For the past seven years or so, the news in r&b has been hip-hop, how the slightly stale ’80s music of Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle and hundreds of trios and quartets refreshed itself creatively and commercially with the street rhythms and jerky composure of the signal pop movement of the decade. So these days you have hybrids like TLC’s “Unpretty,” a dynamic deconstruction of physical appearance that ignites within a soul melody yanked to skittering beats that only Atlanta r&b new wavers might put down with such stupid grace. Listen to “Damn (Should’ve Treated U Right)” by So Plush featuring Ja Rule, a headturner on Blue Streak: The Album, the soundtrack to the new Martin Lawrence movie, a collection that leads with “Girl’s Best Friend,” a big old Jay-Z jam. On the So Plush song, Ja Rule raps so long-windedly as the track gears up that you’re surprised when So Plush swings in, seizing the mics and bent flow, a rookie girl group turning things quintessentially soulful.
Amid all this rich back-and-forth, r&b believers may wonder about soul itself; what will become of those sublime intersections of melody and groove and text and phrasing and intonation and empty space that lift soul into something beyond category? Last season had Monica and Dru Hill, but there hasn’t been a lot lately, even during a time when r&b’s feel and aesthetic run through everything from Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin to Sugar Ray and Dixie Chicks. Every now and then England
unleashes solemn revivalists— the kind of dreamers who’ve never gotten over Stax-Volt, like Roachford and Ali— but they’re minimal fun; for atmospheric memories, read an issue of Mojo. The past few months, there’s been Ginuwine, whose angry cheated-on joint “What’s So Different?” satisfies the yen, although half its long-distance runaround is producer Timbaland’s juicy Yes reinventions. Dru Hill do their usual psyched-up best to keep the tradition afire in “Wild Wild West.” But, again, that’s a Will Smith theme park. What’s left? R. Kelly producing Trisha Yearwood (“Follow the Wind”) on the Life soundtrack and Yearwood giving Kelly luminescent technique-as-soul? The great Robbie Williams, suggesting that yes sir, soul can don turtlenecks?
This is why you have to love Destiny’s Child. Destiny’s Child: Now there’s a proper name for a vocal quartet of impatient Houston princesses, a name invented to be commissioned in 18-karat gold. On The Writing’s on the Wall, they consider money and sex and relationships for 15 songs, each keyed to what they and their producers conceive as Destiny’s Child “commandments”: Lulus like “Thou Shall Not Hate,” “Thou Shall Get Your Party On,” and the deathless “Thou Shall Not Bug.” Until, of course, they do a completely appropriate about-face and conclude their r&b song cycle with a churchishly accomplished version of “Amazing Grace.” Look at them on the cover of their CD— We like gowns, their restless expressions say, but we are not the Supremes, we are not En Vogue. We are young, but we know the score— in bedrooms, in clubs, at Neiman Marcus, at church. When not dialing or shopping or dissing, for
fun we sight-read.
The big hit from Destiny’s Child’s second album is “Bills, Bills, Bills.” In the middle of the tune, swept up in dollar deliberations, they sing a little phrase that could have come from vocal writing for Broadway, King Crimson, or Stereolab; “I don’t think you do,” they sing in descending staccato quarter-notes; then, climbing back up the scale, “So you and me are through.” It’s a thrilling moment, informed by Destiny’s Child’s full-power soul sarcasm. In “Confessions,” on which Missy Elliott appears, they finally get around to a chorus that is an absolute tour de force. They’ve done several strings of “I’m just confessing, I’m just guessing,” etc., where they utterly nail female soul call-and-response; they do it as though their own mastery of fundamentals is starting to bore them. So when they get to the variation, the music explodes. The lead voice begins to stretch out the main melody, then background vocals separate into a million little ah-ah-
ah-ahs; as counterpoint, it’s red hot, so combustive it quickly gives way to the groove, itself no icy element.
The Writing’s on the Wall is brilliant, all right, a complex showcase of late-’90s soul grammar, fancy and intricate r&b as boldly and exactly executed as a Cartier watch. What the record isn’t is especially pop in any usual way— you have to listen. Destiny’s Child aren’t easy. They seem fiercely proud of their chops, evincing a skilled girl-group confidence on par with the self-regard of the best rapper gone on his or her bad self. Where TLC and their genius producer Dallas Austin take pains to have all their hip-hop-inspired originality feel and taste as good as much less adventurous stuff, Destiny’s Child act high and mighty; everything they do is musically unassailable at a minimum. And if you don’t like it, well, those low-rent ears of yours must be ruined by candy.
The superinvolved nature of Destiny’s Child’s music is odd, because basic soul is usually more basic; unlike hip-hop, it usually requires more touch than convolution. On Where I Wanna Be, Chicago native Donell Jones hews to that classic formula throughout an album that will doubtless emerge as 1999’s high-water mark for the field. Jones’s first single is a scaled-back piece of pure sensuousness called “U Know What’s Up.” Vaguely British, a stateside cousin of the highly controlled and carefully deployed sonic and instrumental spendor that Lynx, say, pioneered in the late ’70s and groups like Loose Ends perfected throughout the ’80s, the single feels major the first time you’re in the room with it. Jones maintains to a girl that she fully recognizes that he wants her; the music, in subtle yet insistent ways, fills in the blanks. Jones steadies his unornamented tenor like there’s nothing more in the world of sound he needs to win his point— this acoustic-tinged electrogroove, with wavy synths coursing through the crystal-clear soundscape like heartbeat readings, is plenty. There are cars involved, and maybe the stutter of unconsummated conversation outside the mall. But the song’s obsession is the guy’s monumental desire, which occupies a place as urgent, in the relevant minutes of these two people’s lives, as famine or war.
On the extraordinary “Shorty Got Her Eyes on Me,” Jones develops his theme further, with added mystery and depth and a slower tempo. It’s the middle of the night now; they’re either in or just outside or leaving a club. The car, whose top promises to come down, waits outside. He likes “the little thing around your navel,” he tells her; he tells her he has a jar of bubbles they could blow. He considers that, after all this time, he might be leaving alone. “Tell them that you’re riding with me,” Jones pleads, and in context, accentuated with slow, molasses-heavy harmonies hovering atop a groove so supple and diaphanous it could all just disappear, the impact is dizzying. The song is about trying to make romantic fantasy match real life— and the trouble Jones has as he tries to do this in the coolest, most elegant way soul music in 1999 can imagine.