This appeared in the Chicago Reader a month or two back.
Just out of curiosity; is there anybody (except me) who would like to see me post more about music and perhaps slightly less about comics? Leave me a note in the comments if so….
It Might Go Pop, But It Won’t Blow Up
Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad” has all the ingredients for pop R&B success. Comely, limber, light-skinned singer/dancer to put on the album cover? Check. Cameo by hit rapper on the single? Check. Two or three tracks produced by Timbaland? Yep. Songs about booty-shaking, sex, loving your good man, and dissing your no-good man? There you are . Now just spend an obscene amount on promotion and prepare to rake in even more obscene amounts of cash.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Whether its roots rock, bop, 60s soul, or metal, genres are formulaic — otherwise they wouldn’t be genres, after all. Rihanna’s album has great songs, superb production, and has been spending happily spinning away in my CD player. She’s simply a traditionalist rather than an innovator — Otis Redding rather than Sly Stone; High on Fire rather than Khanate.
Contemporary R&B has its innovators, too, of course. But — in comparison to other genres — the recognition they get for their efforts is small, and their careers circumscribed. Kelis, for one, had to trade in her Afrocentric pose and some of her rock stylings to achieve even partial success. And Houston native Brooke Valentine’s story has been even more painful.
If you just asked “Brooke who?”…well, yeah, that’s the thing. Valentine’s debut album, “Chain Letter” came out in 2005. She appeared on the cover sporting a half-shirt emblazoned with a big-winged bat and holding a pen topped with a plastic eyeball. By the fashion-shoot standards of pop R&B, such a display of quirky humor qualifies as willfully eccentric — and one of the interior photos, which shows Valentine standing in front of a gigantic wall of records, is just as odd. We all know divas spend their money on shoes and bling —we’re supposed to believe she collects vinyl?
The answer is, yes indeed. “Chain Letter” is one of those albums — like The Beatles “Rubber Soul” or OutKast’s “Stankonia” — that turns a genre inside out. R&B becomes the world, and the world gets swallowed by R&B. Valentine’s producer and co-writer Deja the Great is a hyperfertile genius; every song has unexpected twists, layered bridges, and gimmicks on its gimmicks so, for example, you can listen to the album fifty times before you fully catch the delicate music-box fade on “Tell Me Why (You Don’t Love Me).” On “Cover Girl” the pair channel folk-rock through Stax; on “American Girl”, they bash Prince-inflected funk into riot grrrl while suggesting that two are bound together by a patriotic adoration of pop-culture detritus (“This Disney World’s your underworld/ Try to escape it/ Just face it you’re an American Girl.”)
As a singer, Valentine doesn’t have the firepower of, say, Beyoncé, but what she’s got she uses with enthusiasm and imagination, breathily harmonizing with herself on “Laugh Til I Cry,” yodelling over the loping Texas groove on “Pass Me By,” Rasta ranting on “Million Bucks”, rapping like it’s 1979 on the discofied “Taste of Dis,” and wailing like a gospel air-raid siren on “I Want You Dead.” The latter, which starts, from the same man-hating stance as Rihanna’s “Breaking Dishes,” quickly vaults into gleeful, Danzig-worthy horror pastiche — “I’d rather see you in the cemetery, gagging, boxed up, full of maggots…some hopeful thinking never hurt anyone.” Even when Valentine’s just extolling the virtues of the boogie, her brain stays in touch with her butt. “The junk in this trunk’ll put a bump in your pants;” “I move my body left to right/their checkin’ me out like I’m a website.” “Even the girls are lookin,” she boasts — and you can stay in the damn closet, if you want, R. Kelly. Oh, yeah… and did I mention the entirely gratuitous, seemingly endless, spoken-word dis aimed at dumb Valley Girls and their sleazy bimbo ambitions? And a demented duet with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, complete with burping organ accompaniment? Musical eclecticism in R&B has some precedent…but goofy and snide is the prerogative of male rappers. No wonder Valentine declares “They think it’s a dude, but it’s me, they see” — she knows that R&B girls don’t get away with this shit.
And, indeed, she hasn’t. Valentine’s first single, “Girlfight” was a moderate success on the strength of a Lil Jon guest spot, but since then her career has gone precisely nowhere. “D-Girl”, released in 2006, was a tough, stoned, gothic head-nodder, with ominously surging keyboards and a sample from N.W.A.’s “Dopeman” that patters over the Sturm and Drang like a whispered, half-forgotten threat. It stiffed, as did a follow-up, “Pimped Out.” Her second album, “Physical Education,” was supposed to come out more than a year ago. On her myspace blog, Valentine blamed the delayed release on the merger between Virgin and Capitol. Perhaps. But, clearly, if someone there thought it would sell, it would be on the shelves by now. No one has officially pulled the plug, but it seems possible at this point that the album will never be released.
Valentine certainly has a fan base. Her debut sold 250,000 copies — small potatoes by pop standards, but still an awful lot of records. Nor am I the only reviewer whose gushed: writers at both Stylus and Popmatters argued that “Chain Letter” was one of the best albums not just in R&B, or of the year, but ever.
The problem is that, for pop R&B performers, there isn’t any way to translate critical cachét and decent sales into career momentum. If Valentine were a white rock performer, or a male rapper, the fact that her material is smart, distinctive, and self-penned — her integrity— could be, if not money in the bank, at least a possible means to connect with an audience. She could be a perfectly respectable indie artist — a minor influential, eccentric legend selling 100,000 units an album for 15 years. It seems like a natural enough move, since Valentine was first signed by what’s essentially an indie — Deja the Great owns Subliminal Records, a Houston label that distributed Valentine through Virgin. But if you compare Valentine’s success to Rihanna’s, it’s clear that it’s a lot better to be signed directly by the major without the intermediary. And if you don’t have any major-label connection at all? Well, another Subliminal artist is having his album released direct to ringtone. Good luck with that.
To the extent that there is a viable, R&B indie scene, it’s devoted to neo-soul — a subgenre with a lot more cred. When pop artists like Nivea, or Kelis have trouble making it in the majors, they move, not to smaller labels, but overseas, where any black American music automatically has the authenticity needed to pull an underground audience . On these shores, though rockists — that is, music fans who salivate over words like “integrity” and “authenticity” — mostly aren’t interested in chart-chasing, slickly-produced dance divas who dress like sluttier Cosmo models. Meanwhile popists — that is, music fans who love Madonna and Brittney — are busy celebrating, in critic Kelefa Sanneh’s words “a fluid musical world where it’s impossible to separate classics from guilty pleasures.” More power to them — but if you’re chasing the fluid jouissance of the next one-hit wonder, there’s not much motivation to go back and unearth a forgotten classic like Valentine. Even if — or especially if — she rocks. The U.S. loves its pop stars and its indie troubadours. But when you’re not clearly one or the other, no one knows how to market you. And that means that you, and your fans, are screwed.