Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Crossing the Line

Is is black or white?

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Though no one likes to admit that it still happens, musical acts frequently get lumped into categories on the basis of race. The music business may have changed considerably in the last 40 years, but far too many black performers still get wedged into R&B or urban formats, even when their music has crossover potential. In some instances, their music isn't even R&B.

Complicating matters is the fact that urban radio rivals country radio when it comes to rigidity of programming. As a result, playlists shut out some deserving acts who might attract listeners if given half a chance.

There are substantial differences in the compositions, approaches, and styles of Maxwell, Rachid, Corey Glover, Lenny Kravitz, N'Dea Davenport, Rebekah, and the group Dakota Moon, but almost all of these performers share an unfortunate fate. With the exception of Maxwell and Lenny Kravitz, they can't get their music aired on either black or white stations. As has been said of such wide-ranging performers as Terry Callier, Odetta, Richie Havens, the Bad Brains, the Bus Boys, and Garland Jeffreys, they're too white for black radio and too black for white radio.

Maxwell exploded on the scene a couple of years ago with his definitive Urban Hang Suite collection. He adeptly juggled an improvisational sensibility with classic, "sweet" soul falsetto vocals, throbbing funk bass lines, and inspired production. After the interim release of a live Unplugged record, Maxwell's second full-length release, Embrya (Columbia), fully equals his first.

From the scintillating grooves underlining "Everwanting: To Want You to Want" and "Are You (Pt. Me & You)" to the soaring vocals propelling the tightly arranged choruses of "Know These Things: Shouldn't You" and "Submerge: Till We Become the Sun," Maxwell skates along the edge of lyrical self-indulgence without ever falling over. His voice contains just the right mix of vulnerability, invitation, and irony, while the music is often spectacular. Maxwell is ambitious enough to challenge his audience, but smart enough to keep the proceedings from becoming pretentious.

That sophistication is the only thing lacking on Rachid's debut release, Prototype (Universal). The son of funk-jazz bandleader Ronald "Kool" Bell, New Jersey native Rachid is unafraid to profess his anger about growing up in a broken home; several songs sizzle with hostility, although they never turn morbid. He's nearly as accomplished a falsetto stylist as Maxwell, and his incisive tone deftly punctuates the lyrics on "Evil," "Kiss & Tell," and "The One to Destroy Me."

Rachid also shows admirable eclecticism, incorporating strains from alternative rock and Northern African Rai music. If he learns to moderate his lyrics and vary his vocal approach more, the results could be awesome. They're already pretty impressive.

People raised their eyebrows when word leaked out that former Living Colour lead vocalist Corey Glover was releasing his solo debut, Hymns, on LaFace Records, the stomping grounds of Babyface and company. What was a raucous rock 'n' roller doing at the home base of super-stylized, heavily produced love music?

But Glover wanted to show listeners that he could do more than scream and rage. And, as it turns out, he's an above-average soul crooner, shifting back and forth between romantic fare and surging anthems. His range on "April Rain," "Little Girl," and "Sermon" is surprising, and he does a good job expressing emotions and romantic themes. Still, he's far more arresting as a rocker, and on "Do You First, Then Do Myself" and "One" he displays the fire and energy that made Living Colour a delight.

Lenny Kravitz is among the more controversial acts in any popular genre; his fans tout him as a rebel, while his detractors consider him the musical equivalent of a three-card monte game. While he gets points for inserting industrial and metal riffs underneath soul vocals, he's just too mediocre a singer to execute the merger successfully. 5, his latest Virgin release, doesn't lack exuberance--just memorable moments. "Supersoulfighter" and "Straight Cold Player" are the best selections, but even they do little more than frame forgettable leads against interesting textures.

When N'Dea Davenport was lead singer for acid-jazz group the Brand New Heavies, her sassy, sultry voice and entrancing stage presence suggested a star in the making. But for some reason, she's awfully subdued on her self-titled debut (V2); she sounds more like a classic interpretive jazz vocalist than the dynamic singer she's been in the past. She's still a fine performer, but the understatedness of "Whatever You Want," "Save Your Love for Me," and "Real Life" will disappoint past fans and probably won't make any new ones.

If listeners can hang through the whole record, though, they'll discover that Davenport finally breaks out at the end. The single "Bullshi--" crackles with irony and attitude, while "Getaway" shows the singer sizzling and strutting, backed by a swaggering brass band. On these two songs, she steps out in style; otherwise, she's stepping a little too lightly.

Both Rebekah and Dakota Moon venture into territory that virtually assures them a deaf ear at urban radio. Rebekah's Remember to Breathe (Elektra) openly echoes folk and alternative rock influences, while Dakota Moon's self-titled release (also on Elektra) is predominantly acoustic, with Eagles and country voicings--not to mention a James Taylor cover.

Rebekah and the lead vocalists for Dakota Moon, Ty Taylor and Malloy, eschew moans, shouts, and smears in favor of a soft, lush, and understated approach. Rebekah's "Sinsowell" has been a moderate hit, but Dakota Moon has thus far gone unheard on radio. Both these performers realize that some critics will accuse them of neglecting or trying to ignore their African American heritage, and Rebekah addresses that notion in forceful fashion on "Little Black Girl."

On the other hand, open-minded jazz, blues, soul, and gospel fans should be able to appreciate the artistry and distinctiveness of both Rebekah and Dakota Moon. After all, a true appreciation of the African American cultural legacy includes accepting artists whose ideas, range, and influence veer away from the mainstream.

Turning purple

Meanwhile, the iconoclast who has been an inspiration to all of the above-mentioned artists--especially Maxwell and Rebekah--has resurfaced with a vengeance. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has been prolific of late, having issued the multi-disc set Crystal Ball on his own label this winter, then coming right back in July with the single disc Newpower Soul (NPG). He's also extensively profiled in a new book by British journalist Liz Jones.

Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (Birch Lane Press) contains enough gossip and inside tidbits to satisfy those who prefer titillation to musical analysis. Jones documents the Artist's myriad of insecurities, his multiple relationships, his feuds with former band members, and his penchant for nonstop recording. She does, however, acknowledge his musical genius, comprehensively outlining almost every available session, including many documented only on bootlegs, imports, and knockoffs.

Even if Jones doesn't ignore the Artist's music, she certainly hasn't made it the focus of her book. She gives page after page over to people with axes to grind, from family members to past lovers. Since the Artist actually cooperated with Jones, it's no surprise he's reportedly chagrined to have so much dirty laundry trotted out for public consumption.

While there's no excusing or justifying much of his behavior--which has been painstakingly exposed here--it doesn't obscure the fact that the Artist was arguably the dominant pop performer of the '80s. He remains an incredibly talented visionary, able to play, sing, write, produce, and arrange at a level matched by only a select handful of performers in the last two decades. Those abilities continue to make him a compelling personality even today.

But that's what makes releases like Newpower Soul so maddening. There are moments that build on the vibrancy, vocal magic, and guitar energy of 1999, Dirty Mind, Controversy, Purple Rain. Yet far too much of Newpower Soul is formula filler, even with stellar guest stars like Chaka Khan and Larry Graham on board. No one with any brains will ever totally dismiss the Artist, but it seems as though he could use a lengthy sabbatical from recording and performing. After all, it worked for Sonny Rollins.

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