Posts Tagged ‘Puff Daddy’

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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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90s baby.

August 27, 2009

Okay, I confess, I was born in the 1980s.  But apart from a few songs, the majority of what I grew up with was 90s music.  As you know, Mariah Carey is a massive influence on me, and my mother bought her very first single, “Vision Of Love”, on vinyl back in 1990.  Right through “Dreamlover”, “Without You” and “Fantasy” to the  Butterfly and Rainbow albums which closed the 90s, she was an epic atom bomb dropped on my life.  But if you know me, or you’ve read certain previous entries, you already know that and I’m not going to delve into it further here.

As a preteen and young teenager bearing the combined musical influence of my mother and my school friends, I would listen to songs by the Honeyz, En Vogue, Shola Ama, Backstreet Boys, No Doubt, Solid Harmonie, Peter Andre, Blur *shudder*, Aqua *cringe*, Aaliyah, Monica, Brandy and Usher, to name but a very select few.  The magazines I read (Smash Hits, TVHits, Top Of The Pops) were aimed squarely at teenagers who were of a sunny pop disposition, and although I was much more aware of the charts then than I am now, I still felt a little bit like there had to be something more.  Beyond straightforward manufactured pop (however good a product it may be), I started to lean towards more urban music.  I discovered garage (2-step) music, R&B, rap and hip hop.  Ms. Dynamite, Shola Ama (and the remixes), Honeyz and Kele Le Roc represented British R&B to me, while the American singers such as Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Brandy, Usher, Monica, TLC and Jennifer Lopez were an emblem of something smoother, sexier and edgier.  Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope opened my eyes to how well an album could be constructed, seguing effortlessly between different moods, concepts and tempos.  Missy Elliott’s Da Real World smacked me upside the head with a combination of weird bassy dark production and super-explicit lyrics that I wasn’t familiar with.  Jennifer Lopez’s video for “If You Had My Love” left me with the undeniable impression that a star was born, from her ridiculous beautiful looks to her insanely polished and expressive dancing.  Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” ended up on my cd player before it dawned on me just how much of a classic that song was going to be.  TLC’s Fanmail sounded like the future.  Aaliyah’s One In A Million album sounded like effortless sexuality, and sounded like nothing and nobody else.

All the aforementioned artists, albums and songs still hold that exact same resonance for me.  Perhaps it’s just the fact that I was growing up and those singers played an integral part in my adolescence, but music just isn’t the same anymore.  Show me a singer as effortlessly sexy and sophisticated as Aaliyah.  Show me a group as fiercely cool as TLC.  Find me a singer with a voice, body and songwriting skills like Mariah’s.  A rapper as off the wall as Busta Rhymes, as influential as 2pac or Notorious BIG.  I mean no disrespect to all the musicians and artists in the game today, because they have a hard job living up to these stars, who to me represent the golden age of urban music.  Ciara, Beyoncé, The-Dream, Electrik Red, Robin Thicke, Pitbull, Lil’ Wayne, Black Eyed Peas all hold down the front line.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m older, but despite their best efforts, I can’t help reminiscing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because I’ve found music in the last 3-4 years to be somewhat dry, I’ve discovered music from that golden age that passed me by the first time round.  Unbelievably, until 2 years ago, I had never listened to a Jodeci song.  Obviously I’d heard of them and their songs must have played very occasionally on the radio or tv, but I’d never really listened. Now I know where Dru Hill got their ideas from!  R. Kelly and his protégée Sparkle crafted some classic 90s R&B.  SWV and Total were some bad-ass girl groups!  Listening to the Notorious BIG’s albums and Puff Daddy’s older output allows me to see where Diddy, Lil’ Kim and Bad Boy Entertainment stand today and plot the journey and progress in between.  The joy of this has been that it is an entirely personal quest, because nobody else, in my past or present, is into the exact same music as me.  I’ve managed to convert some of my friends to some urban music, but I don’t really know anyone in person who’s into in the same depth.  The people who seem to understand most where I come from musically are on the internet, in forums and on urban music blogs.  Quite often, different posts educate me.

And that’s why I get so frustrated at the state of music today.  For one, every song seems to be a recycle of something else.  Beyoncé’s “Halo” = Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” = Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” = Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”.  Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” = Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” = Eva Simons’ “Silly Boy” = Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” + “Umbrella” = a large part of The-Dream’s subsequent output = Electrik Red.  LeToya’s “Not Anymore” = Ciara’s “Never Ever” = Monica’s “Still Standing” = Nicole Scherzinger’s “Happily Never After” = Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” = Rihanna & Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You” = Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” = Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” = Ne-Yo’s “Mad”.  So damn formulaic.  And as Jay-Z has finally noticed, auto-tune is everywhere.

Another thing: why does music being released right now sound like it is 20 years old?  Aaliyah’s self-titled album sounds like an edgy, modern masterclass nearly 10 years on.  TLC’s Fanmail sounds more futuristic than Keri Hilson’s In A Perfect World…despite the former being released in 1999 and the latter released in 2009.  Whitney Houston’s latest “greatest” “comeback” album I Look To You is an utter mess, because instead of a graceful attempt to keep up with the times as on My Love Is Your Love (a burnished masterpiece) and even Just Whitney (which has held up surprisingly well), she decides to go time-travelling.  The ballads fare well, with “Call You Tonight” a classy modern song, while “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “I Look To You” are classic ballads which are strong, even without the power of Whitney’s old voice.  “Salute” is the best song on the album for me, because it is pure timeless R&B.  But the uptempos…. oh no.  “Million Dollar Bill” revisits old-school R&B and falls asleep, “Nothin’ But Love” presses the 90s synth button repeatedly, “Like I Never Left” should be titled “Like I Never Left The 80s”.  The major disaster is “A Song For You”, which was performed sublimely by Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera a couple of years ago.  Here, the first half of the song is typically piano led, but Whitney seems to jump through the hoops a little bit.  No matter, it’s not a problem compared to what happens at 1:30.  Hex Hector and Peter Rauhofer must have cried a river when they heard this tepid 90s-dance mess. I listened to this and had to skip to the next track, because Whitney was done a pure disservice with this song.  Words fail me…

Whitney Houston is not the only victim of this dated-modern fad… even on Trey Songz’ fantastic third album Ready, the melodically lovely “Love Lost” boasts a musical backing that sounds like it was created in 1987.  And Monica’s latest leaked song “Betcha She Don’t Love You” sounds like Missy Elliott vomited up an old record and told Monica to sing over it.  (Aaliyah would never have stood for it, I’m sure.) I have no problem with being inspired by the past and appreciating heritage and history.  You can honour the classics in a tasteful way. But when it seems that it’s so difficult for artists to be forward thinking that they recycle old songs and pass them off as ‘new’ or ‘retro-cool’ when in reality they are just lazy, that really pisses me off and makes me rifle through my older CDs, listening to music that is forward thinking, doesn’t sound at all dated, but is timeless.  There’s a big difference between the two that a lot of today’s music industry (both A&R honchos and artists alike) would do very well to learn.

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the end of an era.

July 1, 2009

Obviously, with the recent death of Michael Jackson, a lot of people have been using the phrase “I feel like a part of my childhood has died”.  As a fan not of Michael (the only album of his that I bought was Dangerous, and I still play it but don’t feel any pull to purchase any of the others) but of his sister Janet, I didn’t echo the sentiment in that particular case (although obviously his death did sadden me), but the following news does make me reminisce.

VIBE magazine is shutting down next month.  For those who don’t know, this is a magazine from the US that covers R&B, hip hop and occasionally other genres of music.  There are also urban fashion spreads, and the odd political essay covering both American politics and the treatment of racism and sexuality in both the US and countries such as Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica (to name but a few).  In short, the magazine is aimed at “black culture”.  I bought my first issue when I was 13 and have been following it ever since (that’s 10 years! which has just struck me, as I think about it.  A decade is a long time!), buying more often than not, though occasionally leaving it on the stand if the cover story didn’t attract me and there weren’t any articles inside to pull my wallet out my pocket.  Here is a picture of that first cover:

TLC VIBE Cover 1999

TLC VIBE Cover 1999

I remember having just purchased TLC’s album “FanMail” (one of my ultimate favourites to this day!!!) and it had rocked my world.  Looking back, I always had liked R&B music but I was only becoming conscious of it, and therefore purchasing Vibe magazine allowed me to begin exploring the genre and fed my mind.  As I expanded my tastes and learned of new artists (some of whom I listen to on the regular now), I also appreciated the long interviews which were actually informative, as well as the more mature articles. And some of the clothes were ridiculous!  At 13, reading a magazine where profanity was used not purposely to shock, but just because that was how people spoke was an eye-opener to me (hence shocking me all the same, haha!) but also refreshingly honest and mature.  In short, it opened my eyes and became part of my childhood, my adolescence.  Of course, carrying around such a magazine at that age raised the eyebrows of some of my peers at school, who had never heard of most of the artists and had no interest (this was the time when indie was in, and most teenagers in the UK were more into the Offspring and Travis than TLC, Puff Daddy, Mariah Carey and Aaliyah) beyond Eminem, who had just come out and caused quite a stir!  (doesn’t that take you back!?)

I did get comments such as “Alan, you’re not black, why are you reading that?” “Who are they? Never heard of them…” “Is that a porn magazine?” (ok, that was one person who got excited by the bikinis but there was occasional nudity, though it was tasteful and could never be termed pornographic, not in a million years) To people who didn’t understand why I listened to the music that I did because I was “white”, I have two responses: a) I’m half Italian, so technically that makes me mixed race anyway (though to look at me I am very “white”-looking so I don’t usually tend to argue! I can understand the mistake and usually accept it). b) Though music is certainly geared towards certain demographics, there are no laws saying what I can and can’t listen to, what genres I can and can’t buy.  It’s a free country, at least in that respect.  Open your minds!

So this magazine did form a large part of my growing up, expanding my musical tastes well beyond Bristol radio and UK music channels (which have a pretty narrow selection IMO, excluding MTV Base), and opening my eyes to both decent journalism and fashion!  Without VIBE, I would be a different person, without a shadow of a doubt.  Music is so fundamental to me, and VIBE certainly fed my need to grow and to expand and to learn about music that I was becoming interested in.  And I am sad it’s closing, despite the fact that I can’t deny it has recently lost its allure.  The articles were more glossy and less probing, the magazine had become half the size it used to be, comprising both less adverts and less articles.  The editorial staff seemed to change every few months, and the variety of features that used to be present in the magazine when I first bought it had been rejigged and slimmed down so much … In a way I am not surprised at VIBE’s closure, because it’s become a diet version of the magazine it used to be (I don’t believe I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses on that one), but I am saddened nonetheless.  Here is a picture of the final cover courtesy of Toya’s World:

Christina Milian & The-Dream VIBE cover

Christina Milian & The-Dream VIBE cover

It’s eye-catching, but hardly iconic in the way that Toni Braxton and Foxy Brown’s nude poses, TLC’s cover dressed as firefighters, Jennifer Lopez’s see-through dress and Tupac’s strait-jacket cover were.  Nudity by this point is passé, and though Christina Milian is undeniably a hottie, for a last issue this cover comes across as a slightly bizarre choice.  Nevertheless VIBE will be missed, despite recent racist accusations by peeps such as Robin Thicke who deserved one cover story at the very least, being one of the best new urban artists to come out in recent years despite not being black!  When he was refused the cover story, his light skin was largely assumed to be the reason why and that was a big shock to me as a non-black reader who thought that as a magazine that very much fought for racial equality, this was backwards.  But for the R&B / hip hop journalistic arena to be reduced solely to The Source, that makes me sad because I’m not a black thug (the audience The Source exclusively seems to aim for) and the features are more geared towards a revolving-door cast of rappers (both washed-up and too new to have earned their stripes) rather than respecting true talent and people who can truly sing as well as spit rhymes.  But maybe that’s just me growing older, and all I can hope is that 13 year olds picking up that magazine are as inspired and intrigued as I was 10 years ago buying my first issue of VIBE.