Love Wars Resurrection


One of the impressive things about r&b is that for decades kids and their parents grooved on the same music. Soul Train dancers would pop, lock, and hustle to Stevie Wonder, Barry White, James Brown, and Gladys Knight, while Mom and Dad spun the same records on the living room hi-fi. Sixties and ’70s classics are still sampled today for their mix of teen rhythmic excitation and adult songcraft sophistication. Motown lyrics may have reveled in youthful romantic insecurities, but their articulation bore the thoughtful poetics of adulthood, and as r&b focused its gaze on social injustice and freewheeling dancefloor politics during the ’70s, it kept on maturing while bringing on hormonal beats. Even in the ’80s, often unjustly regarded as an r&b wasteland, that bridge between black pop’s adolescence and adulthood was crossed, particularly by early-to-mid-decade male/female duos: Ashford & Simpson, Womack & Womack, René & Angela, Yarborough & Peoples, Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal.

It’s those sweet ’80s love wars that Koffee Brown evoke. A pairing put together by Naughty by Nature’s KayGee, Vee and Fonz of Koffee Brown trade vocal riffs like rappers alternate rhymes. Their style is staccato—clipped and quick, harkening back to the no-nonsense good-life lovers of Chic. They’ve got too many things to say to each other, no time to indulge tedious Star Search-y runs up and down the scales. They’re an alliance with a mission: Koffee Brown want to bring together the sexes and generations of r&b.

They’ve got their work cut out. When rap traded Sugarhill disco nights for days of Run-D.M.C. rock boxes, the changing of the guard wedged generational and gender divides throughout Afro-America’s music and audience. Disco-funk was too feminine, too fast, too free for Reagan’s newly disenfranchised. Its fluid freak-for-all found itself replaced by drum-machine regimentation, gangsta hyper-masculinity, and lyrics addressing and masking young black male fears. America’s endangered species had to build his own musical alternate reality, even if it meant abandoning Mom and Dad and dissing his sisters, and it’s taken nearly 20 years for that sonic ghetto to build more inclusive projects.

Koffee Brown follow in the tracks of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Jill Scott, reaching black into a future fusion of new and old school that blurs the lines between digital and organic instrumentation, r&b’s classicists and r&b’s avant-garde, hip-hop and the styles of songs behind hip-hop’s samples. But unlike those solo renegades, Koffee Brown don’t explore the inner spaces of black bohemia. Instead, they speak in urban-lifestyle archetypes: guys shining their cars after a hard workweek, gals getting their nails done as they run down the neighborhood 411 of who’s zoomin’ who. Thank God it’s Friday—time to start living for the weekend and playing those playa games.

That’s the gist of Mars/Venus‘s first song, “Weekend Thing.” It has the same tableau-setting quality as the opening song that launches every classic Broadway musical, the one that establishes protagonists and their conflicts—the 9-to-5er who brings home the bacon but still likes to spread it around and the independent woman who nevertheless stands by her man, even if she still has to monitor his commitment level. Vee and Fonz alternate lines, presenting parallel scenarios that harmonize on the chorus but threaten to diverge and create discord elsewhere.

“Weekend Love” ‘s carefree yet anticipatory vibe evokes Alexander O’Neal and Cherelle’s “Saturday Love,” one of several sublime mid-’80s Jam & Lewis-masterminded grooves Mars/Venus references. Another is Cherelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” a Janet Jackson prototype transformed into a melodically different but thematically identical song about a two-person mutual-admiration society (“That ass is fine,” sings Fonz of Vee, while Vee characterizes her professional partner as the “fly-ass baller type”). Their name itself a conflation of Pam Grier blaxploitation titles Coffy and Foxy Brown, Koffee Brown ain’t ashamed of sampling lyrics, titles, concepts, yo mama’s vinyl, or her VHS collection. Unlike those old, waggishly independent New Jack Swing jams, most of which squandered lyrical opportunities with tossed-off, royalties-hoarding Teddy Riley rhymes, these life slices are all about collaboration, and accordingly require a small army to create: Several tracks boast six writers, most credit at least three, and even the classy current ballad-y single, “Chick on the Side,” cribs its title from an early Pointer Sisters funk-off.

Plenty of the classic r&b duos paired an exceptionally expressive female vocalist (Valerie Simpson, Angela Winbush, Linda Womack, Tina Turner) with a supportive, relatively average male counterpart (Nick Ashford, Rene Moore, Cecil Womack, Ike Turner). Neither showy nor in need of digital assistance, Koffee Brown’s Fonz and Vee come evenly matched, although Vee’s solo turn, “All Those Fancy Things,” outshines Fonz’s “Hater’s Disease,” mostly because today’s tricky melodies, hyper-syncopated beats, and Jerry Springer-groomed attitudes now favor females: The culture’s compensating for two decades of bitch-this, ‘ho-that. Fonz even tries to justify why he uses the B-word on “I Got Love (Scars),” but Vee blows his defenses away proper.

Mars/Venus issues that kinda challenge to the entire r&b community by raising the lyrical standard to a level few needn’t sweat to match. Yet unlike a lot of alternative hip-hop that gets crazy with the wordplay but goes easy on the catchy tunes, Koffee Brown get crafty without forgoing thrilling, complex pop. This is a mainstream soul album free of filler, indulgences, preaching, or pandering, one that justifies the repeated plays its hooks demand with layers of complicated, casually poetic love. It’s solid—solid as a rock.

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