My mother gave me many things: love, a roof over my head, a genetic lack of ankles. But musically, she gave me r&b. Her heartbeat thumped in Chaka time. She dosed us with Teena Marie to counteract my dad’s curriculum of Yes and Genesis. So I assimilated assertive female pleasure, self-determination, and all that good stuff early on.
But she also played a lot of Anita Baker, which is less a lesson in paisley post-feminism than in being happily subdued with Glade air freshener. Critics like larger-than-life personalities because they make our lives easier. Regular folks don’t need to convince editors of the relative worth of Brand X. M.I.A. gets tons of press. Jagged Edge sell tons of records. The world keeps on spinning.
I’m not saying we should be constructing an alternate canon of ordinariness. None of the following artists sport trash bags, genderfuck, or date the world’s most famous rapper. They’ve just happened to release albums at roughly the same time in a genre with no new Missy-sized personalities looming on the horizon and lots of blank slates pushing some dude’s kept-wifey fantasies.
“This song is for those women who got beef with another bitch.” Those are the first words you hear on Brooke Valentine’s debut album. The voice belongs to Jonathan Smith. “Girlfight” is pitched at the darker end of Lil Jon’s broken Euro-rave presets and comes with the usual side of greasy leers. The rest of Chain Letter is certainly equally up-to-date, except it got lost on the way to the club and wound up in England, of all places.
Chain Letter is less an r&b record than the kind of genre-hopping, “your favorite mix tape” pomo pop record the Sugababes or Girls Aloud have perfected. In fact, Bloodshy & Avant (Britney’s “Toxic”) recycle the exact Glitter Band electro sashay they parlayed into a U.K. Rachel Stevens hit in “Blah Blah Blah.” The result’s a bit stylistically incontinent—cabaret piano, house tempos, Miami bass, acoustic balladry, Valentine’s strident vocals—where the Brit stuff tends to the province of auto-tuned wisps, with little spikes of genius.
Amerie feels more American: She came careening into our hearts on the comet’s tail of a Meters loop. Her Haley was named Rich Harrison, a former D.C. go-go drummer now crafting 21-gun salutes for Destiny’s children. At some point, he decided to ditch the plastic triplets of Amerie’s 2002 debut and to become some superfly crack-up of Madlib and Teddy Riley. So everyone’s hopes were riding on Richcraft’s local Salvation Army and his fetching way with copy-and-paste function.
And sure enough, on Touch he’s mimicking Jay Dee’s reverb-free Slum Village thwack in “Come With Me” and rustling cymbal asides in “Like It Used to Be.” So we all love Harrison’s stereopanning snare cracks and geysers of drum-spunk. But what made “1 Thing” lasso the moon was the exemplary “whoa-oh-a-oh”-ing throughout. More than one acquaintance compared Amerie to a young Jackson, maybe Michael, maybe Janet. Check “Talkin’ About” if you doubt. Isn’t it time that “vocal arranger” gets some respect? Remember that when some Joe Beats tries to sell you on this album based on its astounding bottom end (either Harrison’s or Amerie’s.)
Speaking of grown-ass womanliness, it’s a testament that Teedra Moses gave away such an obvious hit as “Dip It Low” to Christina Milian. Maybe she didn’t want to get pulled like half-naked Laffy Taffy through squid ink by thugs in the video for the hard sell. It’s also why you probably haven’t heard of her. Complex Simplicity silently crept into stores last year, much like the excellent Ray Ray by Raphael Saadiq, who appears here on “Take Me” and whose roomy, shined-up neo-soul informs the whole record.
There’s a preference for mid-tempo tick-tock snares, bump-bump boogie basslines, minimal melodic motifs. Her beef with another chick, in “You Better Tell Her,” barely rates a cocked eyebrow. Teedra’s self-possession and measured intimacy are a bold step in an Ashanti world. She sings, “We got nothin’ to do but party” on her title track, but at least her worldview seems to acknowledge that people still live lives outside the club, lives lived on two legs instead of four.
Which, sad or not, feels pretty fucking revolutionary to me at the moment. It might even be enough in the face of a rap culture that takes ever more perverse pride in just how much further it can abstract women into grade A ground chuck. Still, the rockist in me waits for that next oversize personality to command the spotlight, shift the goalposts, or just shake things up. Lauryn Hill, call your office!