Let’s face it. Contemporary r&b has a design problem. Yes Virginia, a mere century or so of incessant use has exhausted core r&b design elements— codified at the turn of the century by traveling minstrel shows and the sheet-music hustlers of Tin Pan Alley. We need a revitalizing change in our entire set of structural assumptions about rhythm and blues if we expect it to remain a living art form for another 100 years. If not, prepare for a digital jukebox on which a James Brown tune and a Viennese waltz share exactly the same cultural currency.
Attempts to reinvent r&b since its mid-’70s bifurcation into funk and disco have fallen far short of the evolutionary high-water mark set by ragtime. The best gimmicks trotted out by Prince and R. Kelly are clearly prefigured in wild and woolly “coon” revues or Al Jolson’s blackface debut on Broadway in 1910. Do you really think Ma Rainey worked her stages with any less innuendo or energy than TLC? Did Bessie Smith ever sing a song with less attitude than Anita Baker? Did Cab Calloway— or for that matter, Jolson— think any less about image and stagecraft than George Clinton? So given the height of the bar in this contest, I’ve grown increasingly interested in that crew of contenders who’ve been tagged “alternative r&b artists.” It’s not a term all of them like, but they’ll admit it expresses their collective desire to add something new to the “soul music” lexicon.
New releases by Toshi Reagon, Macy Gray, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Angie Stone, and the sibling team of Melky Sedeck all attempt a radically redesigned r&b format. But Reagon and Ndegéocello are the ones who show the most promise by straying furthest from current trends. In fact, Reagon’s The Righteous Ones is so daring in its execution of unusual voicings, tempos, and instrumental effects that it risks total rejection. Her strange, hugely amplified chromatic harmonies routinely beggar our preconceptions about melisma. Reagon’s grounding in traditional folk and gospel only gives her more confidence to break more rules. A genuinely folky interlude like “Yes It Was” fades improbably into the P-funky rock of “Drive It Home,” which offers a light, almost Beatles-esque bridge before jumping back into a droning chorus whose slightly nasal, grainy timbre comes not from Tina Turner but from an old plantation circle shout. For comic value, Reagon imitates the phrasing of Dylan, the diction of Jagger, and the fluffy soprano twang of Jewel. That Reagon chooses to do these things in the context of what is still supposed to be a rhythm and blues album is a measure of just how much she wants us to redefine our terms.
With Bitter, Me’Shell Ndegéocello issues a different sort of conceptual challenge. Instead of demanding that her listeners accept increased aural complexity, Ndegéocello simplifies and softens her arrangements. The result is an entire album so ambient and elegantly subtle that it evokes the “furniture music” of Erik Satie. Me’Shell’s vocals are more subdued— muted— than on previous recordings, but otherwise retain their reedy tone and texture. Her lyrics, still sensual and deeply intimate, exude none of Reagon’s wry humor. The innovation here is that a blues mood is still in effect, but its typical intensity is gone. Keyboard colors reminiscent of Gershwin or Ellingtonian tone poems float through the aural landscape. Orchestral strings replace Me’Shell’s usual thumping bass. If a typical r&b singer tackled a song like “Fool of Me,” he or she would vividly telegraph the emotions suggested by the lyric; mountains of outrage or oceans of callous indifference would tumble out, over stinging guitar and thunderous kick drum. But on Bitter, Me’Shell flips the script on r&b’s emotive accelerator. She reconstructs r&b around an emotional damper that replaces 100-year-old stereotypes of uncontrolled rage and sensual abandon with modern realities of quiet desperation and sexual timidity. With the bare minimum of structural retooling, Ndegéocello updates the psychosexual context of r&b from 1899 to 1999.
Not quite as eager to burn major stylistic bridges, Macy Gray and Angie Stone take a less insurrectionary approach to their respective albums. Both still unrepentantly borrow licks and riffs from the ’60s and ’70s. Stone likes Ramsey Lewis keyboards, MG’s basslines, and Gladys Knight melodies. Gray borrows warm happy chords from Al Green and Sly Stone. Both proudly display their lead vocals high in the mix like golden-age soul divas, and both still flirt with ’70s blaxploitation iconography in their promo art. But I forgive them these minor lapses in programmatic nonconformity because (when she’s not trying to sound like Erykah Badu) Gray has the most seductively distressed vocal quality since Taana Gardner, and Stone’s been hammering out mutant strains of r&b for most of her professional life.
A singer-songwriter who recorded hip-hop soul long before either Mary J. Blige or Lauryn Hill, Stone demonstrated the same knack for making pretty mosaics of familiar sound bites while singing lead for her mid-’80s combo, Vertical Hold. Now, on Black Diamond, Stone gleefully spoofs the commercial injunction that blacks shouldn’t sing rock by squeezing melodic progressions from Aerosmith’s “Dream On”
into “My Life Story.” Gray is equally fond of ringing smart changes on funk classics that might have been— the goofy Bay Area looseness of “Why Don’t You Call Me” suggests a parallel universe in which Sly and the Family Stone never disbanded. “Caligula” is a thinly veiled tribute to Prince and his casually tossed-off B sides. This relaxed musical posture and phrasing is Macy’s contribution to r&b’s progressive impulse. Over the years, soul music became too manicured and sterile. Macy Gray restores the resilient flexibility and sense of fun r&b had lost.
Melky Sedeck also try to restore an important element to black music’s design philosophy. They are integrationists, who like a little deep house in their hip-hop. An early version of Melky Sedeck’s first album sported a less informative title and a somewhat different selection of songs. And unlike every other act we’ve discussed, Melky Sedeck have a studio sound not rooted in acoustic performance. The songs on Sister&Brother sound flatter and less riveting on CD than in concert, where Sedeck improvises on keyboards while Melky uncorks octaves of volcanic sound.
Despite perfunctory rap cameos throughout the album, what Sister&Brother wants to be is a groundbreaking blend of dance music’s exuberant melodicism and hip-hop electronics. (Think Zhane or Joyce Sims, without the redundancy factor.) The problem is, radio still ain’t ready. The Rose Royce lick that adorns “Shake It” is so speedy that black radio will dismiss it like Crisco disco. These kids are not working the angle of pure technique like Toshi and Me’Shell; nor are they historical revisionists like Macy and Angie, with temporal displacement a central feature of their design theory. They want nothing less than a style of performance that will reconcile butch hip-hoppers with fey houseketeers. The rapport Melky Sedeck want to reestablish between black dance music and its estranged siblings is crucial to the healthy evolution of r&b. Because until r&b reincorporates the emotional vulnerability and psychological concerns long exiled to the discredited realm of dance music, it won’t have the structural integrity to reach the next stage.