Posts Tagged ‘Dancing With The Stars’

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Toni Braxton – Pulse. (album review)

May 7, 2010

The first album from Toni Braxton in 5 years comes following an abbreviated residency at Las Vegas, yet more record label disputes, health scares, a neat run on Dancing With The Stars and a separation from long-term partner Keri Lewis.  So one would assume that she has a lot of life material to draw on, material that might be evident in the singer’s new album.  Well, yes and no: Toni Braxton has stuck to her strengths, which are soulful R&B ballads expertly sung.  The lyrical content of these tracks betrays barely a whisker of what the singer has been through in the past 5 years, and to look at the singer she stands stately, sophisticated and stunningly beautiful for a woman of 40 years old.  Indeed, she still has that same sexy body she had 15 years ago, although now it is dressed with a more chic, age-appropriate veneer that effortlessly walks that tightrope between sexy and classy.  Nevertheless, Braxton’s creamy, rich alto has a slight bit more depth to it now; to paraphrase from her interview in Metro this week, she has the ability to channel her experiences (be they joyful or sad) into the texture of her voice, and this is what makes Braxton one of the most enduring and valuable singers to emerge in the last 20 years: you feel her when she sings.  On Pulse this is evident throughout, particularly when her voice is reduced to a low, husky whisper such as at the beginning of “Woman”, a cover of Delta Goodrem’s track from 2007’s Delta that improves on the original because Toni Braxton’s voice brings more depth to the lyrics (although Delta Goodrem’s own version was solid in itself, perhaps making this achievement all the more impressive), and the production ranges from subtle to soaring while never overtaking Braxton’s performance.

After more leaks than Ciara’s Fantasy Ride, it would be unacceptable for Pulse to be anything less than solid, considering the 25+ tracks we’ve heard from Toni Braxton’s recording sessions for the project.  For the most part, Braxton has chosen the strongest songs for the project, although bonus tracks “Rewind” and “Stay” add little value to the album and could have been replaced with successful “Ice Box” soundalike “Clockwork” and particularly “It’s You”.  These are just little personal gripes however, and don’t affect the fact that Braxton sings each of the 11 tracks on her album with impeccable aplomb; her voice cannot be faltered, whether she’s emitting attitude on the sassy “Make My Heart” (which again improves upon Blaque’s / Mis-Teeq’s “Can’t Get It Back”, being based on the same sample) or evoking vulnerability on standout closing track “Why Won’t You Love Me”.  It is surprising that this is the only track on Pulse that gives Toni a significant songwriting credit (“Yesterday” does credit her, but only along with 4 other contributors) considering her credits on The Heat and More Than A Woman; those two albums, while not perfect, were both cohesive and consistent – they felt like albums, not just a collection of songs.

And this is where my only main gripe with Pulse comes in.  Indeed, the album contains some beautiful songs – my personal favourites are first single “Yesterday” (although it sounds like Beyoncé’s “Halo”, it is strong and sincere enough to stand on its own two feet – unlike the version with Trey Songz, which suffers from a change in production that is at once overdone and bland), the aforementioned “Make My Heart” and “Why Won’t You Love Me”, “Wardrobe” with its clever man-as-outfit metaphor that somehow avoids sounding cheesy or forced.  “Lookin’ At Me” is a welcome uptempo that bumps convincingly and brings the sass out of Toni, and perhaps in the closing stretch of the album which is ballad-heavy, another uptempo of this nature might have livened things up.  Finally, “Hands Tied” is an utterly beautiful song in lyrics, production and vocals, and has an outstanding video to match – Toni Braxton dances in front of a troupe of attractive men, stands in an eye-catching black dress in front of an ornately carved table that I would quite like in my house, and locks eyes with the camera, singing and dancing and yet conveying the determination for love inherent in the song’s lyrics.

As I said before, there are no weak tracks, and perhaps my opinion is swayed by the sheer amount of material I’ve heard from the project – unlike classic albums Secrets, The Heat and More Than A Woman, the album feels merely like a collection of lovely songs than like an album.  Previous album Libra suffered from this same problem, although Pulse has more of an identity, hewing close to soulful ballads and eschewing popular production tricks; unlike a couple of Libra‘s tracks, this album won’t sound dated, to its credit. But something intangible makes some albums more than the sum of their parts, and Pulse just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.  In comparison with Monica’s recent Still Standing (check my review here!), both albums are a welcome embodiment of “real” R&B, both are classy efforts that dispense with unnecessary featured artists and emphasise the singers’ strengths.  Neither album possesses any repellent tracks, and all the material is beautifully sung.  But if I had to choose between them, Monica’s would win out because something about it feels more sincere, more cohesive; something connects with the listener more.  I feel bad that I can’t quite put my finger on what that “something” is, but it means that while Pulse is certainly solid and worth purchasing, as a whole it isn’t  exceptional.  Nevertheless, some of its songs are exceptional, and it is wonderful to hear a singer relying on her vocal ability and strong songwriting rather than gimmicks or collaborations with flavour-of-the-month artists.

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notorious. (a review of sorts)

September 8, 2009

Yes, I am very late but I only picked up the DVD to Notorious yesterday, because Tesco finally had it on sale and I had been interested to watch but never managed to catch it during its run at the cinema, and wasn’t about to pay £14-20 just to get the DVD straight when it came out.  So I bade my time and finally I watched it tonight.  I’m not going to give a very in-depth review, because we all know the story – Biggie gets into drugs, gets put in jail, comes out of jail, comes close to being put in jail again but his friend takes the rap (hah!) so that Christopher Wallace can fulfil his budding rap talent and become Notorious B.I.G. All goes well as Biggie takes Lil’ Kim along with him for the ride, then meets Faith Evans and wifes her up, all while keeping his first baby mama on the backburner the whole time.  A friendship with Tupac Shakur turns sour, misunderstandings occur and both rappers end up dead, 2pac 25, Biggie 24.  That’s the plot in a nutshell.

I’m not even going to attempt to address the 2pac vs. Biggie controversy.  I have both of B.I.G.’s albums on my iPod (I prefer Ready To Die, but only because I’m much more familiar with the songs – I need to study Life After Death more tbh), whereas I only have one of 2pac’s (All Eyez On Me), which again I have only listened to a couple of times.  Both were influential and towering talents, but I’m not about to compare one to another because I’m nowhere near informed enough to have a valid opinion, and I would need to research more of their material.  Again, I have no conspiracy theory about who shot either of them, nor what role Suge Knight may or may not have played in the whole business – I’m no detective, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to say something on the subject that hasn’t already been said.  The only perspective I have on 2pac and on Biggie is retrospective, because in 1997 I was only 11 years old and barely musically awakening (I received Mariah Carey’s Butterfly for my 12th birthday later that year, which is possibly when I really opened my eyes, ears and heart musically) so I didn’t really have any acquaintance with rap music past what I would hear on the radio and see on MTV and The Box.

I was pleasantly surprised with the film: as I said, I already knew the plot and yet I still found it an interesting watch.  The only character I found unbelievable was Sean “Puffy” Combs, because the guy playing him neither looked nor sounded like Puff Daddy, in my opinion.  I only caught passing glimpses of a resemblance between the two in terms of mannerisms and vocal tics, whereas most of the others nailed it at least a fair amount of the time.  Jamal Woolard did a great, great job playing Christopher Wallace himself; Naturi Naughton was a fiery if inaccurate Lil’ Kim (but more about that in a moment), but Naturi herself did a fine job and displayed a fearlessness in her acting; Angela Bassett was supreme as usual; Antonique Smith was an astonishing Faith Evans, looking the spitting image of her and displaying a similar blend of sophistication and grit.  Not knowing much about Voletta Wallace herself, other than that she played a large part in the creation, vision and focus of the whole film, I found it hard to believe that she was as naive about her son’s imperfections as she appeared to be (confusing crack with mashed potatoes?  Come on now… how long you been living in Brooklyn?). But then again the film was not as rose-tinted as I had heard it was: Biggie displayed extraordinary passion and talent, but he was also a serial womaniser and acted childishly at some points and plain idiotic at others.  So that was somewhat refreshing.

Faith Evans was portrayed as an almost angelic beauty who still kicked one of Biggie’s jump-off’s down when she found out that he’d cheated on her not long after their marriage (again, she really should have known better than to believe he would be faithful to her).  In contrast, Lil’ Kim was similarly painted as naively believing that her and B.I.G. would last forever (his marriage to Faith was quite a sore point in the film as in real life), but her part in Biggie’s life was massively downplayed; she appeared for a fraction of a second in the funeral montage whilst the photo of her weeping with Mary J. Blige outside the funeral service is one of the defining images of that era. Her talent, her look and her persona was portrayed as completely fabricated by Biggie in a post-coital brainstorm, and according to the film, Lil’ Kim was essentially nothing but a slut who fucked for tracks. Her enduring success and establishment as the premiere female MC surely contradicts this portrayal.  To quote the review from Pajiba (who put it much better than me, and in more entertaining language):

“The person who takes it up the ass the hardest is Lil Kim. Lil Kim’s always bukakked with the reputation of being the nastiest bitch, the stripper who’s empowered by her sexuality because she can use her snappin’ pussy to get all the diamonds and the rings and the bling and have any dick she chooses. (Under ten inches — ENNNT — sorry.) In Notorious, she bangs Biggie and asks if he’s got a girlfriend later. Then, her entire rap persona is supposedly imagineered by Biggie, who says men don’t want to hear about gangsta chicks but rather want girls who’ll fuck them with the lyrics. He turns her into a whore, his whore, who turns petty and jealous when he marries the sainted Faith, and basically spends the rest of the movie like a jealous psycho starting fights and trouble. Of course, when Biggie died, Lil’ Kim went into an almost two year depression. Faith Evans and Puffy remixed a Police song and essentially lived off the fatted calf of Biggie’s corpse for the same period. So you do the math. Or don’t. Both Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans have memoir/tell-alls due out sometime in the coming year.”

Being a Lil’ Kim fan, I have appreciated her at her highest peaks as well as in her tackier moments, throughout her up and down surgeries and provocative outfits, and even lamenting her stint on Dancing With The Stars whilst being glad that it was helping to rehabilitate her career.  I wrote a blog about her daring performance of “Time After Time / Lighters Up” with Cyndi Lauper recently. At the heart of it, she is a talented rapper with consistent flow, entertaining lyrics and song concepts, and buckets of sexuality, raw passion and hard-earned grit.  I’d be interested to see her movie and compare and contrast the two portrayals of Lil’ Kim… I guess we’ll have to wait and see if such a project ever materialises.

In short, I enjoyed Notorious more than I expected to.  I didn’t find anything out that I didn’t already know, and I am not educated enough in the music nor in the history of Biggie’s life to have any valuable opinion or counter-opinion.  But there was striking characterisation, solid acting and a couple of sticking points that held my interest and attention throughout.  And it’s got me listening to Ready To Die on my iPod once again.  I guess at the end of the day, even though we’ll never know everything about what happened to Biggie, if such a film gets us to re-appreciate and re-evaluate his music and legacy, and despite his moral and intellectual shortcomings, if we can admire his passion and talent, then that is definitely something valuable.

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veterans.

July 21, 2009

I opened up Crunk + Disorderly yesterday morning and was confronted by this post about Cyndi Lauper & Lil’ Kim’s recent performance at the Nelson Mandela concert.  Kim looked fantastic (better and better, certainly an improvement on recent years, with her weight back down and her face not looking so exaggeratedly plastic), and I was intrigued to watch the performance.

I was blown away.

Okay, Cyndi Lauper sounded like a goat at the start, and I’m not used to hearing the classic “Time After Time” over a hip-hop-lite beat.  But then Kim opened her mouth and sang, and my jaw dropped to the floor. Kim is a fantastic rapper, and the undisputed best female we have (especially since Foxy, Eve and Lauryn have all but vacated their seats) in the current game.  I remember ordering her Notorious KIM album from amazon, and bringing it to school on the day it arrived and causing a storm because I was listening to explicit material (I was 14! but it was a private school, so who knows 😉 ).  I did feel a thrill in playing it to my friends and listening to a woman spit explicitly sexual rhymes over exciting space-pop-hop beats, and ultimately I’ve become a fan of hers who possesses all her albums.  Her records are never anything less than lyrically complex and sonically thrilling.  But between albums, Kim doesn’t seem to be so consistent with her promotion nor her other ventures, so this video of her singing “Time After Time” was a beautiful surprise.  As was the fact that, although she sounded a little shaky (although she’s gotten flack for ‘singing’ on her rap records, she generally keeps in tune and the songs are always fun and playful), her voice was beautiful and hit the notes more or less consistently through the performance.

When it segued into “Lighters Up”, and Kim and Cyndi both traded rhymes, I was impressed at both of them for fusing their styles into something heartfelt and potentially classic: it was an unforgettable moment.  I hope you enjoy the video, because after her run on Dancing With The Stars was unfairly cut short, Kim seems much more dedicated to proving just competent and talented an entertainer is, and showing us more facets of who she is other than through rapping.  It was something a little different, but taking risks does pay off, and Lil’ Kim proved she is a veteran of the rap game who can do things other rappers just don’t do (Lauryn did, but not anymore… I guess Missy and Queen Latifah are also exceptions, but then they’re also veterans too, in their own ways).  I hope you enjoy the performance as much as I did.

This goes to show that the truly talented can never be counted out: Madonna, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, among many others always have a fanbase to come home to, as long as they keep displaying their talented and the reason why they are legends.  Whitney Houston’s new album I Look To You will drop in August, and I have a feeling it might be her turn now… although the leaked tracks from the record don’t sound amazing, the set looks like it will sound classy and restrained and come from an emotionally mature place following her troubles of the past few years.  At the end of the day, if you still have it, then you have nothing to be afraid of because nobody can take your talent away; you have to surrender it.  And in the long run, it’s the veterans who never give up.