L O V E Week: Pharrell’s “G I R L”

Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)

“What can we do? We’re hopeless romantics.” – “Marilyn Monroe,” 2014.

Pharrell Williams has occupied many musical identities since he ghost-wrote Teddy Riley’s bars on “Rump Shaker” in 1992. They include (but are not limited to) the following: dapper AOR virtuoso, sleazy politician-hater, shirtless heart-throb, eccentric backpacker-turned-rich, living disco glitterball, goody-goody conscience to the amoral and tortured, Hans Zimmer in training, Bmore DJ in training. All these artistic incarnations share something in common: a giddy sense of exploration. They may not all be successful, or even worthwhile, endeavours, but you can rarely ever tell that Williams is half-assing it. Musical ideas are executed to their full potential and their lessons are absorbed into the next persona Williams reveals.

His sophomore solo album G I R L is the next step after a mega-successful 2013, a year where the world caught up with the Seventies-centric songcraft he had been developing since N.E.R.D.’s 2010 album Nothing. It’s succinct at ten songs, a collection of warm tones that should easily appeal to the millions that bumped “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” out of work radios, car stereos and onto wedding dance-floors. The word “disco” is being used a lot in early reviews, likely referencing the Chic-esque guitar licks and dazzling strings (conducted by Hans Zimmer!) all over the record, but G I R L is as much glitzy soul as it is disco. 2014 Pharrell is a man imbued with modernizing the sounds of the past, a nostalgic space that also makes space for references to Williams’ oeuvre. A member of early N.E.R.D. buddies Spymob plays guitar throughout, the chorus on “Gush”—a Prince tribute of sorts—directly evokes 2003’s “Light Your Ass On Fire” with Busta Rhymes—a Kraftwerk tribute of sorts, the late album highlight “Lost Queen” fades into water SFX and a hidden interlude much like Fly Or Die’s “Wonderful Place” did. These are savvy amalgamations of Williams’ musical touch, never feeling Xeroxed-over these are songs driven by giddy exploration.

And little seems to inspire Williams’ explorer tendencies quite as much as the fairer sex. When he sings about women, he’s starry-eyed, attempting lover boy slackness, finding cosmic parallels or all three at the same time (natch, “Get Lucky”). Women matter to him, and they drive him to being the “hopeless romantic” he refers to on “Marilyn Monroe.” The liner notes to Fly or Die found Williams ecstatically wishing for his “future Girlfriend,” one of his more whimsically dorkier moments. Now married and with a child, he appears reflective and analytical of his romantic past—not the failures, just overall experiences. This narrow optimism sounds hopeful and wonderful and even a little silly. There’s simply no space for bad vibes here. Williams sounds joyful reveling in his hopeless romanticism, having found a space where he’s not second-guessing himself. “You can blame me as to why we haven’t met yet,” he wrote in those liner notes to his “future Girlfriend,” but G I R L sounds like someone shaking off the blame in lieu of simply celebrating the search.

L O V E Week: Mya’s “With Love”

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 

L O V E Week: K. Michelle’s “Still No Fucks Given”

Written by David Turner (@dalatudalatu)

Even though Still No Fucks Given is an hour long, K. Michelle sums up the appeal of her entire tape in the introductory bellowing of “Still No Fuuuuuuuucks Given.” There is exhaustion in her voice as she makes this opening declaration, as if she’s coming from an already defensive position for her declaration. But that is the unfortunate place of the reality and now unquestioned R&B star, who has plenty to say with her Valentine’s Day tape in-case people don’t want to get caught up in marked-up dinner prices and corner flower salesmen.

Songs titles like “Baby Momma,” “She Can Have You” and “Devil in You” shows K.Michelle’s disinterest in commercial holiday spirits. But she doesn’t sing from a place of pure vulnerability, as she has found a ground to stand-up for herself and sing-out against those that have wronged her in the past. It’s R&B as a weapon, not a soother for rough times, a soundtrack to late-evening romance. Call up your closest friends, pour up some drinks on the rocks and turn on her remake of “I Love This Shit,” which rings out announcing her affirmation of self-love.

Link: K. Michelle’s Still No Fucks Given

L O V E Week: Ne-Yo’s “3 Simple Rules”

Written by David Lehmann

Making a bold move in a music economy that sidelines traditional R&B in favor of dance floor universality, Ne-Yo has promised that his upcoming album will be “predominately R&B.” For certain R&B fans this is welcome news. True, Ne-Yo’s craft as an R&B songwriter and producer came through on R.E.D., his last album–“Miss Right” borrows West-Coast ratchet’s blueprint and then fills it with sweet harmonies and watercolor synths reminiscent of late-night mist; “Stress Reliever” dives into the drunken whining of nu-underwater R&B with a low, blissful hum. But that clutch of R&B songs ultimately played second-string to towering bursts of electronic joy like “Let Me Love You.” It’s a tact that many acts have assumed in recent years: split albums genre-wise to score hits in both Top 40 and niche markets. Yet recent changes to Billboard’s charting algorithm have rendered this strategy futile.

This probably explains, in part, why Ne-Yo and Nicki Minaj have signaled a return to their “roots,” a nebulous declaration that’s nevertheless a middle finger to the new economic imperatives of a changed Billboard chart. The Birth of Ne-Yo, an LP that dropped last year, apparently accidentally, clarifies just what such action means to Ne-Yo. Many of the production flourishes are nods to classic R&B cuts and the work as a whole is homologous to 90’s R&B. It reveals itself a warm homage, a turn away from prevailing trends–particularly amongst a subset of Soundcloud bros–that reduce a decade’s R&B output to ghostly pastiche or cold fetish object.

3 Simple Rules, however, takes a different approach to “roots.” On one hand, this is a personal return to form. Ne-Yo makes sly references to his previous work: on “Bigger Than This” he sings about a “love-hate thing” and on “New Love” he clarifies just why he loves it when his girl gets mad, “argue like we mean it/the redder it gets the more passionate we can be with that makeup sex.” But a broader definition of “roots” also exists here.

Ne-Yo covers the basic content of so much R&B: love, heartbreak, and sex. He also wants to sum up love cleanly in terms of three overarching rules, like the mathematician who strives for the simplest, most powerful equation. Yet the emotionally messy content of the songs proves the difficulty in reducing a genre to “loverman cliches, soapy drama, and bottle-service grooves.” Keeping love brand new is one approach to nurturing a relationship, but clearly the path of cycling through “breakup and makeup every day” is risky. “Normally we don’t stay mad for too long,” Ne-Yo sings on the second track as he begs for his girl to forgive him, revealing the naiveté of his strategy. (I would love to hear Kelly Rowland or Keri Hilson on a remix of this, a la Kimbra on “Somebody That I Used To Know.”) And as always with Ne-Yo, he inhabits the space between honeyed joy and strained pain so that he can bend his voice in multiple directions, employing falsetto and melisma both as sexual come-on and broken cry.

If this EP’s narrative complexity subverts its compactness, the same goes for its production. “Bigger Than This” repurposes Disclosure synth patterns as a lush backdrop fit for Year of the Gentleman. “Gotchu Right” with its soft guitars and orgasmic harmonies, situates itself as a member of the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” family, albeit spliced with the rhythmic tics of Trap. Even the most blatant throwback, “New Love,” is not so backward-looking considering Ariana Grande’s similar aesthetic on last year’s Yours Truly. It’s an approach that portrays genres and sub-genres as more conversant with each other than the increasingly atomized nature of music listening would have us believe. That’s not surprising coming from the person who claims, “There wasn’t a lot of R&B cats doing songs at 120 beats per minute before ‘Closer,’ which I take full credit and responsibility for.” All that’s left to do now is for Ne-Yo to make good on his promise to “see y’all soon.”

Link: Ne-Yo’s 3 Simple Rules