Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The New Style

Taking stock of the latest urban music releases

By Ron Wynn

JANUARY 19, 1999:  If many old-school soul, R&B, and gospel fans have never accepted or acknowledged urban contemporary music, they're even less interested in hip-hop. The proliferation of "Solid Gold Soul" radio stations is but one sign of black-music purists' continuing hostility toward contemporary African American sounds.

Some of this sentiment is understandable: Urban and hip-hop acts have not only made sampling an art form, they've also made it possible for performers lacking traditional musical skills to rise to stardom. While today's producers frequently tap classic Motown or Stax melodies for beats and refrains, their frames of reference aren't usually the church or the blues but rather funk, disco, reggae, or even hard rock.

Yet it's patently unfair simply to dismiss contemporary acts, or to accuse them of willfully perverting the African American tradition. Modern black music is far more complex, as can be heard in the latest releases from Faith Evans, the Bad Boy stable, Jermaine Dupri, R. Kelly, Kirk Franklin, and Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ.

Evans, the widow of the Notorious B.I.G., has lingered in the headlines for mostly non-musical reasons: her late husband's unsolved murder, not to mention unsavory rumors ranging from an alleged affair with Tupac Shakur (which she steadfastly denies) to a supposed feud with Mary J. Blige. But Evans' second solo release, Keep the Faith (Bad Boy), should shift attention to her demure and sometimes enchanting voice. Included here are some softly voiced romantic numbers such as "Love Like This" and "Never Gonna Let You Go," plus upbeat message tunes like the title track and "Life Will Pass You By."

While Evans is listed as co-executive producer, the songs bear the trademark stamp of the ubiquitous Sean "Puffy" Combs, who offers a tepid rap on "All Night Long." Combs brilliantly incorporates samples from "Chic Cheer" ("Love Like This") and from Al Johnson's "I'm Back for More" ("Sunny Days") while getting an assist from Babyface on "Never Let You Go." Even when Evans becomes more subdued, the songs don't lose their impact, and this disc should end speculation that she's a one-hit wonder.

The singer's dynamic vocal on "You Used to Love Me" is among 14 selections featured on the sampler Bad Boy's Greatest Hits, Vol I (Bad Boy). The only new cut features the label's latest signee, Jerome; on "You're Too Old for Me," his limp voice fortunately gets eclipsed by a sample from the Average White Band's "If I Ever Lose This Heaven." The album's best cuts, among them the Notorious B.I.G.'s "One More Chance/Stay With Me" and "All About the Benjamins" by Puff Daddy and the Family, display a lyric vision that's resolutely cynical about life and love. The disc also shows that B.I.G. hasn't been replaced in the Bad Boy lineup: Mase isn't as exciting a rapper, and other artists like The Lox, The Mad Rapper, and Total are more production fixtures than distinctive performers.

Jermaine Dupri's production credits are extensive, ranging from kid duos like Kriss Kross to gangsta rappers and urban stylists. His debut as a solo performer, Life in 1472 (So So Def), serves as a model for everything that's both right and wrong about current black music. On the plus side, he gets assistance from a host of hip-hop and urban luminaries, among them Nas, Jay-Z, DMX, Da Brat, Usher, and Mariah Carey. He expertly weaves their contributions into a montage of surging beats, interlaced samples, and his own decent, if often exceedingly vulgar, rhymes and raps.

What's sorely missing here is thematic variety: Virtually every song except "Sweetheart" celebrates the "playa's" life and Dupri's status as hitmaker of the moment. His constant need to reaffirm his skills and his lyrical obsession with pimping make too many cuts sound like reworkings of songs by Too $hort (another guest contributor) rather than fresh takes on street life.

It's been almost five years since Chicago vocalist Robert "R." Kelly became an R&B sensation with his steamy 12 Play album. Since then, he's gained fame for songs so salacious and sexually explicit that some consider them pornography. His newest, R (Zomba), a two-disc effort containing 28 compositions written, arranged, and produced by Kelly, is amazingly erratic. Nonetheless, tunes like "Ghetto Queen," "Home Alone," and the bawdy "Dollar Bill," on which Foxy Brown out-vamps Kelly, are lyrically entertaining and musically inventive.

Other tracks, particularly collaborations with Cam'Ron, Noreaga, Jay-Z, Vegas Cats ("We Ride"), and the ever-present Nas ("Money Makes the World Go Round"), simply offer more "boyz in the hood" rhetoric, delivered in rote, leaden fashion. At its best, hip-hop teaches, preaches, and exhorts on behalf of folks frequently ignored or dismissed by mainstream culture; at its worst, it turns those same people into stereotypes and caricatures--which is exactly what happens on these tracks. R could have been a masterpiece single disc, but instead it's a flawed, bloated double set that requires considerable digging to find the gems.

Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond face a different kind of battle for acceptance than the urban and hip-hop types; both are frontliners trying to broaden gospel's appeal by using hip-hop production and electric instruments. Response from gospel audiences has ranged from distrust in some quarters to outright resistance in others: Last year, when Franklin's "Stomp" became a hit with urban and R&B audiences, it was far from an across-the-board hit in traditional gospel circles.

In fact, Franklin got such strong negative reaction that he's still responding to it. In interviews for his latest release, The Nu Nation Project (Gospo Centric), and throughout his new autobiography Church Boy (Word), he lashes out at what he considers the church establishment's intolerance and hypocrisy. Franklin also defends his use of secular artists on his albums, and he publicly maintains a warm friendship with R. Kelly, among others.

The Nu Nation Project doesn't boast any single as transcendent or affirming as "Stomp," but "Lean on Me" includes solid, if unexceptional, guest contributions from Mary J. Blige, U2's Bono, and R. Kelly. The real star is Rance Allen, the fiery, flamboyant vocalist who enjoyed similar crossover appeal during the late '60s and early '70s. Allen still possesses a bombastic voice and immense range, and he smoothly accommodates his frenetic delivery to Franklin's less masterful style on "Something About the Name Jesus."

Franklin wrote or cowrote most of the numbers, and he also sings, raps, and plays piano here. He's neither a great musician nor a great vocalist, yet his persona and spirit keep everything moving. His arrangements mirror those of Rev. James Cleveland: They prevent lead singers from being overwhelmed while providing sizzling, energetic support.

Fred Hammond, who plays electric bass in his group, Radical for Christ, is as gifted an arranger as Franklin and also a better vocalist. Though his outfit hasn't ruffled as many feathers as Franklin's, they've been every bit as willing to experiment on their albums, as borne out by their latest two-disc set, Pages of Life Chapters I & II (Verity/Zomba).

The 29 selections include the exuberant praise songs "I Wanna Know Your Ways" and "Glory to Glory to Glory," inspirational message tunes such as "All Things Are Working," and the testimonials "Jesus Is All" and "He's God." At times, the musical tapestry includes surging rock guitar, reggae beats, and rap; at others, soaring choral harmonies or impassioned vocals enrich the mix. While Radical for Christ lacks a superstar lead singer like Tramaine Hawkins or an esteemed spiritual personality like Shirley Caesar, they are a supremely emphatic ensemble, wonderfully supervised and guided by Hammond.

There's no question that honking R&B, deep soul, and golden age gospel are wonderful parts of the African American heritage. But those who dismiss newer sounds are living in a vacuum and ignoring another important African American music tradition: expanding past innovations. Jermaine Dupri, R. Kelly, Kirk Franklin, and others deserve, within the established African American musical community, the same reception their predecessors have enjoyed. Without it, they'll continue to encounter the double-barreled oppression that has always plagued black artists who try to divert the mainstream.

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