Friday, February 15, 2008

Black Music In The Absurd (a remembrance of the 90s)

Black music has had the reputation to inspire, not only through innovative rhythmic break-throughs (not to mention, the ability to adapt American ways and turn it into culture; a culture that would not exist if not for Black influence), but through irony. Songs of pain and hope filled with fictional and outrageous outcomes -- all in pursuit of freedom and acceptance -- makes Black music the cornerstone to Americas musical heritage (much like the Minstrel show is the origin of American Musical Theater). Black music toyed with the absurd, going all the way back to African folklore to slave verse to blues to Rock 'N Roll. The absurdity was ironic (immortalized by the Jews) and carried an inner pain that forced the song writer to exploit his/her most self-indulgent confessions. Leadbelly did this with "John Hardy." Skip James with "Hard Time Floor Killin' me Blues" and "Devil Got My Woman." In later years, Chris Thomas King did this with his album "Dirty Hip-Hop Blues", which was forgotten along side Justin Warfield and Cody ChestnuTT. What modern America forgets is that King, Warfield, and ChestnuTT reminded us of Black absurdity in music which is, all too often, confused for the brainless (think Genuwine; think H-Town; think Teddy Riley -- Black music that corrupted creative conduct, and snuffed out the light in risk and replaced it for capitalism).

However the 90s found room in remembering the Black absurd and gave us songs that were a beautiful reminder that music of the absurd -- both musically and lyrically -- is/was still a possibility. The purpose of the absurd is self-indulgence with limited relatability. In other words, if you get it, you get it; if you don't, you don't. That's all there is to it; and at times one may not get it at all; in fact the song could be laced with so much absurdity that it is not intended to be anything other than the artists inner expression, put to music as best it can (other times it can be a love/hate letter to a certain someone, and we are given the lyrics as an external sketch for internal longing or pain). Think Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man." Male woes lead by complexity, in search for release while embracing the contradictions within:

"I come up hard (baby)
but now I'm cool,
I didn't make it
playin' by the rules.
I come up hard (baby)
but now I'm fine,
I'm takin' trouble,
movin' down the line."

Rarely does male complexity come out in modern music; though D'Angelo succeeded with this in the obscure, yet straight forward "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" about walking in on a sex-affair between his wife and best friend:

the both'uh yous
buck-ball naked?
the both'uh yous
buck-ball naked?
'M tellin' you what's on my mind,
'm 'bout'tuh go get my nine,
and kill both'uh ya'lls behind."

The singer Joe nailed it with "All The Things (Your Man Won't do)" when he admits his intentions of destroying a boring love affair by charming the woman's vulnerability with his superior (financial) intentions of an infidelic joy-ride through a temporary escape. Joe has no intentions of love (never once does he say "I love you"), but rather intentions of showing the woman a "better life" (a popular topic in 90s music, next to slow wine-dine-love making -- a much more polite notion with male one-track-mindedness):

"I'll put a string of pearls right in your hand
make love on a beach of jet-black sand,
out here in the rain,
we can do it all night.
I'll touch all the places he would not
in zones he never knew
would get you hot.
Nothing is forbidden,
when we touch."

Joe plays into urban life escapism ("One day, we're all gonna be rich"); the same theme that ran through hip-hop in the beginning (think "Rapper's Delight"). The absurdity was the honesty in music that has been forgotten. Joe completely contradicts himself when saying "...make love on a beach of jet-black sand" then immediately follows it with "out here in the rain/we can do it all night." This is a give-away to Joe's absurdity for such a mission. This song is not about him loving her; but rather giving her a release. Other wise, Joe could not care less.

Amerie attempted the absurd with "One Thing", but fell flat on her face with anti-urban expression, by using bourgeoisie over vulnerability (Joe used "bling" not bourgeoisie). In "One Thing" she sings:

I don't really understand
my car keys are jigglin' in my hand,
my high heels are clickin' towards your door."

Amerie is a fashion victim in heels. It's hard to believe she would long for a man. Had she sang about being heartless, one may have been more inclined to buy this notion over her would be vulnerability. Deborah Cox understood vulnerability better than Amerie in her remake of "Just Be Good to Me" alone (next to the wonderful "Sentimental" where the music video featured -- as most did -- Omar Epps as the love/lost). Cox is a woman of vulnerability; Amerie is an Elle Magazine model.

Diddy's "Last Night" with Keysha Cole is a throw back to the early Prince sound of the "Purple Rain" age. Diddy accomplished the absurd with "Last Night" through the orgasmic voice of Keysha Cole. Yet Diddy just couldn't put himself aside long enough to allow the song to be it's own (the Jermaine Dupri syndrome). Instead he ends the song ghetto-fabulous by his profane demands ("Need to pick up the mutha-fuckin' phone!") and kills the personal indulgence the song communicates. The white band Three Days Grace achieves a better absurdity with their pop-crap single "Pain":

and agony,
are better,
than misery.
Trust me,
I've got a plan
when the lights go out
you'll understand.

Without love.
Can't get enough.
I like it rough,
cuz I'd rather feel pain than nothing at all."

Ben Folds caught the absurdity that Diddy missed with his Dr. Dre remake of "Bitches Ain't Shit" (proving Ben Folds as the most soulful white boy on piano). For in the case of Diddy the love for music passed years ago; his beautiful production on Heavy D's b-side track "You Can't See (What I Can See)" up to his work on the brilliant Mary J. Blige "My Life" album capped out Diddy's musical ambitions. Kanye West nailed it (on his inconsistent track of genius) with "Never Let Me Down", "All Falls Down", "Last Call", "Two Words", and the recent "Stronger":

"Lets get lost tonight,
you can be my black Kate Moss,

Yet these are selective. A little too selective. The consistency of Black music in popular culture is no where near where it was in the 90s. Sure, one must consider that music is forever in transition; but one would hope for this experimentation to continue. I came up with fifteen that have always sat close to my heart and reminds us that music of the absurd is not just for the white boys. It must be remembered that Black musicians began this (think, Sly and the Family Stone), and do have the responsibility of continuing this.

1) "Whip Appeal" - Babyface

Though the song was released in '89 from his album "Tender Lover", Babyface hit a nerve with "Whip Appeal." "It's No Crime" was a confession, "Tender Lover" (with Bobby Brown) is about feminine vulnerability. But "Whip Appeal" is personal. Not once does he disclose the secret behind the "Whip Appeal"; he keeps that "way to communicate" between himself and the love of his life. It's a wonderful absurdity and a great exercises in self-indulgence.

2) "It Never Rains (In Southern California)" - Tony, Toni, Tone'

Tony, Toni, Tone' has always been obscure by their own right. The fact that their album "The Revival" was even given the name blurs the line between self discovery and Holy outreach. "It Never Rains..." is mythical and plays into distant love. Virtually the title does not make sense, and yet we accept it because a rainless California is what we're told is a reality (Tony, Toni, Tone' being California natives is a dead give away). Yet the magic in the fact that it never rains (while in the video upon coming together it DOES in fact rain) translates their personal attachments to love. Whereas the song "Whatever You Want" is about possessions in exchange for empty promises, "It Never Rains..." removes the need for material and replaces it with folklore.

3) "Gotta Love" - Jodeci

Where does one start with Jodeci? The "Forever My Lady" album broke boundaries by introducing a new type of a man to the world; the man in hopes of building a family instead of avoiding the responsibility, while never severing the "freak" inside. Lead by the innovative DeVante Swing, "Gotta Love" (much like "Playthang" and "Let's Go Through the Motions") is a raw sex song that revels in irresponsible intimacy, without the doggish "fuck a ho" that H-Town misguided us with (not to mention the stolen Jodeci harmony done badly). For what audiences missed about Jodeci is that though DeVante's ghetto-fabulous persona, dipped in hip-hop, held a hard exterior the very notion of "Gotta Love" comes from the Keith Sweat beggary that we all made fun of. Difference is DeVante made the begging ok for our generation, whereas Keith Sweat made it (damn near) pathetic.

Yet it's unfair to bound Jodeci's absurdity to just one song. "Let's Go Through The Motions" is a song about dry humping, which is about as absurd amateurish, and High School one can get; and yet the song holds a sexy tone that is shameless in it's request (in a sense, it's a song about "safe sex") and explores the emotional immaturity of grown folks. For we all get caught up in the moment of sexual desires yet rarely do we truly put to words the actions that took place. For one to report back "We dry humped" can cause a freeze up in the room; but Jodeci is brave enough to say "Let's Go Through the Motions", simply for the sake of movement and the image of sexual pleasure.

4) "Sympin'" - Boyz II Men

The translation of sympin' is "begging." Nothing more. They said it plain:

"Sympin' ain't easy,
get on your hands and knees
and lift your eye brows.
Sympin' ain't easy,
if you wanna get in,
then you gotta be willin',
to cry and beg and plead,
if you need."

As if "Motownphilly" wasn't enough to confuse listeners, "Sympin'" relayed to selected few. The song having been pushed deep into the "Cooly High..." album, so as to be missed or ignored, was one thing; but the release of "Sympin'" ("White Men Can't Jump" soundtrack) as a single made the "alright guys" come out in listeners, while screaming for them to SPEAK ENGLISH!!! But "Sympin'" is an achievement for Boyz II Men. They proved their will to play into the absurd was not only genuine, but a cause for a thinking audience.

5) "Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag...Gettin' Crushed by Buildings" - L.L. Cool J

By the time "Pink Cookies..." came out, most of Cool J's loyal followers had pretty much tuned out. Already confused, but accepting of "Mama Said Knock You Out", "Pink Cookies..." threw everyone for a loop. It's a song about making love. That's all it least, that's what Cool J tells us it is. Upon the songs opening he speaks it:

"The act of making love...
pink cookies in a plastic bag,
gettin' crushed by buildin's"

But then he really throws us with the opening line of the first verse:

"I take thirty electric chairs,
and put 'em in a class room,
that's thirty MCs
I set free from their doom."

WHAT??? As if this wasn't enough, he makes the entire song a metaphor based in hip-hop titles and references:

"Rub you down with warm Ice T,
make you feel Brand Nubian,
Boogie Down and check this Production,
gimme them lips they look good for suction."

It's a brilliant metaphor for love making -- the pink cookie as the vagina, the buildings as the penis -- though it is based more in male dominance than anything. However, Cool J can get away with this. Most women WANT to be dominated by him. He's just that imposing type of figure. However, Cool J could have easily stuck to his same style (like Kool Moe Dee) and watched his career crumble (like Moe Dee); instead Cool J tested himself with not only "Pink Cookies..." but the beautiful "Six Minutes of Pleasure", "Boomin' System", "Loungin'", and "Hey Lover." There has not been an element that Cool J hasn't touched; and he sums up the reality of his existence to us all when he says:

"L.L. Cool J, nigga,
greatest of all times!"

6) "Misunderstanding" - Al B. Sure

The title defines the absurdity. Al B Sure has had a knack for digging love out the cracks of chaos, dating back to the release of "Nite and Day." His song "Oooh (This Love)" showcases a tone rather than his meanings; and "Misunderstanding" is of that same tone. "Misunderstanding" is simply about the refusal to be walked over, as a person wearing his heart on his sleeve. Being rich, famous, and sexy Sure is telling us that there is still a human being beneath the surface (way beneath the surface). Though Al B Sure made a short lived career as a performer, with mostly mediocre music, his small few that caught us were those that made the least amount of sense. "Right Now" was the worst Al B Sure song next to his unnecessary remake of The Eagle's "Hotel California"; but "Misunderstanding" was Al B at his peek.

7) "No Brothas Allowed" - No Face

Spawned by the already obscure Digital Underground, No Face's short lived limited exposure was for true West Coast hip-hop listeners. No Face was no where close to the essence of Digital Underground; but "No Brothas Allowed" revealed racial hatred on a seemingly surfaced level. For one hardly took Digital Underground serious, especially after "Humpty Dance" (the most over played song of the 90s); but No Face, with Shock G on the track, collected the obscured sound of "The Underground" and produced an echo of a song with "No Brothas Allowed."

8) "I Love Your Smile" - Shanice

Straight out the diary of a little girl, "I Love Your Smile" is a crush that ripples with self indulgence. It's a crush that no one but Shanice can understand (the mixed blood pretty boy in the video was a bad representation to the reality of her crush). One would imagine this being aimed at the man who is not good looking by standards of cliche'. But good looking in the eyes of Shanice in her school girl innocence. "I Love Your Smile" achieved the absurd by taking corny and giving it bump. This allows forgiveness on the part of the listener for a song that would, other wise, be written off as pop crap and expected to be remade by Brittany Spears.

9) "Slow Love" - Doc Box & B. Fresh

The ultimate one hit wander that was played on "The Box" almost as much as "The Humpty Dance." "Slow Love" crept into the psyche of urban black girls across the nation, and encouraged brothas to take notes if they wanted to achieve big. For Doc Box & B. Fresh were aware of their blatant rip off from Cool J's "I Need Love" (the first hip-hop ballad ever), and yet "Slow Love" stands on it's own. Not since "I Need Love" had a rap song been so mood perfect. With the opening words ("Bus' it!") dance floors in High School gyms across the world would erupt in squeals and cause droves of young'stas to dance close and sexual in urban fantasia in hopes of finding the climax that "Slow Love" promised.

10) "BBD (I Thought It Was Me)" - Bell Biv DeVoe

The song is almost too on the nose. Yet what makes "I Thought It Was Me" so wonderfully absurd is that it is a man's worst fear of rejection. Ricky Bell guides us in plain text in this tornado of confusion:

"(I thought it was me)
I thought it was me that made the girl this way,
(I thought it was me)
Came to find out she's like that everyday.
(I thought it was me)
I thought it was me,
that made that girl so wild.
(I thought it was me)
I found out she's like that with all the guys."

Is she a ho? Not in a literal since. But they are describing a woman who is exercising her selective freedom. Ricky Bell finds that his status and celebrity are not enough to impress this girl. More so it takes a bit of charisma to grab her focus. Is she like that with "all the guys?" Or is it simply the fact that she ain't interested? Either way, Ricky Bell is forced to swallow his ego and back off.

11) "Minds Playin' Tricks On Me" - The Geto Boyz

An instant classic upon it's first play on the radio. "Minds Playin' Tricks On Me" was not only an urban breakthrough, but a confession to addiction. It's a cocaine trip in it's most open form, without saying, straight out "I snort coke!" Scarface does give it away on his second verse with:

"Day by day it's more impossible to cope...
...I feel like I'm the one who's doin' dope.
Can't keep a steady head, cuz I'm nervous
Every Sunday mornin' I'm in service.
Prayin' for forgiveness...
...and tryin' to find an exit out the business."

The absurdity is in the hallucination. For urban life is based in escapism's and even the most clean and sober urban-liver fears that their mind is playin' tricks on 'em, while constantly seeking for a way to calm the stress.

12) "Body & Soul" - Anita Baker

Who would ever expect Anita Baker to be in Black music of the absurd with such a beautiful tune like "Body & Soul?" I include this one based on the off beat melody and the evasive piano bangs that lace the song. Baker has given herself away to the possibility of love unjustified. She's too classy to fall for anything so undisciplined, yet the Billie Holiday in her boils to the surface with the tone of "Strange Fruit" to her vocals. Baker is the most distinctive black woman singer out there, next to Pattie LaBelle, Tina Turner, T-Boz, and Aretha Franklin. The song is all about letting go of an internal longing; and it is with "Body & Soul" that Baker gathers the self-indulgence and releases the tension.

13) "Baby, Baby, Baby" - TLC

Perhaps the most original anti-woman group of the 90s. They moved to their own truth and stood as an influence to a new direction of femininity. "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" gave a bravery to female sexual longing, while "Baby, Baby, Baby" pondered individuality and personal freedom. In other words, TLC was "new age" without being pushy about it. They in sighted fear in men, in that, they introduced a breed of women who were not likely to fall for the thug and shallow; but rather the internal and introspective (a contradiction to their real lives). The absurdity in "Baby, Baby, Baby" is not only in the title, but the content:

"But you gotta be down
a nickel gotta be true.
Cuz other wise this B ain't got no
time for you."

14) "Boyz II Men (The Sequel)" - MC Brains

The short lived joke of a career of rapper MC Brains conceived, in my opinion, one of the most laughable moments in 90s Black music history. His first performance and introduction to the world on Show Time At the Apollo gave way to a hack in the making, when he came out rapping "Oochie Coochie" and delivered the laimest contribution to rap music since Hi-C sang "Leave My Curl Alone." Brains was a pretty boy caught up in his appearance, and put no effort into his music; except for "Boyz II Men (The Sequel)" which featured Boyz II Men along with him. Brains sang (badly) instead of rapped on this song, and conveyed the only moment of honesty his entire career held. He sang of love for his parents, and the hardships of growing up (the concept of it being a "sequel" comes from the original "Boys to Men" sang by New Edition on the "Heartbreak" album in '88). The fantastically slow beat and nasally singing by Brains communicated a true innocence to his plight. For Brains was seventeen when he released "Oochie Coochie", and could not possibly understand the hardships of manhood. Yet it spoke to our generation, and marked a spot for Brains in music history.

15) "Jazzy Belle" - Outkast

These guys were strange from the release of "Playas Ball" in '94; and to return, in '96 with "Jazzy Belle" (taken from the pejorative "Jezebel" which translates to a black woman with a huge sexual appetite) -- which calls out a message for the loose nature of black women to get it together -- was a realization that we were not experiencing a fluke of a first album; but rather a group in search of new heights with each project. The remix features Babyface singing the hook:

"If you really want to be my star
maybe we can mend a broken heart
(Jazzy Belle)
If you really wanna be my boo,
straighten up yo' shit!
I'll be wit' you."

"Jazzy Belle" enclosed urban frustration not into love, but the possibility of love if a major attitude adjustment is put into play. They were brave to take this approach, and did so without shaming black women, but rather putting out a warning.

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About Me

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.