The Scream Years


The Scream Tour was exactly as advertised. I learned this when I attended a “Scream IV” concert in 2005, and found myself amidst tens of thousands of teenage girls whom proceeded to scream for hours and hours. They screamed when Pretty Ricky, buff and shirtless, writhed on the floor in an impressive display of stage humping. They screamed when Bow Wow and Omarion, the evening’s two headliners, joined forces for the former’s hit song “Let Me Love You.” They screamed just to hear the sound of their hormonally charged voices.

“Scream IV” was the peak year of a concert series that music executive Michael Mauldin launched in 2001 as a platform for Bow Wow, then a preteen rapper taking urban America by storm. Over the next few years, it evolved into a rare platform for urban black youth to celebrate adolescence en masse without the specter of violence. Bow Wow was a mainstay, as was B2K and, after the group broke up, breakout star Omarion. Others on those tours included TomGirl4, which included future singer-songwriting star Sevyn Streeter; Jhené Aiko, then known as B2K protégé Jhene; and former Immature/IMX singer Marques Houston. Despite operating successfully for several years, the series drew fleeting media attention – as of this writing, Scream Tour doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and I struggled to research information on the different installments.

The Scream tours ended after “Screamfest ’07,” which featured headliners T.I. and Ciara, and a memorable New York concert where T.I. performed alongside 50 Cent, Kanye West and Diddy. In 2011, it was revived for two years as Scream Tour NXG (The Next Generation), and built around teen acts like Diggy Simmons, Mindless Behavior, and New Boyz (who got kicked off the 2011 tour for fighting). Organizers planned a “Scream Tour: The Reintroduction” comeback for this March with Kid Ink and Dej Loaf. However, the tour was mysteriously canceled last week.

There will undoubtedly be more attempts to revive the Scream franchise. For now, it stands as a memorable period in post-millennial mainstream R&B.

(Rhapsody – February 23, 2015)


Notes on Ne-Yo


For much of his career, Ne-Yo has presented himself as a 21st century gentleman, a handsome performer who dresses stylishly, sings incredibly and at times angelically, and dances with lithe grace. His 2006 debut In My Own Words superimposed his face against a notebook, a nod to his origins as a songwriter responsible for Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” among other hits. It was a sign to the audience that he was a man with real talent, and not just another cookie-cutter pinup from the black pop machine. Other songwriters during that era tried to emerge from behind the scenes — remember Sean “the Pen” Garrett and Johnta Austin? But Ne-Yo radiated star quality.

The “Mr. Perfect” image has also haunted him. There’s a funny moment on “She Said I’m Hood Tho” from his new album Non-Fiction when a woman (played by R&B singer Candice, one of his protégés) says, “I prefer your old shit to your new shit. That song with Pitbull was kinda cool, but after that you went left and I couldn’t fuck with you.” Ne-Yo wasn’t the only one who alienated his core urban audience while chasing pop crossovers like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” and Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go.” Unlike Rihanna, Usher and Chris Brown, however, Ne-Yo’s adventures in EDM seemed to generate confusion over who he is, and what he represents.

On Non-Fiction, he assures us that he’s an R&B singer, although he can’t help but take a few sonic detours, whether it’s progressive house for “Who’s Taking You Home” or hip-house, of all styles, for “Coming With You.” One mystery remains – he’s recorded several memorable singles full of warmth and honeyed charm, but not a critically hailed masterwork. Usher has his Confessions; Trey Songz has Ready. But the same ability to channel his pencil-and-pad skills into any kind of style, whether it be R&B, dance-pop, or country (see his “Only Human” and “She Is” duets with Tim McGraw) also keeps Ne-Yo from defining himself, if only for the space of a singular full-length work.

Still, Ne-Yo is a creative force to reckon with. The solidly constructed Non-Fiction proves that, as does its breakout hit, “She Knows,” which finds him recapturing the pulse of R&B with help from Juicy J. With time, perhaps he’ll unravel his perfect but enigmatic personality and channel it into a classic as exceptional as his musical talents.

(Rhapsody – January 26, 2015)

Photo by Alex Flint.

Spotlight On: Wale


It’s not a coincidence that Wale’s new album is inspired by his most critically-acclaimed project to date, 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing. With The Album About Nothing, he wants to regain some of that praise. “This is my fourth album. I want some respect,” he recently told

In some ways, Wale can only blame himself. After the failure of his messily assembled but intermittently inspiring 2009 debut Attention Deficit led to a break with Mark Ronson’s Allido imprint, Wale aligned himself with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and took on the louche trappings of mainstream rap. His tonal shift was marked by a cameo appearance on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands.” “I’m with Roscoe [Dash], I’m with Waka, I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped. “I’m a bad mu’fucka.”

Wale’s 2011 comeback album, Ambition, had much better production than Attention Deficit, and a pair of hits in “That Way” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” But it sounded anonymous, as if Ross and Co. had cooked up a batch of urban pop bangers for maximum commercial impact. Ambition remains his biggest seller to date, yet it had the effect of perplexing his audience. Now, we don’t know what to expect from him.

In most cases, that’s a good thing. Wale is an unusual vocalist, and he rhymes as if he’s skittering across the track, rushing to get all of the words out of his mouth, and adding odd time signatures to the beat. When he’s matched with a compelling topic, like “Diary’s” end of a love affair, or “LoveHate Thing’s” conflictions about being famous, he engages in ways unlike any other rapper. But his stylistic quirks sometimes leave him sounding disengaged, as if he’s trying to find the center of a song that often doesn’t warrant his effort.

2013’s The Gifted amplified the confusion. Does he consider himself a proud inheritor of D.C.’s vaunted go-go funk tradition, as displayed on “88”? Is he an introspective vocalist akin to J Cole? Or is he a shamelessly pop rapper who isn’t afraid to make dumb radio hits like “Clappers” and its “Da Butt”-inspired chorus. Perhaps that’s why his work tends to draw sharply divided reviews. In his zeal to encompass post-millennial hip-hop, he often splits us into gratified and enthusiastic supporters, nonplussed critics, and pure haters.

If early reviews are an indication, The Album About Nothing won’t change that dynamic. Jerry Seinfeld may appear as advertised, but it’s largely in the form of interludes. For example, Seinfeld notes how someone stops him mid-walk on the street and says, “You’ve got really white shoes”; Wale turns that into a dense commentary about the price of materialism. Contrary to the famed Seinfeld observational comedy “about nothing,” The Album About Nothing is packed with weighty societal issues. And some of the music Wale employs isn’t memorable. Much like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, and too many other superior lyricists, he’s not as adept at picking strong backgrounds as he is at laying out a subject.

Give Wale credit: He raps with audible passion on this one. “I can’t move with too many rap dudes,” he rhymes on “The Middle Finger.” “In the booth, truth the only tool I trust.” He proves he’s not an opportunist, and that he cares about his art. While it may be years before the rap world decides what Wale’s legacy will be, he’s not going to wait around for us to figure him out.

(Rhapsody – April 1, 2015)

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The Boogie-Funk Underground


It’s been six years since Dam-Funk’s two-disc epic Toeachizown elevated boogie-funk from obscure dance music cult to a widely enjoyed pastime for 80s babies and other aging hipsters that miss the soundtrack of their childhood. As is often the case with nostalgia-driven fancies, the boogie-funk revival has lasted longer than the first go-round.

But let’s take a step back: What is boogie-funk? It refers to strains of R&B and club music recorded in the early 80s. One touchstone is Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ work with The S.O.S. Band, noted for its enveloping bass and symphonic mid-tempo pace. Leon Sylvers’ bouncy, post-disco arrangements at Solar Records for acts like Shalamar also stand out, as does the “spaghetti disco” of Jacques Petrus. The style’s peak was somewhere between 1981 and 1984. By 1985 it had largely fallen off the charts in favor of synthesized funk, or “the Minneapolis Sound.” (There are other 80s cross-sections like synth-pop and smooth jazz that we won’t explore here.)

As for the term itself, boogie-funk is an Internet product, the result of our insistence on classifying every nook and cranny of popular music into a sprawling nomenclature. Back in the day, what we now call boogie-funk was simply referred to as disco, disco-funk, boogie, or club music.

Still, the years since Dam-Funk’s official debut – as he demonstrated on his 2010 compilation Adolescent Funk, he worked on tracks that never saw wide release for years – has inspired a thriving underground of boutique labels and musicians. Imprints like Voltaire Records, Omega Supreme Records and others issue vinyl LPs and, yes, cassette tapes in small quantities, and work with acts with names like Turquoise Summers and Midnight Runners. Many like K-Maxx and XL Middleton have lengthy careers that date back to the early 00s, and merely blossomed after boogie-funk became a thing.

2015 has brought fresh excursions. Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One, the latter known in some parts of the Northwest for his AR mixtape series, formed Tuxedo. More surprisingly, Jack Splash, best known for producing R&B singers like Estelle and Alicia Keys, has joined forces with vocalist Bobby Caldwell, whose 1978 hit “What You Won’t Do For Love” and 1980 single “Open Your Eyes” are quiet storm standards. Together, they’re known as Cool Uncle.

Dam-Funk remains the standard bearer. Released in September, his Invite the Light has guests like Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, former P-Funk keyboardist Junie Morrison, and Shalamar’s Jody Watley. He promotes funk as a spiritual calling, and a way to counteract the increasing mechanization of modern life. As the boogie-funk universe continues to grow, it seems like he’s not the only one who believes so.

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Notes on RJD2


The music of Ramble John Krohn, better known as RJD2, can be distilled into two peaks. The first, Deadringer, appeared in the fall of 2002, just as RDJ2’s first group, MHz, was winding down after years spent in the 90s rap underground. It was hailed for its cinematic themes – one popular track, “The Horror,” evokes the spooky synth work of 70s horror maestros like John Carpenter – and layers of cop funk and Southern soul. By infusing it with throwback kitsch and employing guest rappers like Jakki da Motormouth (from MHz) and Blueprint, both from RJ’s hometown of Columbus, OH, he crafted a sound that was less introspective, and more boisterous and fun, than the DJ Shadow model of instrumental hip-hop that was so dominant during the era.

Deadringer prefaced more solo albums. He relied less and less on sampling, instead playing instruments and recruiting session musicians to create his distinctive tracks. He experimented with singing, most notably on 2005’s The Third Hand. And he made a series of collaborations with rappers, including Blueprint (as the group Soul Position), and Aceyalone.

It was the latter’s Magnificent City, that led to RJ’s second peak. The 2006 album closed with “A Beautiful Mine,” its title obviously inspired by the Ron Howard movie A Beautiful Mind, as Aceyalone spins images of man’s evolution and self-actualization, “one so enlightened, one so divine, the planets are aligned, all point in time.” Magnificent City wasn’t a mainstream success; then as now, “backpacker” rap didn’t have much currency in the pop marketplace. But someone other than Acey and RJ’s usual fans must’ve noticed. By the summer of 2007, the instrumental for “A Beautiful Mine” became the theme for the 60s period piece Mad Men. RJ’s track was a fusion of Martin Denny-like strings exotica and crisp, rolling breakbeats, a fusion of old and new that was well suited for the TV show’s look at past American mores through a post-millennial perspective.

Thanks to the ongoing success of Mad Men, RJ launched RJ’s Electrical Connections, through which he now releases all of his work. The small-scale operation satiates his loyal fans: his concerts can pack nightclubs and small theaters, and he’s a stalwart on the jam band festival circuit. However, it has also led critics, even those sympathetic to indie rap, to overlook projects that range from the slight but lovely The Abandoned Lullaby collaboration with singer Aaron Livingston (also known as Son Little); to his most recent solo album, 2013’s More Is Than Isn’t. And this week, RJ dropped an album with Atlanta-to-Philadelphia rapper STS, RJD2 x STS, a memorable excursion into Southern mores and deep funk that extends RJ’s reputation as an idiosyncratic and restlessly creative artist. It shouldn’t go unnoticed.

(Rhapsody – May 4, 2015)