even more than hip-hop. I loved Undun, but it hasn’t gotten the spins of Weather, Good Things, Echoes of Silence, As Above So Below, Back to Love or Betty Wright: The Movie . It wasn’t always like this. When I was a younger man, I had a troubled relationship with contemporary rhythm and blues music.
Like many of my generation, classic soul, funk and R&B music was the soundtrack to my childhood. I have fond memories of listening to Stevie Wonder after I finished my homework, trying (fruitlessly!) to copy the dance moves of Michael Jackson, the Temptations and the Four Tops and being moved in ways that I was too young to understand by Marvin Gaye and Prince.
Then I got older. I transitioned from listening to my parents’ LPs to buying my own audio cassettes. I still loved the music of my childhood, but I needed to hear music that spoke to my experience.
It’s a familiar story – the “rebellious” teenager driven to embrace culture that’s completely different from the kind enjoyed by his or her parents. As a child, my tastes (in culture that wasn’t created for children) were entirely shaped by those of the adults around me: their music, their books, their movies and television shows. When I entered adolescence, I craved music and culture that belonged to me in the same way Motown or Stax belonged to my parents, or Michael and Prince belonged to my older cousins and younger aunts/uncles. I wanted my own classics. I wanted R&B music that spoke to me the way it spoke to them decades before. I appreciated great music in that pre-neo-soul era, from Cooleyhighharmony and Poison to My Life and Toni Braxton . But the music that spoke to me? That was hip-hop. It was CL Smooth and Q-Tip. Nas and Ice Cube.
Hip-hop music felt new, alive, vibrant, while even great R&B was unable to escape the shadow of the sixties and seventies. There was a shining moment when R&B artists wanted to create music that was rhythmically, melodically and thematically complex, but it felt like that moment had passed.
The productions and vocals were still compelling, but it just wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted singers to talk about the messy world that I lived in, where love and romance were inseparable from politics, friendship, culture and identity. When I listened to R&B albums, I felt like I was transported to a fantasy world where romance took place in a vacuum.
I just couldn’t relate. Everything in my life — love, school, sports, politics, music, religion, race — seemed to happen simultaneously. It was all integrated. Love, romance and relationships bled into every corner and crevice of my life, and it was hard to appreciate music that didn’t somehow reflect that reality. The words that were sung in the R&B tracks from the early ‘90’s just seemed to come from a different world.
I think that’s one of the reasons I loved hip-hop. Yeah, some (okay, most) MCs tended to imagine a world where women and romance existed at the very margins of life, but they were so good at capturing the other painful contradictions of being a young black male that I found it easy to forgive its problems and excuse its misogyny.
There are a lot of things to love about this song – the flawless production, the evocative lyrics, Nas’s perfect flow – but its embrace of life’s messiness is what makes it a classic. On “Memory Lane”, Nas fuses hope with melancholy and a sense of premature nostalgia that captured my early teen years (pretending that we’re wise beyond our years, sagely alluding to a dark golden age of roller rinks and crack kingpins).
My feelings about R&B changed with Brown Sugar, Plantation Lullabies and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and the rise of neo-soul. So it took me a long time to realize that the stories that I was looking for — that I should have been paying attention to the whole time — could be found in the music, not the words.
Books were my first love and I tend to approach everything — comics, movies, music — through that prism. I always see/hear the words first. Even now, when I first hear a song, my attention is focused on the singer/MC, but I’ve come to appreciate that the voice is just an instrument that shouldn’t be privileged over any other.
I know, this is one of those things that most music lovers just instinctively know. For a very long time, I was the only music fan in my peer group who heard primarily the verse or the vocalist instead of the beat. I dismissed Group Home. Scoffed at Janet. I was a very foolish young man.
There is something special about a song like this that’s wholly unrelated to Janet’s words. It’s how Jay Dee’s beat combines with Janet’s voice to invoke an acute sense of nostalgia and regret, with just a hint of optimism. It wouldn’t sound the same with a different vocalist – there’s a delicacy to Janet’s voice that’s irreplaceable. She doesn’t have the best voice or range in the world, but she’s great at reminding you what it feels like to be in love.
Or look at “DD”, a remake of Michael Jackson’s 1988 classic by the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye). Tesfaye utterly transforms the song without changing a single word. The spareness of the production (rock-ish in the original, electronica-ish in the remake) in both versions draws the listener’s attention to the singer’s voice.
I listened to the original recently, and was pretty surprised: I had forgotten how little traditional singing Mike does on this song, opting for his patented “harmonious sing-song” voice. I loved the song, but for some reason, the hook/chorus were the only bits that stuck in my mind. At the time, Michael took great pains to foster an all-ages image. Even his romantic songs had a bit of a chaste quality. On “Dirty Diana”, Michael struggles to maintain that image while giving us a glimpse into the groupie filled world of a pop celebrity. For a moment, he’s not Michael Jackson the global icon, but Michael Jackson the man forced to negotiate a world filled with endless sexual propositions from female admirers. It’s clear that he has little sympathy for them. There’s something harsh and judgmental about the way he sings “[t]his time you won’t seduce me”. He’s not tempted, he’s angry. There have been a number of pop songs about the women that bed musicians, but this is one of the few that manages to not only be dismissive of the seducer, but immune to the seduction. Michael wants to exorcise her from his life. He’s not interested in her as a sexual object. She’s Dirty Diana, after all.
Tesfaye embraces the darkness of the original, but adds layers of meaning and ambiguity. He starts where Michael does, but falters almost immediately. When Diana took Michael in her arms, it sounded like the opening feint of a battle, but with the Weeknd, it almost sounds like the first chapter of a romance. The Weeknd is tempted. You feel his certainty slipping away with each verse. When he sings “that’s okay, hey baby do what you want” on the second verse, the noticeable tremor in his voice also suggests that both are vulnerable: he is reminiscing about an encounter that touches him a little bit more than he’d like to admit, and (if you take that section as a literal recreation of her attempted seduction) she’s more hesitant than her words imply. The facade slips, just a little. The choruses start off in a less aggressive place than the original, and get progressively softer until the lighter, more feminine voice overwhelms the deeper, masculine one. The seductive fan is far more sympathetic in this version, more than an Odyssean siren.
In the hands of the Weeknd, “DD” is transformed from a cautionary tale into something that feels a little bit more human and tragic. It’s the singer and the producer that define the real meaning of these songs, not just the lyrics. Once I realized that, all the songs that seemed maudlin and generic acquired new meaning. Who knows, one day I may even start to appreciate New Jack Swing.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go back to Anthony Hamilton.