Friday, November 16, 2007

"As I Am" and Nu-Soul's Flawed Dream

It was the year 1995 that artists like D'Angelo kick started the Nu-Soul movement. A brand of Soul that heralded back to the great Soul album era of the late sixties, early seventies. The Nu-Soul movement found its muse in the classic albums of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Philly Soul. An era in Soul that was as sophisticated as it was adventurous. It was the tail end of Soul's Golden age, where Soul went super nova with albums like "What's Going On", "Super Fly" and "Songs in the Key of Life". D'Angelo underlined that influence by including Smokey Robinson's "Cruising" on his first album. D'Angelo became a superstar almost over night. His success opened up doors for similar artists like Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Jill Scott and Musique Soul Child. The movement came totally out of left field for most of the music critics and record executives.

In the early nineties it seemed that FM radio formats and Disco had succeeded in bleeding Soul to death. Soul legends like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack were without record deals struggling to hold their heads up. What worsened matters was the way the Anti-Disco movement had not been able to discriminate. Ever since Disco Demolition Night at the Comiskey Park in Chicago, July 1979, Rock fans had trouble making the distinction between Disco and the real deal. Soul was burned with Disco and for a while Marvin Gaye was as uncool as Bony M. Disco After Demolition Night had turned into a riot, Disco crumbled under its own success. Disco Sucks T-Shirts were a number one fashion item in the R&R crowd. And pretty soon the movement dragged all that was good about black music down with it. Causing a lot of people to see the back lash as yet another case of clear and simple bigotry. With the White Rock audience being unable to distinguish Disco from Soul, there might be some merit to that argument. Rock audiences have had a aura of musical arrogance over it from the sixties on, sometimes acting like the taste police or rather mafia, especially when it came to Black music in the late seventies.

To worsen matters for the Soul music industry, the eighties were the era where Doctor Kings dreams came to fruition. Despite the obvious difficulty that the African American community has even today, the eighties marked the rise of the Black man settling in the middle class. A sizable segment of the African American population found its way into main stream society. With that upward social movement the appetite for lean and mean nitty gritty Soul stifled. Gone was the need for James Brown aggressive Funk and black power messages, gone was the need for records signifying protest such as "Dancing in the Streets". Cocktail Soul was born with artists like Alexander O'Neal and Whitney Houston dominating the charts. Pop schmaltz hardly worthy of being labeled as Soulful. The Eighties found Soul music covering safe grounds while it was professionalized ruthlessly. Gone were raucous house bands that made Soul great. Booker T & the MGs, the Funk Brothers and the JB's were replaced by sterile professional studio musicians.

Of course underground there was something simmering to a boil. The early eighties saw a momentarily revival of the independent record scene with the dawn of Hip Hop. Labels like Sugar Hill produced Hip Hop classics like Grand Master Flash's "The Message" and "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. Hip Hop soon took the industry by a storm. It filled the need of the Black underclass that was left behind in the ghetto's of the inner cites. Hip Hop proved to be rawer than Soul ever was. Gone was the age where Black musicians signified, gone was the time where Black musicians limited themselves to blatant protest. Hip Hop depicted the bleak realities of the ghetto streets. The genre scared the shit out of both the Black and White establishment and continues to do so today. Acts like Public Enemy or Gang Starr refused to water down their message and hit the establishment in the face. It confronted a Black middle class with the brothers and sisters left behind and took away the false sense of security of the White middle class. Hip Hop reminded everybody that the ghetto was a social powder keg, waiting to explode. The rise of Gansta Rap from the late eighties fueled that sense of uneasy. Hip Hop became a movement with an edge that Soul and Rock had lost.

For Soul, Hip Hop offered a chance to be revived. The Nu-Soul movement fused the conscious political Soul of two decades back with the rough and raucous beats of Hip Hop. Ghetto girl Mary G. Blige was one of the first but D'Angelo's more sophisticated sounds blew it wide open. D'Angelo's intelligent approach drew the Rock crowd back in who started to realize what they were missing out on. At the same time D'Angelo was something the first generation of college kids coming from the eighties Black middle class could relate to. Nu-Soul appealed that upper layer in Black culture. Drawing from Soul's most heralded artists from the early seventies while adding a Jazzy feel gave Nu-Soul a very acceptable intellectual coating. The reception of D'Angelo's debut "Brown Sugar" was very telling. D'Angelo and his peers were rocketed into the sky by music critics world wide, they were heralded as the saviors of Soul. Needless to say this was too much of a weight to carry for Nu-Soul movement. The follow up albums of the movements pioneers all disappointed those same critics. Nu-Soul artists were expected to walk like a man while barely out of kindergarten. The hype got to many artists in the field, imagining themselves the next Stevie Wonder or Curtis. Forgetting that those classic artists had almost a decade in before their talents reach their peak. The classic Soul artist had been allowed to develop slowly, the Nu-Soul artists had to be genius overnight.

Alicia Keys hit the scene at the tail end of the movement at 19 years old with the instant, flawed, classic "Songs in A Minor". "As I Am" is her most recent album. What strikes you after a few spins is how well Alica has maintained to be, despite the enormous pressure that she bound to have suffered. When Keys first hit the charts with "Fallin'" she yet another in line to be heralded as the new Queen of Soul. She had to be Aretha's successor in a heart beat. It didn't matter if "Songs in A Minor" lived up to that hype, at 19 Keys had to deliver where the pioneers of Nu-Soul had failed. In that context it is admirable, to say the least, that Alicia stayed on course, allowing her talent to slowly develop. She didn't live up to the initial hype, but wasn't crushed by it either. Her records never got the pretentious air D'Angelo's "Voodoo" held or Erykah Badu's "Mama's Gun". Alicia stayed true to her talent, doing what she was good at without over stretching her capabilities.

"As I Am" is Keys' third studio album. It has all the charms we've grown accustomed to. But that doesn't mean all is good from the perspective of a Soul fan. The album suffers from most the ailments most recent records suffer from. "As I Am" is plastered with bombastic beats and layers of vocals, suffocating the songs. To make matters worse, some of the beats Keys uses have gone out of style with Michael Jackson, they sound like retro of the worst kind. It seems that the producers of today seem to confuse loud with Funky. Keys' clinical professionalism is helping "As I Am" either. Part of Soul's and R&R charms have always been those musically challenged bands trying to play on the top of their abilities. The raw talent that was so characteristic of the great sixties house band was part of the charm of Soul. When Booker T locked into a groove you could literally see the sweat oozing out of the speaker. Their greasy brand of Funk was in part caused by their strain to keep that train rolling down the track. Alicia Keys and the musicians hired for the studio walk through the songs effortlessly, hardly breaking a sweat. No sweat no Funk. Keys' classical music training chips away at her Soulfulness. Her music sound methodological, almost like an intellectual exercise combining one proved method with the other.

To Keys' defense, her sound is the sound of the day. Today's R&B artists is where the safe and clean sounds of the eighties have merged with Hip Hop's rough edges in an industry that reached the zenith of professionalism long ago. To get signed to a label these days one has to be an all round artist from the get go. In todays scene there's hardly any room for artists bungling their way through delightfully flawed music presented on wax for all to see. Ironically that is exactly what's wrong with Soul today, the raw edge that the R&R scene has been able to maintain by operating from the Garage. But then again, R&R always had a band culture. Soul never did. Soul was always a producers culture, combining artists with house or studio bands. So the promise we ascribe to artists as Alicia Keys is a promise they can never deliver.

Keys' should be judged on her Pop merits. As such Keys is a talent to be reckoned with. Alicia's song writing has been continuously strong. Songs as "Super Woman" carry a theme where may teenage or young college girl can relate to. It's bubble gum girrrrrl power with a Soulful edge. Despite my early criticism "Lesson Learned" comes awful close to Soul's ability to strike straight to the core of heartache. Key's remains a remarkable pianist with a very pleasant husky quality to her youthful voice, preventing her music from getting to slick. Her new single "No One" betrays a growing maturity with some Stevie Wonder like Moog licks buried in the mix. Keys' doesn't disappointed on "As I Am", our own expectations of Nu-Soul do that for us.

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