Allow me to catch up on some girl pop I've been neglecting...
I've always thought that perfecting the art of annoying was Gwen Stefani's life's work. Now that she's revealed her inner theater dork with "Wind It Up" (making certain that "Rich Girl" was no fluke), I'm sure of it. And I kind of love her for it. I'm kind of scared for the future (what's next in this trajectory -- a Pharell beat made of mouths smacking creamy food and/or gum-popping? Gwen making those noises herself, live and in my ear?), but for now I'm content to watch her act like an exaggerated fool on an exaggerated stage in the track's bonkers video.
I wonder if it's over-confidence or straight stupidity that would lead her to releasing a dance track whose main feature is a sample of The Sound of Music's "The Lonely Goatherd." Does she think that at this point, she's so warmly regarded that she can get away with a yodeling show tune, or is she just oblivious to how ultimately uncommercial that creative decision is? The combination of her moany seriousness on the track and over-the-top mugging in the video offers little guidance. Similarly, aside from the "Goatherd," the only semblance of a hook this track has is Gwen's gym-teacher call to "Windituhhhhhh!" In other words, she is the hook. Is this hubris or a natural progression in recent pop's fascination with minimalism, right down to barely discernible melodies (and again, I ask what's next: blinking over a beat?). "Hollaback Girl," "Wind It Up"'s spiritual guide, had a chant anyone could sing along to; "Wind" has a shriek that no one would want to sing along to.
But really, I admire the audacity, that however cognizant Gwen is of how she's coming off, she's at least committed to her track. Besides, her dubious intention at least gets me thinking -- she's camp that I can't decide to laugh at or with. I don't know if she repulses me to such a degree that I find the effect ultimately fascinating, or if I find her so fascinating that I repulse myself. In the end, it's just dumb fun and not even she would dare to claim otherwise: in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, Gwen says that "Wind It Up" "isn't about anything." Whoa -- dumb pop that doesn't aspire to be anything but dumb pop? That's the spirit!
"Everybody askin' why Mary ain't mad no more," goes the first line of the first verse of Mary J. Blige's latest single, "We Ride (I See the Future)" (listen here). Everybody who? It seems to me that those who care most about Mary's lack of drama during these current Kendu years are Mary and her massive ego. Because really, if a question's bugging you then you stop answering it. You don't entertain it repeatedly, as Mary has been for the past five years (most glaringly in "Good Woman Down" from last year's The Breakthrough in what sounded more like a plea than consolation: "I'm still with you, my sisters. My troubled sisters. I still have troubles, too!"). Besides qualifying Mary's lack of drama again, "We Ride" has little purpose beyond shifting units (Brian Michael Cox just redoes what he did for the megahit "Be Without You") and even less to say. You know you're in no plan's land when the song's key refrain is "It is what it is." Then why sing about it? Why not just let it be ("it" being her bond with Kendu, which we've already heard about...a lot)?
"Ride" is the lead single from Mary's career retrospective Reflections, and like it or not (and I sure don't), it sets the mood perfectly. Here, Mary's message is less, "Take me as I am," and more, "Take me as you wish I still were."
You can soak in Mary's past woes, or just listen to Shareefa, who has drama on top of drama in the here and now. Mary's done enough cryin', whereas you get the feeling Shareefa would do some more if only she could. But in her latest single, "Cry No More," she suggests that it's physically impossible. What's more is that she tells her object of annoyance, "I seen things deeper than you," including "people shot in front of me." Ain't that some shit? I hope it's true, too, since a major theme on Shareefa's debut, Point of No Return, and the mixtape that preceded it, Got Reefa?, is realness. For example, the drops a fake friend in "Phony" and delivers one of Return's most inspired lines in the process: "Shoulda known your ass was kinda foul." Even the set's addictive first single, "I Need a Boss," (thanks to Rodney Jerkins' ability to become one with the South) is as much about what she isn't looking for ("I be buggin' 'cause all these fake thugs is tryin' to press up"), as what she is.
Shareefa is a vocalist in the tradition of Mary, which is to say that her considerable lack of technical skill is supposed to be balanced by her emotion. The post-epiphany Grinch probably doesn't have a heart big enough to compensate for Shareefa's rangeless honk of a voice, but hey, she's trying. It's easy to admire her moxie and to be charmed by her willingness to tell it like it is (on "No One Said," which is directly inspired by the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Everyday Struggle," Shareefa mentions her morning sickness and late period even though, you know, no one asked). As Reefa's image seems to be based on her lack of polish, you have to wonder if Return is necessarily her peak. Anything after this would have to be met by a more refined Reefa who's learned a thing or two from her time in the spotlight...unless she's just crazy and/or a train wreck to which I say: bring it on. Really though, I hope this isn't her peak -- she deserves better than this enjoyable but uneven set. I similarly wonder if she and her people are spreading it thick (and insincerely?) with the hoodrat angle (not that that's any worse of an angle than your typical pop star -- less commercial perhaps, but certainly just as eye-catching). But then, I think of that cranky voice, that asymmetrical hair that I love so much, that name (I mean, it's just Shareefa). If this is a put-on, it's a very elaborate, perhaps self-defeating one. Either way: props.
So, uh, Whitney appears on a new track by Ray J that recently leaked. The fuck? In my messageboard research, I read that it was recorded last year. It should have stayed in 2005. Whitney's merely a yes-diva to Ray's caterwauls. And not a very good yes-diva, at that. She sounds hoarse and petite. Like a Chihuahua. Which is to say: nippy.
The throwback of the week is Yo-Yo's "You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo," one of my very favorite hip-hop singles of the '90s. Yo-Yo was problematic (she spoke of women's independence, yet she rarely left the shadow of her male mentor Ice Cube; she advocated brain use, yet packed a real small gat in her purse; she called out black women for having fake hair and colored contacts, yet, she had fake hair and colored contacts), but I think that this song is ultimately empowering. She was (is? I have no idea what her politics in '06 are) a self-described "womanist," which is basically just a feminist with a fear of semantics. If that doesn't seem very progressive,
consider the fact that, 15 years later, there's been no commercial rap song that's as uniformly pro-woman [see the comments section - Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." was a bigger, less confused hit for sure -- that makes two, I guess] (besides maybe some empowerment-via-sex tracks, which are valid, but not quite the same thing). Plus, Sir Jinx's production is amazing, this rumbling and soulful beast. I wish rap still sounded like this.
This one goes out to my man the Game.
And on that note: ha!