Thursday, September 15, 2011

R&B Listening Journal, Volume Two

Part one is here.

"Go To Hell," Raphael Saadiq
Saadiq is a production maven--this year's Stone Rollin' sounds brilliant, even when the songs are mediocre--and nowhere is that more apparent than this track. One might expect "Go To Hell" to be dominated by bass, like Curtis Mayfield's dubby "If There's A Hell Below (We're All Going To Go)." And there is some wonderful, rolling bass here. But the treble dominates--"Hell" lifts off as soon as it starts, with its dreamy synths, and continues on an upward trajectory, fueled by strings, horns and backing vocals. Your usual palette, but especially vivid. Nothing invokes hellfire at all, and Saadiq's song soars higher and higher--this is a song that earns the lyric "we need more love in the world today"--until it enters the psychedelic promised land. Norman Whitfield would be proud.

"Muah," Electrik Red
Tricky and The-Dream's girl group project, released around the time of Love Vs. Money, bears the marks of their best work. "Muah" glides along, masking the dozen or so interlocking parts. It's complex, atmospheric music, one of the best productions on How To Be A Lady, Volume 1. And it turns out that female vocals make a lovely accompaniment to this sound, at least as good as Dream's own. The rub's in the lyrics, though. They closely resemble--how to say this--a certain male R&B auteur's idea of female empowerment. If I never hear Binkie spit her verse ("I'm not a freak, I'm not a ho/well I'm lying/but I'm classy though") again, that's fine here.

"Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You," Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett was a shouter with a knack for recording in the right places (the Wicked Pickett cut material at golden-era Stax and Muscle Shoals). This 1970 track found him in Philadelphia, working with Gamble and Huff just before their sound got huge. It's one of his sweeter numbers, and Pickett carries it with unusual restraint. The lyrics are a resigned plea, a mature missive from a man whose signature songs typically concern fucking. Pickett sells it though, his vocals a little more nuanced than on "Mustang Sally," even working in a few shouts where he can.

"Last Night Pt. 2," Diddy-Dirty Money
Diddy's Last Train To Paris was totally eclipsed by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to the point that critics deemed it only the 153rd best album of 2010. But Sean Combs' latest is quite good--star-studded and grandiose, much like Kanye's opus. Last Train is never so instantly pleasurable as on this bonus track, which Diddy mostly cedes to Dirty Money and co-writer James Fauntleroy (I think). It's a fairly straightforward Prince rip, recalling the drum programming and sparseness of "When Doves Cry" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Like those songs, "Last Night," peppers a lover with questions, although the questions aren't as weird in Diddy's song. To amend, "Last Night" drops a chiming, Prince-worthy melody. It's dope.

"I Got Love," Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
These guys are like Pavement's soul predecessors. Wright and his group jam on some of the loosest grooves ever laid down, forever sounding about to fall apart, behind the beat, and uncertain of what direction to go next. "I Got Love" is no exception to their formula, but this stoned soul number breezes by in a haze of melody and decomposing J.B.'s riffs. "I got the sun, the moon, the stars and the sky," Wright sings, "you're the only thing that can ruin my high." Maybe, maybe, but Wright sounds deeply in love, and soul this sweet has never harshed anyone's buzz.

"Shit, Damn, Motherfucker," D'Angelo
In just 45 words, D'Angelo paints an expressionistic portrait of love, rage and violence. It's delivered in the sultriest, most damaged voice--D'Angelo wasn't yet the sex symbol he became, but he sounded like one. And the slow groove, suggestive of the smoky backroom our narrator waded into, transmits the lyrics in slow-motion, stretching out each question, then flashing forward to find our man still uncertain of what's happened, even after his terrible mistake.

"Love Uprising," The Chi-Lites
The Chi-Lites do a pretty mean synthesis of The Impressions with solo Curits Mayfield. It's not a vast palette, but I mean this as a great compliment when I say that "Love Uprising" sounds like a song Mayfield could have made. "Love Uprising" works the same vibe as Superfly's "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)"--Eugene Record's lead resembles Mayfield's delicate vocal, and the strings summon a similar aura. Both songs are eminently hopeful. Wonderful things are possible, they say, with a little effort on our part. The 70's proved that things aren't that simple, but it saps none of these songs' power. Change starts with belief, and "Love Uprising" believes.

"Bob George," Prince
Prince didn't wan't you to buy The Black Album. Which means he doesn't want you to hear "Bob George," one of his sickest jams. Rocking a beat extremely similar to the previous year's "Housequake," it's an entire song of Prince spewing out hate. He plays a violent, vile pimp on a tear. His voice is pitched way down, and if the monologue hewed a little closer to the beat, this would be gangsta rap. It probably is anyway--the narrator unleashes gunfire, no small degree of hatred towards women and even slams the Purple One as "that skinny motherfucker with the high voice." Because you don't fuck with this dude. Who does he look like, baby? Yesterday's fool? For someone who can't stand them TV dinners, you sure eat enough of them motherfuckers.


  1. Mediocre songs on Stone Rollin'? Do tell...

  2. "Heart Attack," "Radio," the title track--all the songs that have an affected, early rock and roll vibe.