The Battle for the Heart of R&B
I like them Ameries, you could have them Omarosas
Here's something I can't quite figure out: why does Rihanna get to be a pop star? And I'm not asking that to demean Rihanna, not necessarily. I just sent in my Pitchfork review of the new Rihanna album, and I don't know when it'll run, so I don't want to get too deep into it here, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. In the past, the Rihanna singles I've liked ("Pon De Replay," "S.O.S.") rest on fast and sleek dance-pop tracks that don't allow her enough space to mangle any R&B runs or to do anything that could be mistaken for emoting, while the singles I haven't liked ("Unfaithful," "Umbrella") actually slow down the tempos and require her to portray something resembling an actual human being, a task to which she is totally ill-suited. But the good news on Good Girl Gone Bad is that "Umbrella" is a red herring; most of the album streamlines her dance-pop even further, to the point where I'm not really certain just what makes Rihanna R&B. The great first half of the album is the sort of shit Kylie Minogue should be doing when she comes back: gleaming, uber-produced club-pop that puts all its focus on physical movement and which never slows down long enough to toy with petty concerns like recognizable feelings. Even in its slower, prettier moments, like the Ne-Yo duet "Hate That I Love You," it's easier to admire the engineering and craftsmanship than to be sucked in by any story that the lyrics and the delivery might tell. Given that Rihanna's voice is a blank, icy glass-shattering yowl, this album is a really good look for her; it's always just one working part in a very expensive and elaborate engine.
But that's just it: how does this singing cyborg get a bigger promotional blitz working for her than any other R&B singer who's released an album this year? In some ways, Good Girl Gone Bad is the apex of this decade's trend toward R&B made by extremely pretty women with thin voices who rarely seem concerned with coming across as humans: Ciara, Cassie, etc. Even the last Beyonce album was mostly a step in that strident, unforgiving direction, and Beyonce can fucking sing. The stuff that Beyonce was doing with Destiny's Child six or seven years ago was digitized but lush, and now she's recruited Swizz Beatz to give her a neverending string of amelodic stompers; part of me thinks that "Irreplaceable" was such a monster hit because its sound was the exception rather than the rule. Now, I really love a lot of this stuff, and it's fun to draw parallels between this stuff and the way that 80s Latin freestyle existed halfway between electro and salsa, snaring vast numbers of now-anonymous thin-voiced girls to whoop over skeletal dance-tracks. But it's also pretty telling that the most emotionally affecting song to come out of this trend (Ciara's "Promise") works party because it sounds like the work of a robot who's doing her best to understand how human feelings work. And now Rihanna, who sounds even colder and thinner than her contemporaries, is being positioned as the biggest star of the bunch. Right now, female R&B singers only seem to have two pop avenues open to them: this spare, chilly electro stuff and the Oprah-friendly histrionics of Mary J. Blige and Keyshia Cole. That stuff can also be great, but I'd love for there to be a middle ground. (I guess there's Amy Winehouse too. Guh.)
Mike Barthel has a really interesting post up today on Clap Clap Blog about Rihanna and Amerie. In the post, Barthel talks about how the two of them use harmonies in these radically different ways, Rihanna singing the bare minimum while Amerie pushes her voice in whatever crazy directions she can imagine. Barthel's final point is that this is a really interesting time in R&B, since it has no clear direction, which opens it up to all these sort of chaotic ways it can go. Barthel seems Rihanna and Amerie as different sides of one coin, but I can't help but imagine them as being fundamentally opposed to one another. It's too easy to fall back on standard, meaningless rock-crit cliches about soul and emotion, but the truth remains that Amerie, whose voice doesn't really have any more natural heft that Rihanna's, still pushes her chirp as hard and as far as she can, flittering through her cluttered, intense tracks in ways immeasurably more interesting than Rihanna's standard method of just gliding over streamlined synth-pulses. On "1 Thing," Rihanna's big 2005 single, she sounded like no one so much as a Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson, whooping and screaming and crying for joy over Rich Harrison's dizzying Meters-sampled drum-storm. Amerie has a new album called Because I Love It, but it won't be out in the US until August even though it's been out in the UK for almost a month now. I haven't found the whole thing for download yet, and I should probably just buy the damn thing on import, but lately I've been combing mp3 blogs for whatever leaked tracks I can find. All of what I've heard is totally dazzling. Amerie's tracks mostly don't use actual live instruments, but they patch together samples in ways that feel a lot more organic than most R&B. And they find some of the most euphoric sounds in pop's memory: the wriggling surf-guitar riff from Tom Ze's "Jimi Renda-Se" on "Take Control," the furious horn-bursts of Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" on "Gotta Work." Even when she uses stripped-down electro tracks, as on the Malcolm McLaren samples of "Some Like It," she still makes sure we can hear her voice strain over them. And this stuff doesn't sound arcane or music-nerdy, sample-spotting aside; it sounds like pop. But "Take Control," the utterly great first single, totally bricked over here, and now she's continuously getting her album pushed back while Rihanna rides an avalanche of hype. And, to add an extra patina of weirdness, Amerie is hotter than Rihanna. I just don't understand it.
Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way, creating a false binary. After all, Amerie and Rihanna are both releasing really good music right now, and that can only be a good thing. I might have to work a little harder to hear Amerie's music, but it's still there for the taking. Still, it'd be really nice to see Amerie realize her pop-stardom destiny. For a few minutes there, I couldn't leave the house without hearing "1 Thing" blasting out of every other car; I don't see why that can't happen again. The major-label pop landscape seems to have room for Rihanna but not for Amerie, and that feels somehow wrong.
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