I used to call artists like Nikka Costa, Res, Sunshine Anderson, India.Arie, and Pru “anti-divas.” It was the kind of compact, catchy term that could spice up a daily-story lead, headline, or nut graf, without much fuss or need for explanation. But that was way back when you could milk the “she’s different from Whitney and Janet” angle without getting called on it. Now, more than a few people would raise an eyebrow at the notion that Kina, Macy, Jill, et al., occupy some XFL version of the r&b universe—not to mention any attempt to define them by their ability not to be Mary J. or Beyoncé. By now, they’re the mainstream.
But if the “anti” part doesn’t cut it, the “diva” part still does, since all use solid vocal and instrumental chops and often cleverly recombinant songwriting to work their respective approaches for all they’re worth. So if you are the labeling type (we writers invariably are, either by force of habit or convenience), it’s better to custom-make one. Like an “I’d rather be in the studio, but they put me in front of a camera in this ugly-assed outfit” diva. Or an “I’m queen of all media even though my last album had beats only Manolo Blahnik could love” diva.
Or, in the case of Nikka Costa, a “let’s see if you are hip enough to figure out my angle” diva. It’s easy to do a doubletake at the package: white girl backing it up to the gene-spliced groove of “Like a Feather” on MTV2. Easy, that is, if you forget Betty Davis (whose essential work is available only on import), Teena Marie, Nona Hendryx, Brit P-clone Ruth Copeland, and the scores of other female funk-rockers that have gotten shouldered out of mainstream music theorizing. It’s neither fruitful nor fair to compare Costa to any of them—the “what if they were around today?” arguments are best left to ESPN Classic. It’s just that getting the context straight makes it easier to dispense with the “she’s so unusual” rhetorical clutter.
Which is especially useful to do in Costa’s case, since there are plenty of reasons to like Everybody Got Their Something on its own terms. She doles out squirmy beats and jackhammer rock in pre-rationed doses, referencing the standard Sly (the title tune’s “If You Want Me to Stay” motif) and Hendrix, then adding snippets of rare groove for the Ford-era babies; her choice of collaborators is predictably impressive—funk-soul keyboard guru Billy Preston, Soulquarians James Poyser, Pino Pallodino, and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. The only surprise is that the scion of a big-band leader (and the goddaughter of Sinatra) would prove more belter than crooner. But she hits her stride with double-knit-fusing intensity on the smash-mouthed “Hope It Felt Good,” floats over “Some Kind of Beautiful,” and rides the swelling “Nothing” like Chris Cornell’s alien-abducted sister. After that, her acoustic-padded “Push & Pull” and Cherry Moon-ish “Corners of My Mind” seem like rest periods, forcing her hunter-gatherer voice into a slightly awkward rock-ballad nest.
Where Costa rises on her ability to turn obviousness into a strength, Res is a bit more the “sleight of hand” diva. Even though she’s from Philly, Res (say “Reese”) on How I Do eschews the smooth soul favored by her contemporaries. Instead she opts to flavor her tunesmithing with college–rock lilt, accented by aural backdrops that hint at her various bags while denying fealty to any. “They Say Vision,” with its chugging bass and keening Toto reference, is rock then not, hip-hop then not. Ditto the stealthy orchestral loop that runs underneath the title track’s chorus, and “Ice King” ‘s soul harmonizing dropped over an understated reggae bass and dinkily lo-fi guitar. And her hands are always quicker than your ears (see the hidden rock meltdown that closes the disc), courtesy a voice that owes more to Stevie Nicks than, say, to Chaka.
It’d be easy to call all this an affected stab at cleverness if it weren’t for the fact that Res seems least convincing when she’s direct, as on “Sittin’ Back” ‘s “nigga what” refrain. And when the tunes stray just to one side of the mark, it’s not from overt artiness. More like a lack of it: “I’ve Known the Garden” meanders through a nondescript guitar-cum-programmed-beat background. Res’s commitment to her personal muse is commendable, but you wish she had chosen to slice off a couple more chunks from the usual stylistic pies, just for the sake of getting something that’d stick to your ribs.
Sunshine Anderson is on more familiar ground: Your Woman follows a “relationship” theme. The “more concept than I need” diva’s 18 songs (including skits and interludes) chronicle various stages of romance, infatuation, and heartbreak. Producer and Soulife label prexy Mike City (whose relationship with Anderson dates back to their North Carolina college days) gets a good deal of the credit, on her breezy breakthrough single “Heard It All Before” for starters; besides lacing tracks with creamy soul-hop grooves, he does a good job cowriting female-perspective lyrics. “Save the Day” makes routine workweek problem solving seem positively sexy. But Anderson’s pipes (which, ironically, inspire Blige comparisons) match City’s production prowess, blowing forcefully through the slow-drag “Crazy Love” and the “Crush on You”-influenced “You Do You.” While it’s always cool to run into an album emphasizing narrative, it’s even cooler to see it pulled off with insinuating, unobtrusive style by someone who would be worth the listen even if she stopped making sense.
Speaking of which, a prominent Atlanta rapper once expressed exasperation at hip-hop’s often too-good-to-be-believed consciousness contingent. “Them vibe-y incense niggas,” he called them, who “be giving you all this ‘yes my brother’ and ‘yes my queen’ shit but never have anything to say that relates to what’s really going on.” I was tempted to drop India.Arie into that category until the fifth workaday sista in the past three months told me that “Video” was the best thing to come out of pop music since Jill Scott’s thick fine self. Which helped me realize that, despite the fact that it was just what we needed in 1992, I couldn’t pop Acoustic Soul out of my player without pouring myself some amaranth flakes and soy milk to keep the ambience going. Arie is a “too damn likable to nitpick about” diva—likely why I won’t point out that the video version of “Video” features more of the same writhing buttwomen.
Lyrically, Arie spends a lot of time in the kickboard end of the pool, with lines and themes that consciously avoid straining your brain: “Brown skin/You know I love your brown skin/I can’t tell where yours begins/I can’t tell where mine ends.” And, but for the gentle antimaterialism of “Video,” she doesn’t preach, so her tunes don’t run the risk of collapsing under their own pretensions. More often than not, Arie winds up addressing love notes to some unnamed soul mate in training. If she sometimes slips into triteness—the hippy-dippy “Nature,” the outro that commits the nearly unforgivable sin of turning Stevie Wonder tune titles into bad one-liners—it’s because she isn’t reaching very far. And that isn’t a bad thing, especially since Arie, like Costa, has good taste in support staff: multi-man Mark Batson and organist Larry Goldings. Add her lightly seasoned vocal soul, and there’s enough to hold you for a while, just not to bring you back for seconds.
For a more balanced course, there’s Pru, and her self-titled debut. A “smarter than you, but cool enough to let you figure that out for yourself” diva, she sings (correction: sangs) with a vaguely Houston-ish flair, and writes songs bristling with enough pop charms to make you miss some of her conceptual ornaments the first time around. Like the wistful “Sketches of Pain” (don’t holler if you don’t get it). On “Hazy Shades” (probably the only tune out there that nods to both Prince and Miles Jaye), she underpins the luscious slow groove with lyrics insisting that her lover “love me unclearly” and blurring the line between—as she says—madness, love, and genius. She comes close to overdoing it on the interpolation end, though her production and arranging are tight enough to blow quibbles away. “Candles” shifts into a Smokey Robinson quote, and she recasts “Smooth Operator” as a ghetto-fab drum’n’bass joint. Elsewhere, she and coproducers Abolitionist Productions dot the proceedings with the type of glossy, tightly compressed r&b that you thought fell off the scene with the old Vibe house band. These high-fiber features give Pru serious legs. It was released to good reviews late last year, and sounds even better now—being a diva, after all, is not about following the times; it’s about letting them catch up to you.