Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still. Read more
Listen to this track by Virginian singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger, and indie label-owner Michael E. White. It’s “Take Care My Baby”, a cut off of his 2015 platter Fresh Blood.
That’s right; I used the word “platter”. I suppose this is because of the distinctly old-school feel to White’s music, and his approach to making it. Forming Spacebomb records in 2011, the approach that sixties and early seventies soul labels took seems to have been a template. In part, this meant the formation of a house band to back incoming clients putting out their own records. Americana singer Natalie Prass was a recent recipient of White’s expertise with her record drawing comparisons with Dusty In Memphis. Yet, White’s first client was himself.
White’s musical interests are wide, playing in rock bands (The Great White Jenkins), and angular big band jazz ensembles (Fight The Big Bull) with aplomb. His success with his debut record under his own name Big Inner created yet another musical stream for him; silky soul music through an indie rock filter. This song in particular is full of orchestral grandeur that conjures the work of The Chi-lites, The Spinners, and The Delfonics. How did this music come out of a guy who kind of resembles Jesus’ bookish brother-in-law? Part of the reason may be that, like the gospel-blues singers of yesteryear, White and Jesus do have something of a history. Read more
Listen to this track by London-born, Sudanese-originated musical genre-defier now based in Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab who records under the name Sinkane. It’s “Mean Love”, the title track to 2014’s Mean Love, his fifth solo record.
Maybe it’s his continent-spanning international experience that allows him to seemingly know no bounds when it comes to creating pop music that can’t be easily filed. But in any case, Sinkane’s music has explored several stylistic paths from krautrock to funk, Afrobeat to free jazz. In addition, he’s lent his instrumental talents to a range of artists including Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. He served as musical director to a show celebrating the music of early Nigerian synth innovator William Onyeabor, himself something of a maverick when it came to unexpected instrumentation and disregard to musical barriers, while at the same time appealing to a distinct pop sensibility.
This particular tune, sung in a keening gender-neutral falsetto, incorporates soulful torch singing style in an R&B vein, coupled with a weeping pedal steel line that suggests the sounds of country music. There is something distinctly 21st century about this, even if the connection between these two poles has always been stronger than most immediately recognize. Maybe too, there are other connections that this song reveals which are of a more personal nature, specifically surrounding the concept of otherness, and of being a stranger in a strange land. Read more
Listen to this track by returning neo-soul new hope and R&B auteur D’Angelo, also crediting the band who appear on the record, The Vanguard. It’s “Really Love”, a single as taken from 2014’s Black Messiah. The record was certainly a long time coming, following up 2000’s critically-acclaimed Voodoo.
The song is a reflection of the rest of the album in that it is a densely layered work that seems to draw together multiple threads of musical tradition, from jazz to soul, funk and rock music. It’s marked by the influentces of Parliament Funkadelic, Prince, Riot-era Sly & the Family Stone, and What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye, all while avoiding crude imitation at the same time.
“Densely layered” seems to be the sonic manifesto that drove the making of the album, which may explain why it took so long to create. Apart from songwriter and singer D’Angelo, the record is replete with contributions from Questlove of The Roots, solo artist and former Tribe Called Quest founder Q-Tip, and legendary sessioners Pino Pallidino on bass and drummer James Gadson. Work on the album stretched from 2000 and into the end of last year. That’s a long gestation period that even Axl Rose would be proud of! Yet, even though the record took a long time to craft, it’s release date was rushed at the end for reasons of social significance, and not necessarily for capturing a commercial wave.