The biggest No-Shit Statement I've heard in R&B all year comes from Amerie, who at the end of one of several horn-blasted rave-ups on her new album yelps, "I do it cuz I love it!" She says this lest you think that she's making organic, throwback soul for her health or (even more laughably) for commercial success. The Rich Harrison brand of go-go-tinged, full-band R&B has come and gone in the pop sphere (its profitability peaked with Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" and Amerie's own "1thing"), and it's no coincidence that Amerie's Because I Love It has been delayed for almost a year (it's due July 17 according to Wikipedia). Even the U.K., where Amerie has found slightly more success (and with good reason: her tracks sometimes feel like the Brand New Heavies turned up and on fast forward), gets it before we do. All this is to say that Amerie had better be doing this because she loves it. Otherwise, she's doing a whole lot of exploding all over her tracks for nothing.
But really, there's no need for that no-shit statement, anyway. You can tell that she loves what she's doing not just via the noncommercial musical choices she makes, but in her voice itself. That instrument of hers is a bold color to complement the broad strokes of her music and lyrics. "I'm a lot to manage / I could do you damage!" "Oooh, I'm alive right now / Look at me!" "Please let me be your everything!" "I woke up in the morning! / It's another cloudy day, but! / That never mattered too much to me!" She gushes and gushes and gushes all over Because I Love It, her third and best album. You'll never feel her voice in your gut as you might when listening to your typical Whitney/Mariah/Christina uber-diva who sings like she's controlling a roller coaster with her pipes, but that's OK. At best, Amerie's voice evokes the career-hottie sexiness of Beyoncé and the 'round-the-way-girl strain of Mary J. Blige. If there's little nuance beyond her enthusiasm, it barely matters -- Amerie's best tracks require little more than chutzpah and she's more than capable of heaping on. In fact, her hipness factor (which I've detected almost solely via her fairly extensive coverage at Pitchfork) is sort of mind-boggling: if there's one thing she isn't, it's cool. Life's too short of Amerie to be collected, and so are her songs.
I've listened to Because I Love It a countless number of times in the past two weeks, and it's a remarkable record. I usually require more from my divas (see the roller coaster description above) and have never really bonded with either of the two Amerie albums that preceded it. I liked her first two singles, mid-tempo soundalikes "Why Don't We Fall in Love" and "Talking To Me" and I loved "1thing" because, after all, I do have ears. But for the first time I'm consistently enjoying Amerie's work and it's basically because she has an album's worth of tight blasts of songs. I think it's her more consistent work and, bizarrely enough, it features no production from the aforementioned Harrison, with whom she shared a symbiotically star-making professional relationship. Love It is somewhat unfortunately sequenced -- the horn-driven tracks are stacked at the front and then album then makes a passage into mid-tempo sexiness only to peter out with some too-slow schlock. The last track, the piano-based, sub-Diane Warren "All Roads," I wouldn't touch with Vanessa Carlton's thousand or so miles. (Note: Because of the boneheaded sequencing, the album is best experienced on shuffle.) Regardless, when it's good, it's fucking amazing, and it's really only in need of a two- or three-song snip to achieve perfection.
I love the horny tracks that Amerie's known for and that I keep referencing, but I love it even more when she ventures out of her apparent comfort zone. The shit-hot "Some Like It" is an '80s throwback that lands at the intersection of boogie and hip-hop -- light piano disco gives ways to scratches right out of "Roxanne's Revenge," as Amerie alternately sings and, in party-rap/radio-announcer style, toasts over top of it all. Even better is "Crush" which I'm completely infatuated with right now. It's yet another '80s throwback, but this time it looks to the very end of the decade for inspiration -- think beat-heavy numbers that are decidedly dance tracks despite their middling tempos. In a DJ set, it could sit right next to Linear's "Sending All My Love" or Seduction's "(You're My One and Only) True Love." I don't know what's more impressive about "Crush": its lyrical tenacity ("I wish I could steal you, boy / Lock you up and throw away the key / 'Cause you're the only one for me"), for after all, any crush worth having basically amounts to burgeoning obsession, or the period-authentic synthetic orchestra stabs that bless the chorus. They're like the sonic equivalent of crispy bangs in '80s revivalism: very few are hardcore enough to go there. I love Amerie for loving her music enough to do so.
So yeah, LOVE LOVE LOVE Amerie, but "Crush" has really kicked off this obsession with the aforementioned Seduction track, which I don't think I ever appreciated as much until I do right now. Have you seen the video lately? Ever? You should:
Seduction was, of course, one of many vaguely whorey packs of women that made (sometimes vaguely) freestyle tracks during the late '80s and early '90s. As a Jersey boy, the archetype that these women represent is a huge part of my heritage. They are my local apple pie, my musical Tastycake.
Since it's almost summer and summertime means freestyle time (take me to the water!), I'm taking this opportunity to salute my heritage. After the jump, as an extended post script to my "Crush" love, is a rough guide to freestyle-girl groups. Don't expect to learn much, though -- they're pretty interchangeable.
Seduction specifically drove me crazy as a child because I could never really distinguish them from Sweet Sensation. For one thing, it's a lot of "S"es to deal with. These are the things that you thought about if you were an '80s child in Jersey. And gay.
Anyway, in my very brief research of all of these groups -- Seduction, Sweet Sensation, Exposé and the Cover Girls -- I noticed a common thread: revolving line-ups. Every one of these groups underwent major shake-ups during the height of their popularity, with the exception of Seduction (it wasn't until a 2005 "reunion" that original member April Harris would find two other girls to carry on the legacy). In the case of Exposé, Svengali Lewis A. Martineé assembled an entirely new group after the original line-up released its first two singles and then parted ways. These girls were rotated all in the name of branding and these goddamn groups are still virtually indistinguishable! Ooh, better hold onto the name since people really find it useful! Is that irony, or is it just extremely telling?
Anyway, just for the sake of keeping your head straight, here are the vitals on the four groups:
Homebase: New York
Notable singles: "(You're My One and Only) True Love," "Could This Be Love," a cover of Taana Garnder's Paradise Garage staple "Heartbeat"
Highest-charting U.S. pop hit: "Two To Make It Right" (No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100)
Best track (my opinion): "(You're My One and Only) True Love" - Most would probably say "Two To Make It Right" goes in this slot, but that's crap. "Two" caused me much distress as a child -- because of its shared chorus with Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two," ("It takes two to make the thing go right / It takes two to make it outta sight"), I spent hours pondering who ripped off whom (we didn't have Discogs back then). Now "Two To Make It Right" distresses me for an entirely different reason. Like, no shit, it takes two to make the thing go right. That goes without saying unless you're railing against masturbation and/or group sex, which I think this song might be doing. And in that case, I say, take your anti-masturbation track and shove it up or ass. Or, I'm sorry: have someone else shove it up your ass.
I love the slinky vibe of "True Love" most. Also, the track is somewhat controversial. Clivillés & Cole (aka C+C Music Factory) masterminded Seduction and this track marked yet another time the duo ripped Martha Wash's cords right out of her throat by attributing her vocals to someone much hotter. Poor uncredited Martha -- she was really throat raped so much at the end of the '80s, it's amazing she could still sing. Some say that she sings on the album version of the track -- and really, it does sort of sound like a subdued Martha performance that's been pitched down slightly. Her vocals on the house remix of the track, however, are unmistakable. Here is that track. It comes from Joey Negro's recent and fucking incredible old-school vocal house mix Back in the Box. This track is brutal!
It's impossible to post one defining image of Sweet Sensation because when they came out in '86 (per the original clip for "Hooked on You"), they looked all kinds of dykey...
...but then in '89, they reemerged and looked...
...all kinds of dykey in spandex. And then, soon after, they lost a member...
...and looked all kinds of dykey in bold-colored spandex. Confusing!
Anyway, the original "Hooked On You" clip is really a sight to behold:
They coulda been hooked on a fishing line for all those dudes playing basketball cared.
Homebase: The Bronx
Notable singles: "Hooked on You," "Sincerely Yours," a really gross cover of the Supremes' "Love Child"
Highest-charting U.S. pop hit: The execrable ballad "If Wishes Came True" (No. 1)
Best track: "Hooked on You," for sure -- it came out when freestyle was young and still very evidently a direct offshoot of electro, and sounds tighter for it. "Hooked on You" was rereleased in '89 with a new video featuring the newly glam threesome. The whorey look that they adopted was much more fitting than their original look, actually: their music tended not to hit the frenetic pace of most freestyle tracks. Their hoe gear matched their sound's hoe stroll.
Notable singles: "Point of No Return," "Come Go With Me," "Let Me Be the One," "Tell Me Why," the spiritual sequel to "I Want You To Want Me": "I'll Never Get Over You Getting Over Me"
Highest-charting U.S. pop hit: The abominable ballad "Seasons Change" (No. 1)
Best track: The right answer is probably "Point of No Return," but that track is so synonymous with freestyle and I've heard it so much that it's about as exciting as the sound of running water to me at this point. I like "Let Me Be the One," because of its laid-back vibe and the surprising melodic shift of its pre-chorus bridge, but really, I have to ultimately go with the group's early single "Exposed To Love." That they made moaning, "Uh oh oh / Uh oh oh" into a hook is way too ingeniously stupid for me not to eat up.
Wonder what Exposé look like now? The answer is...
The Cover Girls
Homebase: New York
Notable singles: "Show Me," "My Heart Skips a Beat," "Spring Love," "Inside Outside," "Funk Boutique"
Highest-charting U.S. pop hit: The abhorrent ballad "We Can't Go Wrong" (I hope by now you've spotted the despicable pattern)
Best track: This is way too hard to call, as the Cover Girls are my clear favorite out of all of these groups for the sheer breadth of their output and their ability to evolve -- most of these groups were dying by '89, but the Cover Girls soldiered on through...well, through the early '90s. But whatever. Longevity is a relative concept, anyway. As much as I love "Show Me," I have to go with "Because of You" as my favorite early, mega-freestyle Cover Girls track. Here is Clivillés & Cole's gorgeous vinyl-only remix of the track. Again, it's the pre-chorus bridge ("Until you / You came along...") that slays me. (As if the C+C-Seduction connection weren't confusing enough, Exposé mastermind Lewis A. Martineé did the Cover Girls' "Show Me," further cementing all these bitches' interchangeability). Anyway, I have to give honorable mention to the group's cover of Rose Royce's "Wishing on a Star," specifically Masters at Work's hip-hoppy Jeep 12" version of it. Fucking gorgeous and one of my very favorite singles of the '90s. Remember when throwing an overused drum sample under a ballad was enough to make something sound fresh? Good times.
Oh, also, most of those Cover Girls YouTube videos linked to above were uploaded by group member Angel who calls herself "The Original CoverGirl." She provides really awesome commentary in the videos' descriptions. For example, it was via the "Show Me" video that she discovered she has (had?) nice legs, and thank god for "My Heart Skips a Beat," for otherwise, she may never have realized that she has a butt. Good thing. It'd be terrible to go through life thinking you were buttless.
Finally, here's a super mega bonus: the Hip House Vocal Mix of Seduction's "It Takes Two." Just when you think you've maxed out and cannot get cheesier than freestyle, along comes hip-house. Story of my life, literally.