The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fourteenth. I’ve still got The Roots on the brain, and this time Betty Wright is along for the ride. I’m trying to think through what makes a good R&B song and ended up talking about The-Dream’s album 1977, too.
Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots
I feel like R&B, or soul, or whatever you call it, is one of those genres that’s timeless when perfectly executed. Nas’s Illmatic is insanely good, but it’s also distinctly 1994. You need Reagan in order to get an Illmatic. But good R&B? Aretha, Redding, Mayfield, and them? It sounds like every day. I really like R&B, though I don’t listen to near enough of it. I’m still sort of weirded out by cursing in R&B, honestly. Those cats from the ’60s and ’70s at least had ill metaphors, you know? Maybe I’m stupid and just never listened to it, but I didn’t know that “Me & Mrs Jones” was about sleeping with somebody else’s wife until my uncle told me. I was in my twenties.
Anyway, someone on Twitter, I think Duncan, mentioned that Terius Nash, bka The-Dream, had released a free album, 1977. Nash is a pretty good songwriter (“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” were inescapable for a very good reason), though I dunno how successful his solo efforts have been. He’s got good chemistry with Fabolous (“Shawty Is A 10″ is just aight, but I really get down with “Throw It In the Bag”). Fab has worked with basically R&B singer ever, and is the rapper most likely to make a full length album with a singer, Best of Both Worlds-style. I always put The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, and a few of these other singing dudes in the same box. Maybe that’s unfair, I dunno.
1977 isn’t a bad album. It’s got Big Sean on there, which is basically an instant L (and real talk America, we need to bully him until his regular behind quits rapping and goes away), but The-Dream knows how to spin a song. The beat selection is a bit on the okay side of things. It sounds like a modern R&B album, for good or for ill. Actually, that’s probably for ill. There’s nothing here to distinguish this album from everything else that’s out there. The-Dream isn’t as good a singer as some of his contemporaries (I’d rate Chris Brown above him), he’s not as stylish (Ne-Yo at least has that Harlem Renaissance/wears a fedora and vest thing going on), and he’s not as much of a try-hard as Trey Songz.
The surprise, and I guess why I didn’t really take to the album like I was expecting, is that so much of it is concerned with simping. It seems like every other song is about how a lady done him wrong and now he’s an alcoholic. “You used to be so sweet, but now you act bitter/ And just so I don’t hear that shit, I drown my liver in this liquor” off “Used To Be” almost made me turn the album off. The other songs are about how jiggy he is, how much champagne he can drink, and how many women he’s run through. None of that’s new–that’s basically the state of black music in 2011 I guess–but it makes the album feel sorta weird.
It’s like he’s trying too hard. Maybe it’s because his voice isn’t in the same register as the dudes I like the most (Mayfield, Redding, Withers, Hayes, etc), but I’m not really buying it. He’s higher and lighter, but not like distinctively high, like Prince. He’s in this weird mid-range where he sounds as generic as possible. The best word for 1977 is “soft.” He’s going to sing about how a chick drove him to snort coke and somehow that’s an okay thing to sing about with a swagger like you’re a player.
Which brings me, in a weirdly roundabout way, to Betty Wright’s new album, Betty Wright: The Movie. Wright is from my grandmother’s generation, and I’m not over-familiar with her. If you’d said her name before a couple weeks ago, I would’ve had where I know her from on the tip of my tongue. I heard that The Roots co-produced her new record, though, and The Roots have rarely done me wrong, so I bought it without even hearing a sample track. Why not, right?
1977 is soft. Betty Wright: The Movie is hard. She deals with similar subject matter, from heartbreak to having a good time to a remarkably chaste song about doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, but there’s a… a presence? Is that the best word for it? There’s a strength and depth to her voice that makes her songs sound and feel a lot better than Nash’s. She doesn’t simp like he does. She draws strength from her wounds, fictional or otherwise, and pours that out on the track.
The album opens with what’s basically a statement of intent in “Old Songs.” There’s a two-and-a-half-bar rap in there (“I must admit, your beats got phatter/ but add subject matter on subjects that matter… ’cause it matters, yeah it matters”), but for the most part, it’s about how old songs were stronger than current fare. It’s nostalgic, but she up-ends that nostalgia by shouting out modern artists who do “the strong songs.” It’s not the age that matters, it’s the content. She lists a lot of modern folks, The-Dream and Ne-Yo included, but exhorts them to listen to and learn from the old cats, too.
The rest of the album follows on from “Old Songs.” This is… the best phrase for it is grown folks music. It’s the kind of R&B that your parents or grandfolks wouldn’t mind listening to. It’s very wholesome, and several songs are about growing up, basically. The chorus to “Real Woman” goes “get yourself a real woman so you can be a real man,” and is flipped at the end to “be a real woman, then you can get a real man.” It’s kind of like love advice handed out by your grandmother, and that’s a little strange, but it works. She’s been around, right? Experience counts for a lot.
I think my favorite bit on the album might come on “In the Middle of the Game (Don’t Change the Play),” where she exhorts the audience to keep trying at love. It’s a bunch of suggestions for men and women to keep their relationship going, but it’s delivered with a grin and a sense of humor. “Make sure there’s gas in the car/ give her money to go to the spa/ and she’ll never forget who you are/ in fact, you’ll be a su-per-star/ When his friends are watching sports in the den/ get in the kitchen, hook him up something/ and even if you can’t cook nothin’/ have a little takeout brought in! (owww!)” There’s something sweet about this. It’s just about being into someone and doing things for them, and them doing the same for you.
Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne show up for a couple of guest spots. They’re shockingly clean, which is sort of weird in a way, but they both deliver pretty good verses. Weezy’s the standout here, though I feel like his metaphor gets muddled partway through (“You gotta pay the price, just keep the receipt,” really though?). Regardless, “Grapes on a Vine” is strong song, and sort of a rock meets soul number about sticking by your people and enduring. (Wright hits the highest note ever at the end of Wayne’s verse, too.)
My other favorite moment is probably all of “Tonight Again,” which Wright opens with a warning to put the kids to bed. It’s a love song, or rather, a making love song. The song begins, “Light up a candle, we got business to handle” and then it’s off to the races. And I mean, let’s be real here: most of the music I listen to is explicit. Beyond explicit, probably. Danny Brown’s “I Will” is basically off-puttingly earnest and honest about oral sex. In contrast, Wright’s restrained romance on “Tonight Again” is fantastic. There aren’t a lot of limits on what you can say in a love song these days, but Wright sticks to the old school style of doing these songs. It’s all hints and promises delivered with a wink. You know exact what she’s talking about, but she doesn’t have to be as blunt as R Kelly or The-Dream or whoever. The hint is enough. It’s sexy on its own. It’s on that grown & sexy level. “A little knowledge that you can’t get from college/ Lessons that you learned from me, not from the university.”
Grown folks music, right? This is R&B for the thirty-plus set, people who might wanna settle down. Fireplace and house shoes music. Mortgage music.
It’s not all love songs. “Go!,” the second bonus track, is about bouncing up out of abusive relationships and getting your life back on track. It’s not really what I expected to hear on an R&B album, and it’s nine minutes and forty seconds are time well spent. It’s sad and mournful and pragmatic. I think it was this track that really unlocked the album for me. 1977 is full of simpery. A lady dumps him and he uses it as an excuse to feel bad for himself in-between songs about how cool he is. Betty Wright: The Movie takes that bad feeling and uses it as motivation. Your husband beats you? You leave. It’s heartbreaking and sad, but abuse isn’t a secret worth keeping, so you leave. The difference in approach, and granted the subject matter in this specific instance are apples and oranges, is tremendous. “Such a big big man/ Why you gotta beat up on me?/ Just lets me know you ain’t the man you sposed to be.”
That way of processing emotion runs through to the rest of her songs, too. If you love somebody? Then keep trying. If you don’t love someone? Leave. If you never seem to meet a real woman, make sure that you’re a real man. If you feel bad about a friend, reach out a hand. It feels motherly, in a way, like an R&B album that’s about nurturing and doing better, not just being in love.
I think that’s what makes good R&B. It’s not about being sad or being in love. It’s about the process, or the feeling, behind it. That has to shine through. Sort of a, “Anyone can say he loves you, but it takes a man to really mean it” sort of thing. Wright sings like she means it. “You and Me, Leroy” is the last official track on the album and it’s deadly. It turns “stand by your man” subject matter into “We’re in this together, and as long as that’s true, we’re gonna be okay.” It goes.
It helps that The Roots are her backing band on this album. Some songs feel more live than others, complete with count-ins and mid-song direction, but it all sounds very full. “Look Around (Be A Man)” has a little Zapp flavor, “Hollywould” has a bit of that ’80s throb (like Drive), and I swear “So Long, So Wrong” feels like The Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC.” Betty Wright: The Movie is a soulful and funky record.
Betty Wright: The Movie actually puts me in mind of their John Legend collabo Wake Up! (there’s a really nice iTunes-only live version, too). Those were cover songs from the ’60s and ’70s, which actually provides some interesting connective tissue between the two albums. If Wake Up! was proving that specific things from the past are still relevant to the present, then Betty Wright: The Movie proves that past methods still work, too. I would’ve vastly preferred Black Thought drop a couple verses on the album than Snoop or Weezy, but that’s whatever. (Wright also vamps a lot less than John Legend does.)
Wright and The Roots are a good combo, sonically and thematically. The Roots have been together for a couple decades now, and they’re in a place where they can afford to do rap songs that aren’t just traditional rap songs. They still have songs where they can show off or whatever, but their more recent albums have been attempts to… I don’t want to say transcend, because that’s condescending, but “get past it” is as close as I can get. Black Thought’s 40, which practically makes him an elder statesman in rap. They’re going for meatier concepts and subject matter. They’re aiming for timelessness.
(You know has that timeless feel, too? Anthony Hamilton. Dude might well be my favorite R&B sanger. More on that later, maybe.)