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People hate Cassie. She’s only one single into her career, and that one single is pretty innocuous, but there’s already an online petition begging Diddy to drop her from Bad Boy Records; it’s up to almost 2000 signatures as I type this. Teairra Mari never had to deal with this. Cassie is nineteen, and she’s already being subjected to some intense scrutiny; the petition comes after a couple of notoriously awful live TV performances and a widespread online rumor that the big single, “Me & U,” is all about giving head. The whole thing is pretty weird, considering that Cassie comes from a long line of attractive and interchangeable R&B singers, some of whom went on to blossom into actual stars but most of whom were allowed to pass peacefully into obscurity. Every summer yields about five new singers like Cassie, and none of them has inspired anything like this internet-based outrage. And it’s not even really Cassie’s fault; someone made the awful mistake of arranging for her to sing live on 106 & Park instead of lip-syncing the way every other aspiring R&B star does, and YouTube has allowed the internet community to figure out firsthand just how awful these performances were. And to be fair, the 106 & Park performance really was pretty terrible, especially with the added gutpunch of a garbage-ass Yung Joc guest appearance. She’s awkward and tentative, barely whispering her words and sometimes ascending into an warbley, off-key high note. Even Cassie herself has acknowledged the shittiness of these performances on her blog: “I am aware that my live performances have been pretty bad … no excuses, I’m still getting over stage fright.” Aw!
Here’s the thing, though: Cassie doesn’t have to be a good singer. It would be fine if she was, but it’s completely unnecessary. She’s working in the medium of airy club-pop, and even the world’s worst singers can make a respectable go at that stuff. At this point, most pop singers use studio autotuners to make their voices sound better than they actually are, and there’s no shame in it. Cassie has the added advantage of a producer, Ryan Leslie, who’s smart enough to turn her deficiencies into strengths. “Me & U” is an expertly executed single, and it never requires Cassie to hit high notes or pull off melismatic runs. It’s all interior. She’s ostensibly singing to a potential lover, but it sounds like it’s all happening in her head, like she’s imagining what she’s going to say to someone before saying it, so it’s all uncertain murmurs and breathy sighs. The blowjob stuff is there if you’re looking for it, but the lyrics are all vague enough that the song could be about almost anything, and that’s part of its power. And the ethereal way her voice floats above the descending synth bloops and handclaps gives the song a serious emotional punch, the sort of sad longing that most emo bands can never quite pull off. A technical powerhouse like Mariah Carey or Beyonce would never be able to make this song work, but Cassie’s whisper-coo is perfect for it. She knows what she’s doing.
And the rest of her self-titled debut album, which came out last week, works in most of the same ways. Leslie produced the entire album, so it has a cohesiveness of sound that rarely comes through on poppy R&B full-lengths. And it’s short: ten songs and one interlude in 35 minutes. It sets its stakes low, and it succeeds beautifully on its own terms. Unlike so many debut albums, it’s not an exercise in myth-building; it’s just a collection of pop songs. Cassie stays fully within her comfort zone all throughout. She tries out some blase sing-rapping on “Long Way 2 Go,” but that’s it for limit-stretching; she keeps the low-key hum throughout and never tries to chew scenery. And “Me & U” isn’t the only slice of expert pop on the album. The drum patters are all simple, and the synths keep their pillowy sheen, but the album’s simplicity gives it a blissful air of luxury. And the hooks don’t smash you over the head; they creep up on you after multiple listens, which might be why “Me & U” has been hanging around near the top of the Hot 100 for a while now. The last three tracks sound something like what might happen if Phoenix tried playing high-tech R&B instead of tired-ass Hall & Oates throwback nonsense; I love the subtle funk guitar on “Miss Your Touch” and the frisky bass-pops on “Ditto.” The album isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s a good little album. Compared to an album like the self-titled Nina Sky debut from two summers ago, the Cassie album is just stunningly effective.
It’s easy for Cassie’s detractors to take shots at her as a no-talent wannabe who only has a record deal because she looks good, and Cassie certainly hasn’t helped her own case with those TV appearances. But pop music doesn’t work that way. I have no idea whether Shannon could really sing or not; it’s irrelevant, and “Let the Music Play” would still be a dance-music masterpiece even if she sounded like a drowning cat without studio presets. Cassie has already made four or five utterly gorgeous songs, and that’s all she needs to do.
If you’re looking for a young R&B singer to hate on, I’d like to put a name forward: Jeannie Ortega. Her debut single, “Crowded” is a comically awful piece of shit full of all-over-the-place tough-chick cliches and a bafflingly inept Papoose guest verse. It’s a whole hell of a lot worse than anything Cassie has ever done. Pick your targets.