Category Archives: R&B

“Be Careful”

Sparkle
Sparkle & R. Kelly
Sparkle, 1998

So … I saw R. Kelly in concert three weeks ago. That was a real thing that happened, to me, in the Year of Our Lord, 2014. It was … it was okay. He did that weird outdated hip-hop thing where it’s just him and a DJ, and no song gets more than one verse or chorus. And while that was annoying, it served as a nice reminder that Kelly’s back catalogue is deep not only with hits, but simply good songs — hundreds in fact, many of them strong enough to stand alongside his massive hits in concert. Setting aside the controversy that has trailed him everywhere since the start of his career, there’s no denying the man’s singing or songwriting ability. “Be Careful,” a duet with former protégé Sparkle, is one such example from 1998, all but forgotten now. The opening half of a domestic dialogue continued on Kelly album track “When a Woman’s Fed Up,” “Be Careful” is packed with enough narrative detail to feel like more than just a song; there are enough grace notes here to make the story believable. In today’s bone-dry radio-R&B landscape, this is a nice reminder of the genre at its finest. Sad, relevant post-script: Sparkle testified against Kelly during his 2009 criminal trial alleging he appeared in a videotape with her-then 14-year-old niece engaging in sexual acts. As you probably know, Kelly was acquitted.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Be%20Careful.mp3]

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“Till It’s Done (Tutu)”

d
D’Angelo and The Vanguard
Black Messiah, 2014

What a special record this is. Set aside for a moment the idea that any album could possibly be worth a 14-year wait — an extreme posture from which to evaluate success or failure. Consider Black Messiah instead for what it rightly is: a worthy successor to a previous masterpiece, D’Angelo’s second album, Voodoo (itself a departure from his Brown Sugar debut). The man’s body of work to-date is bulletproof, and Messiah continues in the tradition of previous recordings by paying homage to his influences while expanding on them in equal measure. Early reviews pegging the album as a mere continuation of the Voodoo aesthetic must have been written by critics who need to listen to Voodoo again; where that album was precise, calculated, in thrall to minimalist flourish, Messiah feels warm and expansive, live-band “tossed off” despite the long delay. Note this shift on “Till It’s Done,” a living study in the art of playing around the pocket. However this recording came to life — either through a band playing live off-time, recorded in a single take; or one man alone, multi-tracking himself to glory — the end product is anything but contained. This is music as energy, light, meditation, mediation, active culture: something that existed before us and will outlive us too. The shadows of Sly, Marvin and Prince may continue to haunt his work, but it’s the ghost of D’Angelo himself that looms largest. Turns out he was here the whole time.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Till%20It’s%20Done%20(Tutu).m4a]

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“Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles”

beffheart
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
Clear Spot, 1972

To call the Captain Beefheart catalog “intimidating” would be an understatement. I can’t think of a more imposing 20th-century popular artist; even those who adore Trout Mask Replica surely need a little time off between listens. It’s not them, it’s him – dude was brilliant, insane and avant to the end. Except for the handful of times he pretended not to be. On Clear Spot, he brought in the guy who produced The Doobie Brothers – those Doobie Brothers – to hammer his songs into a more commercial shape. It mostly worked, except for the fact that the album only reached #191 on the Billboard Top 200 (back when that mattered). Time has a way of sorting these things out though. “Her Eyes…” would prove to be one of the more durable, commercial songs in the Beefheart songbook, showing up on The Big Lebowski soundtrack and eventually landing the dubious honor of a Black Keys cover. You’ll be surprised how much you like it.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/10%20Her%20Eyes%20Are%20a%20Blue%20Million%20Miles.m4a]

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“Pendulum”

fka twigs
FKA twigs
LP1, 2014

Hype is a weird beast. In the modern hipster-music economy, ruled over by sites more prominent than this one, it almost passes for currency. It certainly has the power to create careers, though it no longer seems able to sustain them. Soundcloud is littered with the bodies of buzz artists come and gone, MP3s strewn about like bleached bones. Hype can’t even guarantee quality per se; it can only tell you when other people are talking about something you haven’t heard yet. English R&B songstress FKA twigs is in the throes of the phenomenon now. The noise has been so deafening, I was reluctant to listen when friends first started talking about her last year. Precious, Pitchfork-ready images like the one you see above didn’t help. But I’m glad I pushed play. Put simply, her music strikes me as the logical next step in female-vocal R&B, the quantum leap we’ve been anticipating for some time. Remember Volta? If Bjork and Timbaland had hit it off, that collaboration might’ve sounded like this. Or if Aaliyah were still alive today … you know the drill. If this, if that. The point is, this is what’s in front of us now, and it’s deserving. I’ve chosen “Pendulum” for its beauty and for the way it makes me feel. For the way it connects the dots between Homogenic and One in a Million. For now, the future belongs to twigs.

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