Posts Tagged ‘TLC’

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Beyoncé – 4 (album review)

June 11, 2011

So it’s been a really, really long time since I wrote an album review. I was going to do one for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, but then didn’t. (The album is really good and well put-together, btw.) I was going to do one for Nadia Oh’s Colours (which is a ridiculously fun, exhilarating listen perfect for the summer) and I still might. But this album tops them all. I am a Beyoncé fan, but even I didn’t expect her to come out with this. Perhaps it’s fitting because of the stage in my life where I’m at – but she’s in love, I’m in love, she wants to talk about love on a deeper and more soulful level and I can be more receptive of that now and really get to grips with the music, the vocals and the lyrics.

Sonically, the album is very cohesive (a mature, soulful and slower-paced set) – “Run The World (Girls)” aside. Part of me feels like it is tacked on the end, another part of me feels like the song is an exhilarating climax to a mainly slow-burning set. It’s a killer single which heavily samples Major Lazer’s “Pon Di Floor” and makes you want to dance, but in comparison to the rest of the material, it feels a bit… basic? It certainly feels more modern than everything else on the album, but that means it sounds less timeless… the fact that Beyoncé has already made several songs celebrating “Independent Women”, “Survivors” and “Single Ladies” makes it feel like “Girls” running the world is almost a downgrade? I love the song but it should stand alone, and I would have preferred the album to end with the ballad “I Was Here”, which is straightforward Ryan Tedder production and Diane Warren lyrics – Beyoncé’s performance saves the song with solemn vocals that add weight to the sentiment of leaving your mark on the world once you’re gone. In the hands of a lesser talent, the song would sound trite, but Beyoncé gives it life.

But there are much better tracks – namely, the rest of them. Opener “1+1” is stripped-back soul with a soaring guitar climax, and Beyoncé’s commands of “Make love to me” sound at once desperate and assertive in the best way. What’s striking is that Beyoncé has made an album that sounds like the work of a legend – she evokes Stevie Wonder (the joyous “Love On Top” with its audacious multiple key changes that have you wondering “how high is she going to go?!”), the Isley Brothers (“Rather Die Young”, with its sun-drenched soul that declares Beyoncé’s utter dependance on her lover), Prince (“1+1”), Michael Jackson (“End Of Time” with its commanding vocals over a bombastic bassline and brass section, and an irresistible melody) and Sade. But more about that later…

Beyoncé sounds like Beyoncé on but two songs: “Best Thing I Never Had” evokes her monster hit “Irreplaceable”, with the same theme of being better off without a foolish boyfriend. Symbolyc One employs a beautiful flowing piano melody in place of “Irreplaceable”‘s acoustic guitars, but Beyoncé is clearly a grown woman now. Her vocals sound almost too soulful, too nuanced for the music, and it takes a few listens for all of the pieces of the song to come together. In contrast, “Countdown” is an album highlight, which evokes the swagger of “Upgrade U” and repeats the theme of #winning with her lover by her side. The use of Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” in order to create the titular countdown is cleverly done, and Beyoncé rides the brassy, bouncy Caribbean-lite beat with effortless flair.

Other album highlights include “I Care”, which may have basic lyrics (the chorus: “I care / I know you don’t care too much / but I still care”) but are once again transformed with Beyonce’s masterful vocal, which plumbs despair and soul to make the song truly transcendent. You can feel her pain, you can feel her desperation, you can feel her frustration, and that is the talent of a true artist. When Beyoncé’s voice intertwines with a soaring guitar solo after the song’s bridge, the listener is shown just how powerful a singer she is – not just technically, but emotively too. “Party” is an early 90s R&B throwback that evokes early TLC in its chunky-yet-chilled production, and En Vogue in its multi-tracked harmonies. The best song of all is “I Miss You”, which is produced by upcoming talent Frank Ocean and evokes Sade’s best. The lyrics are simple yet evocative (and I personally relate to this as my boyfriend and I are currently working through a long-distance relationship – but if you read the blog, you already know about that, and this song is more about missing someone you’ve broken up with – I just prefer to appropriate the lyrics for my own emotions!), and Beyoncé’s vocal is restrained and yet so deep and real. When she sings “No matter who you love / it is so simple, I feel it / it’s everything”, a lump is brought to your throat and you can’t help but be transported to a place of loneliness, of longing and of love.

This is why 4 is Beyoncé’s best album, superceding B’day’s tiger-hungry anthems and I Am… Sasha Fierce’s finest moments. Beyoncé is an artist. She has made an album which she has so clearly poured her heart and soul into – listening to the vocals, there is something here that wasn’t there before. A soulfulness, a longing, a power that comes out through the gritty texture of her voice and the soaring riffs that transcend lyrics and production. There’s a majesty and a bravery in singing such raw songs about love, about death, and about life over productions that are mainly understated and subtle in a way that Beyoncé hasn’t really done before (“Disappear” from I Am… Sasha Fierce might have clued us in, however!). This album is made to be listened to from start to finish, and you’re missing out if you don’t give it a try.

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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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communication.

July 23, 2009

Certain situations lately have been making me think of the “Communicate” interlude from TLC’s Fanmail

“Communication is the key to life
Communication is the key to love
Communication is the key to us

There’s over a thousand ways
To communicate in our world today
And it’s a shame
That we don’t connect

So if you also feel the need
For us to come together
Will you communicate with me?”

We have so many avenues of communication open to us nowadays: face to face, email, telephone call, text message, blog, vlog, instant messengers, chatrooms and forums, twitter and social networking… It’s so easy to keep in touch with people (and now I can do it all on my beautiful Prada phone, more or less!) that it’s almost overwhelming choosing the method of communication.  Do you text, email, write a letter, call on the phone?  Different people suit / prefer different methods, and some are more anonymous while others are intimate and suggest more effort and attention.  A situation last night occurred where I sent a text message to B to see how he was, and he didn’t reply because his phone was on silent… meanwhile, he sends me a message on a different, completely unrelated site asking me how my day had been and everything! I was touched that he thought of me as much as I of him… but it was a bit frustrating that there are so many avenues of communication open to us that it is almost a problem to remember to be consistent!  You can hit me up on twitter, myspace, vox, last.fm, facebook, on my cell (well, if you have my number 😉 ), email, msn… how do people choose?  And is it not surprising that problems occur when we don’t check all of these different places for messages every day?
The other thing I quickly wanted to address tonight is why I am writing this blog.  In my introductory post I was in a bit of a crazy mood and I was being inspired by Bai Ling‘s insanity… but now I realise that that is something special that cannot be duplicated!  As fun as it sounded at the time, I don’t really think I am into aping Bai Ling (well, not often). And surprisingly, I have my own things to say! I’m touched that people are taking the time to read, be it my views on relationships, the internet, sexuality or just life, and the music reviews and videos and downloads I post for you all. 🙂  It’s thrilling that I can share myself so openly with you all, and I’m touched that you are all reading it and keeping up with me! I hope that you keep coming back because at the moment I still have plenty to write about (how’s that for tempting writer’s block! 😛 ) and I have lots of music-related stuff in store also. 😉 At the end of the day, this blog allows me to communicate in a more full way than twitter (my other current favourite avenue of inet-based communication), which is definitely great for on-the-go updates of where I am and what I’m doing… but this blog here allows me to expose my thoughts and communicate with you all on a deeper level.  Thankyou for listening, and please don’t hesitate to communicate with me, however you prefer.
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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.