Written by Katherine St. Asaph (@katstasaph)
15 years ago, Mya reliably topped both the R&B and Hot 100 charts, as visible as the next girl: the Grammys, Soul Train, big movie placements, the establishment down to the tweens. (Picture this: In 1999, Mya was on The Rugrats Movie soundtrack. Now that all Nickelodeon’s music comes pre-pureed by the Dan Schneider Triple Teen Threat Tomato Ketchup Facility, can you imagine that even halfway happening?) You’d think that’d be nostalgia now, but nostalgia is kinder to sounds than musicians. Mya’s released three major-label albums that are flawless time capsules of their genre, but while today’s pop-R&B starlets sound a lot more like Mya than they do Aaliyah or Cassie or whoever else the public admires after slapping an “almost” after their career, she’s been left behind. Why? Vague inklings of industry politics, maybe, or the public’s short/sponsored memories that turn into ersatz canonization (see: “turn-of-the-century R&B” interpreted as “Timbaland and Pharrell and their singers”), or the gutting of R&B radio crossover. The current vogue for breathy new music hasn’t filled that void so much as turn the process into some twisted hypothetical A&R reality show where artists audition their replacements, maybe getting in sixteen bars of a new single before being curtain-punted by the credits roll.
Nostalgia is cruel, to Mya in particular. Her material was generally good-to-excellent, down to the album tracks*; and her voice wasn’t big, but it was lithe, with little knowing phrasings on every song: slinking carefully through “Case of the Ex,” punctuating every sentence of “Movin’ On” not with easy kiss-off indignation but dazed sighs. But her career after Moodring looks like flail after flail: Iyaz collaborations and Cedric Gervais anonymizations and albums only released in Japan and barely even there. There is music, though, a surprisingly steady stream that’s easy to immerse yourself in if you know where to look; the songs started shaky (Sugar & Spice is probably the weakest of the lot), but each album since Mya left Universal has been better than the last. Who knows how much of this is grinning and how much is just bearing it, but in interviews Mya’s said her new setup gives her a lot more creative control—and more take-home pay.
But it also means you’ve got to seek out those news-cycle winds yourself, and With Love is doubly timely: released on the 16th anniversary of Sisqo collab “It’s All About Me,” which also happens to be Valentine’s Day, which also happened to birth all this week’s other mixtapes a slew of other R&B mixtapes. Fantastic luck for Mya, it turns out, as it’s got people actually listening to what’s her most accessible offering in years and her most versatile since Moodring. “Space” is the slow jam for the V-day date (and possibly for second and third dates), thick like narcotic smoke, strewn with rocket trails of cosmic SFX and refreshingly forthright in its demands for closeness: “Don’t give me space, take me to space / elevate me with all your love, suffocate me with just one touch.” It’s the rare extended metaphor that makes more sense the more you think about it, because all this stuff happens in space. (Seldom have oxygen loss or decompression sickness sounded so enticing.) “Do It” is a sneaky screwed-down cut, the showy-timely counterpart to “Like a Woman”’s fluttery acoustic demo. And “House Party” just melts, quiet piano glissandos and guitar licks hanging like balcony tinsel and everything so tastefully arranged you hardly notice how risqué the conceit is—think “Body Party” if it could soundtrack an actual party, at least one you’d be OK publicizing. Any one of these, from someone else, would make her one to watch; here, it’s more a reminder it’s time to catch up.
* (This is a thing I have actually thought about, for hours. You could assemble a fantastic LP of deep Mya album cuts. You could even get a solid album cycle out of it. Choreograph a big video for Mya–a dancer first—for Timbaland’s “Step,” which you have to imagine was the plan before Moodring’s singles stalled. Add #realtalk by Kandi [“How You Gonna Tell Me”] and maybe some by Missy [most of these are disqualified because they usually did become singles, but Mya still has the deceptively sly “Bye Bye”] and, as the slow jam, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’s “Anatomy 1 on 1.” Toss some cute flips to the critics: “Keep On Lovin’ Me,” which sets the ambivalent twitterpation of a new crush to the nagging Love Unlimited guitar sample off “It’s All About the Benjamins,” an idea that shouldn’t work but does; or the Rick James-interpolating disco wink “Sophisticated Lady,” a romp 10 years before its time. Attempt some pop moves if you’d like; the two I’d pick come courtesy of ebullient Robin Thicke on Left Eye-featuring “Taking Me Over” and “Now or Never” – or, if those aren’t poppy enough, “Again & Again,” dropped onto the re-release of Fear of Flying as if someone heard “Free” and decided it really reminded them of Max Martin stabs. Slot in “Ride & Shake” and “Anytime You Want Me” as potential fourth and fifth singles; then, at the album’s center like a fulcrum, place a track with a great big title: “If You Died I Wouldn’t Cry Cause You Never Loved Me Anyway.” I would recommend an artist’s new mixtape based solely on the fact that at one point they released a song called “If You Died I Wouldn’t Cry Cause You Never Loved Me Anyway.” Good thing there’s more to recommend here!)
Link: Mya’s With Love