Notes On: Nina Simone

nina-simone

Nina Simone is having a cultural moment. Songs like “Feeling Good” and “I Put a Spell on You” are used in numerous TV shows and commercials. A memorable Felix Da Housecat remix of “Sinnerman” continues to get play in nightclubs around the world. One of the most popular songs from Kanye West’s Yeezus, “Blood on the Leaves,” liberally samples from her haunting rendition of the anti-slavery classic “Strange Fruit.” The indie band Xiu Xiu recently issued Nina, a collection of songs she wrote and/or made famous. Last year, Meshell Ndegeocello did the same with Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to nina simone. Finally, there is the controversial biopic on Simone’s final years in France, Nina, scheduled for release next year.

So the woman once lauded as the High Priestess of Soul seems remarkably present. But her activism, and the way she challenged audiences with her fearsome intellect, seems distant from our current societal mores for cheery pop capitalism. It is true that Xiu Xiu and Ndegeocello, both out-and-proud performers, have paid homage to a woman whose sexuality is the subject of fierce academic and fan debate. But lost on the contemporary listener is the way she incorporated motifs from classical and jazz compositions into her work. A mid-20th century listener that was raised on piano lessons and the great American songbook would have immediately picked up on these allusions. A post-millennial listener mostly educated through pop radio would not.

Simone, who passed away over ten years ago, left behind an intimidating catalog. Some were live performances, others were recorded in the studio, and many are a mixture of both. Her 1958 debut, Little Girl Blue, yielded the only top 40 hit of her career in “I Loves You Porgy,” which caught fire after the fortuitous release of the 1959 hit movie Porgy & Bess. But she didn’t earn her title as a vital cult act a la the great Gil Scott-Heron. Her albums sold well, and she landed a few hits on the R&B charts, too, including 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

Where to dive in? Her voice, so deep and sonorous, yet sharp and expressive like a lovingly plucked cello bass, is a wonder everyone should hear.

Spotlight On: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Detroit-born grande dame of American popular music, is as much Elvis Presley-sized legend as flesh-and-blood human being. She sang at the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, and at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. She made her first album, a live recording in front of an entranced audience, in 1956 at the age of 14. Bonnie Raitt once said, “I learned way more about being a woman from listening to her sing ‘Respect’ than I did from any man.” To generations of people around the world, she is a goddess, the living embodiment of a “natural woman.”

Simply known as Aretha, the daughter of the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, she has produced a discography that stretches across five decades, from 1956’s Precious Lord, which the Rev. Franklin released himself and has been reissued several times since; to 2011’s A Woman Falling Out Of Love, which Aretha issued through her own label, Aretha’s Records, and distributed exclusively through Wal-Mart. Most fans tend to stick to her classic hit singles, from “Think” and “Something He Can Feel” to “Jump To It” and “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” Out of the three dozen or so albums she made, only a few receive serious critical attention: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, the 1967 album that made her a superstar; 1968’s Lady Soul; and Amazing Grace, one of the biggest-selling gospel albums of all time.

However, it’s worth digging beneath the Aretha myth for a closer listen. Born in 1942, she was in thrall to her father, a civil-rights pioneer whose style of preaching influenced the Rev. King, and hosted a nationally syndicated radio show. (Her late sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were accomplished singers in their own right, and would later write songs and sing backing vocals for Aretha.) By the time Aretha was in her teens, she was accustomed to performing for the Rev. Franklin’s gospel friends at his house, including Mahalia Jackson (who changed Aretha’s diapers as a baby), Sam Cooke and Clara Ward. When Cooke became a pop star in the late 1950s, he often took Aretha on his tours. On Precious Lord, it’s stunning to hear the young Aretha exhibit the same gifts she would unveil to the world a decade later, from her accomplished use of melisma, and an ability to extend and rearrange vocal melodies, to the brilliant way she accompanies her vocal flights of fancy on piano.

John Hammond, the famed talent scout and producer whose discoveries range from Billie Holliday to, later, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, signed her to Columbia Records in 1960. (Interestingly, Berry Gordy tried to recruit her for Motown Records, but her family ruled against signing with the then-small, fledgling label.) Her eight Columbia albums are widely derided for their emphasis on pop chestnuts like “Over the Rainbow” (Aretha) and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” (The Electrifying Aretha Franklin), but she never abandoned her love of the great American songbook, even after she evolved from a jazz-pop singer in the mold of Dinah Washington to a deep soul pioneer. The worst that can be said about these early albums is that they lack spark, whether it’s the producers with whom she worked, or her inability to create an emotional connection in her performances, or the material itself. It doesn’t help that many of them are marred by gooey string arrangements typical of sophisticated 60s cabaret pop. Aretha, which she recorded with pianist Ray Bryant and several jazz musicians, may be the best of the lot, since Hammond arranges spare accompaniment that puts a spotlight on her voice.

When Aretha’s contract with Columbia expired, she signed with Atlantic Records. Producer and label co-founder Jerry Wexler, inspired by his success distributing Memphis-based Stax Records, decided to record a “Southern” album with Aretha at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios, the site of so many Stax classics by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and many others. But only the title track of I Never Loved A Man was recorded at Fame Studios. An altercation involving Aretha’s volatile former husband-manager, Ted White, led to Wexler moving the sessions to New York City. However, Wexler and the group of musicians whom would soon be known as the Muscle Shoals sound created a template that Aretha would follow for the next five years, eight studio albums, and three live albums. Her reputation largely rests on these performances made between 1967 and 1972, when she remarkably synthesized blues, gospel and jazz into a blueprint for soul music that resonates today. Listening to each album individually, it’s amazing how many of the songs began as signature tunes for others: Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and, of course, Otis Redding’s “Respect.” They’re a testament to her musical genius, and the way she stamps her imprint on them through sheer personality.

Still, Aretha is unabashedly a pop creature, and her post-1972 output has led her down numerous detours, from noble but failed experiments like 1973’s Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky); to successful contemporary R&B forays like her two albums with Luther Vandross, 1982’s Jump To It and 1983’s Get It Right, and 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose. She may be living history, but she has rarely felt burdened by it. Each new release is an opportunity to “bop,” as she once put it, and try on something new. It makes for an intimidating and haphazardly brilliant catalog of music that rewards deep listening.

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Notes on Max B

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Charly “Max B” Wingate didn’t become a mainstream rap superstar when he emerged from Jim Jones’ Byrd Gang in 2005. But the Harlem rapper’s subsequent avalanche of mixtapes and viral videos made him an underground icon. He’s the creator of “wavy,” a term that not only describes his idiosyncratic style, but has become part of hip-hop slang. His music isn’t easy to digest. He often warbles tunelessly and out of key to accentuate his punchy street raps. But to his legion of fans, songs like “Paperwork,” “Picture Me Rollin’,” and “Goon Musik (We Run N.Y.),” the latter which fancifully uses a sample from Sting’s “Englishman in New York” communicate raw, guttural feelings that can’t be quantified by technique. His longtime producer Dame Grease has compared his work to the blues.

Since ghostwriting Jones’ top ten hit “We Fly High,” Max B has had a peripatetic career. In and out of prison since his teens, he was charged in a robbery-and-murder conspiracy just as Jones’ “We Fly High” was scaling the pop charts. Out on bail during a three-year period – a waiting game he describes on the track “I Never Wanna Go Back” — he broke with Jones, built a movement, and found a talented acolyte in French Montana before he was convicted and sent to prison in 2009. While he continues to appeal his 75-year sentence, French Montana has kept his name alive. You can hear Max B’s voice on “Once in a While,” the opening track from French Montana’s major-label debut “Excuse My French.”

(Rhapsody – February 18, 2014)

Notes on Ne-Yo

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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

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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 Billboard.com.

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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