Unless you’re regularly tuned in to an urban radio station, it’s possible you’ve never heard of Kandi, the r&b singer. But you’re undoubtedly familiar with Kandi the r&b songwriter—in particular her two most famous creations, TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” On Kandi’s first solo album, Hey Kandi . . . , a catty female voice in the “Introduction” fills us in on some other pertinent biographical details: Kandi was once a member of the platinum group Xscape; her other songwriting credits include Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and ‘N Sync; and she has trophies on her mantelpiece (“You probably think you’re all that since you won a Grammy!”). This intro neatly—if a little self-servingly—sets the stage for Kandi’s arrival as a solo artist, and it’s impossible not to think of Carole King, who, after years of hiding in the background to write a string of hits for other artists, emerged with a strong and mature voice of her own on 1971’s Tapestry. King, of course, had even greater success as a solo artist than as the anonymous composer of “The Loco-Motion.” But her good fortune had at least a little to do with the fact that she chanced on a genre—early-’70s singer-songwriter—just finding its feet around the same time.
Kandi won’t very likely have that kind of megasuccess, not because Hey Kandi . . . isn’t a great record, but because the competition in her chosen genre is much fiercer than it was for King. Not since the mid-’60s girl-group era have so many strong female voices dominated black pop. Unlike the Ronettes, Crystals, and Shirelles, though, the new female r&b can’t be lumped into a single category—there’s more that separates Destiny’s Child and Macy Gray than unites them—so I’ll be gracious and lump them into three distinct submovements:
1. Cell-Phone Girls: r&b’s newest hitmakers, top of the pops, money you can dance to. Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall has sold 6 million copies and counting. But if they’ve been the most omnipresent r&b force since TLC, it’s not for lack of some stiff chart rivalry from Mya, 702, and Blaque. The cell phone, of course, is the most popular carry-around prop of this music’s core fan base. And it’s also given lyrical props in Destiny’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and audio props in “Say My Name,” whose background vocal sounds sung through a wireless.
2. Alt-Soul: Dubbed thus in a Carol Cooper Voice review last year of Macy Gray and (Where’d they go?) Melky Sedeck. Alt-soul sisters have a definite rock edge, from Kina’s overwrought Alanis affectations, to Kelis’s Courtney Lust imitation in “Caught Out There,” to Macy Gray’s (or her publicist’s) smooth hustle of the classic rock demographic (the British press tagged her as a “new Dylan” before anyone at BET had even heard of her). With varying degrees of success, these women are breaking the mold of what female r&b singers are expected to do, and you might not even find them in the r&b section—in the record store where I work, we file Kina under “rock/pop,” and the question has come up about putting Macy there as well.
3. Roots’n’B: The anti-Destiny’s Child, if not by the intent of the artists, then certainly in how these singers are perceived by their fans. Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott are current models of reality and integrity, musically recalling the early-’70s polemical phases of Marvin and Stevie, but also drawing inspiration from jazz (Erykah = Billie), gospel-soul (Angie = Gladys), and amorphous jazz-rock fusion (Jill Scott = Gil Scott). With the possible exception of Erykah Badu, who never shows her roots in public, these women all have excellent hair, but that’s (apparently) completely beside the point.
The most innovative, exciting, and noisy of these submovements is the cell-phone contingent, the only true girl-groups of the bunch: If Destiny’s, TLC, et al., aren’t exactly the brainchild of a particular Svengali, they’re certainly the beneficiaries of some of today’s hottest male producers, most notably Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs. She’kspere, dismissed as Timbaland “shareware” by Sasha Frere-Jones in the Voice several months back, is making some of the best dance records of the moment, from one-offs with Pink, ‘N Sync, and Mariah, to more full-fledged productions with Destiny’s and, most recently, Kandi. Like any great pop architect, from Phil Spector to Max Martin, you can peg a She’kspere production in mere seconds, as he loves to crib from his own bag of gimmicks: The ersatz-classical harpsichord of “Bills, Bills, Bills” is mimicked almost to a T on Pink’s likewise-Kandi-penned “There You Go,” and there’s that ubiquitous rhythmic device—what I call his Pop-O-Matic Trouble Bubble—that runs amok all over. His sources are varied and surprising, too: For instance, the rhythmic complexity of his more hyper productions sounds like an attempt to infuse r&b with drum’n’bass (a genre badly in need of pop appropriation if anyone outside of its fringe base is ever going to care about it). In some ways, he may even be too identifiable; he can’t help but smother his progeny in bells and whistles, and there’s a certain interchangeability to Destiny’s Child and Pink (though the former sure could’ve used his touch on “Independent Women Part 1,” their bland Charlie’s Angels single).
With Kandi, She’kspere may have met his match. Though Hey Kandi . . . has plenty of the producer’s trademarks—skittish rhythms (“What I’m Gon’ Do to You” and the Castaways update “Pants on Fire”), elaborate vocal arrangements (“Sucka for You”), and charming baroque flourishes (“Don’t Think I’m Not”)—this is unmistakably the singer-songwriter’s triumph. One reviewer has already questioned, with some legitimacy, why Kandi saves all her big ones for other artists, and sure enough, there isn’t an instant, obvious classic here. Rather, Hey Kandi . . . coheres as a long-playing personal statement—not unlike, say, Tapestry.
But where King came across as more resigned than bitter on hurting songs like “So Far Away” and “Home Again,” Kandi’s a big believer in an eye for an eye. “No Scrubs” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” got flak for being petty and materialistic, not to mention disrespectful to guys, but Kandi was just getting warmed up. On her album, she clears out ex-boyfriends’ bank accounts, connives to match the scrubs at their own game (“When you’re out making love/don’t think I’m not”), tells them to pack their bags, and—in the album’s most potent image—burns their house “to dust.” Kandi doesn’t kick and scream like Kelis in “Caught Out There,” but you know she’s been messed around just the same. Either that, or she’s been hanging around Left Eye too long.