Tuesday, February 09, 2010

R&B Divas

There's not much literature about rock 'n' roll, or rather not much good literature about rock music. There's even less about rap, soul etc. though there's plenty of fictionalised stories (Dreamgirls.) Been thinking that if I was to write a music story for the contemporary age it would have to be about the R&B divas. There seem an endless number of them, and for a long time, some of the best music came from them. Yet, something's happened to our divas. They seem to have lost a bit of their self-confidence. A brief history of the R&B diva should probably begin with Janet Jackson and "Control." The title said it all; after 2 manufactured records, Janet stepped out from the family shadow, hired (rather than was hired by) top notch producers Jam & Lewis, and came up with an album that was as brim full of attitude as it was of tunes. Over the next few years Jackson's self-aware confidence gave us further mega albums such as "Rhythm Nation 1814" and "Janet". As "new jack swing" "r&b" and "urban" became THE key musical styles of the 90s, the female soul singer changed from being a big voice on whom a producer could hang their style, to being the key part of the whole enterprise. Think of Mary J. Blige's genre defining "What's the 411?" or Missy Elliot's "Miss E  - So Addictive." Sure there was a formula; a big voice, a backstory that included some personal tragedy, a brilliant production team (or teams); but whether solo act or girl group (TLC, Destiny's Child), much of the best music of the 90s and early 21st century was female fronted r&b. Yet listening to Beyonce's last album "I am...Sasha Fierce" or Alicia Key's new album, there seems to have been a change. These are no longer Kelis or TLC style pieces of affirmative action against a mans, mans world, but album length love breakdowns. The contemporary diva is strong, but in a different way. She's not gone out and started again; she's overcoming her depression. I think Keys' "Empire State of Mind Pt.2" is a brilliant piece of music, but coming at the end of an album of big, mid-paced soulsearching soul its got me craving for "Caught out there" "No Scrubs" or "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" It is the Pink's, the Kate Perry's, the Nelly Furtado's who are having all the fun, with their rock stylings loosened with a bit of r&b slinkiness, whilst our R&B divas seem to be caught in a (highly commercial) trap: between the reality TV big ballads on the one hand and the antediluvian "hos and bitches" stance of contemporary hip hop on the other. Missy Elliot, Kelis, Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopez and Mary J. Blige may have gone for the occasional collaboration, and worked with top producers, but you always felt they had the upperhand. Obligatory Jay-Z or Kanye collaborations aren't the issue; more that in the past it would have been the diva who was the main draw, and the rapper was having to work hard to keep up. Maybe it was the mega-success of Christina Aguilera's "Stripped" album and its ultimate self-love/self-hate ballad "Beautiful", or maybe it's just the contemporary world. But I for one am wanting my divas to be less "I can feel your halo", and more "I hate you so much right now."

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