Tuesday, August 07, 2007

No Bluetooth Here: Modern One Named Divas

(You ever think someone was walking down the street talking to themselves till you realized that they had on a bluetooth earpiece? Okay right now imagine there is no earpiece. So then I am talking to myself. Get the idea? Really random ideas that come to my head for no reason whatsoever. Maybe if I write them down they will stop plaguing me.)

Banana was especially active in her musical choices on the way home. Usually she is content to listen to whatever CD was in the last time she was in the car. Or she just changes to the radio. Tonight though. She changed the CD, not once, but twice during our ride home. Initially she realized the Alicia Keys she put in was not the Unplugged version, but rather her rather good second album. Though she was feeling "You Don't Know My Name" she still switched because it was "Unbreakable" she was craving. Then it was the live version of "Diary" that was moving us. And just as Common and Mos joined her on stage, Banana abruptly said that she had the perfect closing song for our journey. Though we were only two turns from home, she said we had to listen to it until it was complete.

The song was actually "Real Compared To What", a track originally commissioned for a Coca-Cola ad campaign. A Soulquarian rework of a jazz classic, ?uestlove & James Poyser set up a rollicking affair for Mya & Common to vibe over. It's really energetic, maybe one of the best not heard songs ever that people might have actually wanted you to hear. If that made any sense.

It occurred to me though that Mya along with many of her compatriots in the R& B field have owe much homage and gratitude to one individual: Aaliyah. When Missy and Timbaland used to shout her out in every track they touched in that year or so after her death, I thought they were overdoing it. Even me, whose eyes got wet when I read the account of her death and developed a mini-sermon based on the tragedy for a worship I once ran, regarded the tributes as tedious after some time. But now it seems we have easily forgotten.

Since rhythm & blues has been recognized as a genre of popular music, the diva has been an important figure in its development and representation. Arguably, it is the most translatable figure from the genre. To some degree, there is universal recognition of the power of the R & B diva. The vocal stylings translate even to the background singers of aging rock groups like the Rolling Stones and the Police. Historically, a diva earned the right to only be called by one name after so many years of consistent performance coupled with an amazing voice. Aretha. Tina. Whitney. Even Mariah has joined that echelon.

But in the 1990s, as hip-hop started to spread its reach and incorporated itself more and more into other genres, R & B was affected the most. The simpler production methods found their way to the singers and so the music was less creative. The producer grew more prominent and the voice of the artist just became another element of his or her aural landscape. Aaliyah was the epitome of this blueprint.

Her biggest talent was probably the desire to perform. She worked her family connections, her sweet face, and great dance moves into a pretty lucrative career, though too short. Her voice was always light, but she was always able to wring enough emotion out of her notes, but she never over did it. Instead of the song weighing totally on vocal merits, now all she had to do was not mess up. The pressure to make something of the production was off the singer now.

She worked it perfectly. Here first Svengali was one R. Kelly who penned the ominously foreboding "Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number" and "Back & Forth." She achieved pretty good success, this girl in gangsta gear who never showed her left eye. When she really hit it big, it was with Timbaland and Missy, who were then unknown. In Timbaland's intricate jungle of sound, Aaliyah's voice was a merely a bird humming a melody against the digital crickets, baby cries, waterfalls that were just as prevalent. Her voice was perfect to capture the wisdom and honesty of Missy's sweet hearted melodies and simplistic yet magnetic lyrics. And she used that beauty to her advantage, growing into an astute steward of her sexuality, giving just enough and never seeming trashy.

With success, duplication is always attempted and rarely achieved. Over time, we have been given a plethora of artists following her blueprint. Brandy achieved some success. Mya did well there for a bit. Amerie. Now Rihanna and Ciara keep the baton going. And as much as I respect her entertaining drive, Beyonce too. Each of these artists possess attractive enough bodies and faces, display loads of energy when necessary, and won't really be remembered for their voices (Yeah and kids just cause Beyonce likes to do runs doesn't mean she can sing. Melismas do not make the the singer alone. Hers aren't even that phenomenal).

Notice the ones that actually have some sort of vocal talent actually come out with both names. Its almost like they dare you to look them up in later years while the Mondis (Modern One Named Divas) hope to get lost in the milieu later when their hits have run dry. Mary J. Blige. Faith Evans. Lauryn Hill. Christina Aguliera. Keyshia Cole. And I'm not saying they all have reached or will reach that echelon (Mary's in; Christina has a shot and I'm pulling for Keyshia) but at least they have a little more going for them. (And I did not include the more soul end of the spectrum like Jill Scott but I was thinking of the more conventional more mainstream R & B as opposed to the more soulful versions. She still has two names though. And so does Angie Stone and Erykah Badu and Amel Larrieux)

Funny correlation right. I know there are exceptions. Monica had talent and squandered it somewhere. And there is no way that Britney Spears is close to having a voice. If you made Aaliyah white, gave her breast implants, and gave her questionable decision making skills, you would receive Ms. Spears. I also want to make it clear that I still like their music. When I first heard "Oh" I played it 7 times in a row. Just pointing something out.

Okay. Now I do my best to induce slumber and stop scaring myself.

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