aaliyahageaintnothing

In 1991, at the age of 12, a girl named Aaliyah signed a record deal with Jive Records.  When I was 12 I was drooling over all my Harry Potter volumes and complaining about food getting stuck in my orthodontia, but I digress.  The point is that this girl was clearly unusually talented with her gentle, ethereal vocals – this was made all the more clear when, in 1994, her debut album ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’ was released.

There was some weird controversy about what exactly was going down with Aaliyah and the producer for the album, R Kelly, who she purportedly illegally married…Potential weirdness of her personal affairs aside, the album was a clear indicator that a star was born.  While it is, in my opinion, far from Aaliyah’s best work, it very much marks the beginning of that new sound which would typify ’90s R&B.; those swinging beats and smooth, gentle-as-a-caress keyboards, all topped off with those beautiful, harmonious vocals.  There’s whispering and romance and it’s all a little bit cheesy and coolly theatrical with just the right amount of fierce attitude – such was the R&B of the ’90s, and it was great.

And I think if there’s an artist whose oeuvre really encapsulates what R&B in the ’90s and early ’00s was as a whole, it has to be Aaliyah.  We go from that gentle but not necessarily that innovative-sounding soulful pop at the beginning of her career to her moving record labels and getting a new producer who would essentially define what good, interesting R&B was.  I’m talking, of course, of the wonderful Timbaland with his Midas touch.  Aaliyah’s second album, ‘One in a Million’ was produced by the incredible combination of him and Missy Elliott and suddenly the music got a bit strange; weird, sparse, staccato instrumentation; jaunty, otherworldly vocals.  And man, it was amazing.

Timbaland’s fantastic production went one further on Aaliyah’s eponymous third album – the final one released in her sadly short lifetime.  ‘Aaliyah’ is a genuinely incredible album.  Middle-eastern flavours, rich and weird instrumentation and Aaliyah’s ridiculously pretty vocals floating above it all.  This was new, it was exciting and experimental; it was a direction that I think is only really being rekindled now in the genre, over ten years later.  It is not an exaggeration to say that it is among my favourite albums and this remains one of my all-time favourite songs:

That strange eastern vibe, those sublime vocals; this song never stops striking me afresh with how excellent Aaliyah was.  The lyrics got more interesting as she got older too – more clandestine, more sensual.

I could go on for a good while singing the girl’s praises but, in short: if you want to know about solo female R&B artists of the ’90s and early ’00s, Aaliyah had the whole package.

envogue

“This is part of your carefully crafted music blog writing alternative persona. So alternative you swing far left enough to traverse the spectrum picking up terribly trashy pop music in the process but making it at the same time an acceptable part of your image.”

I laughed when a friend described my musical tastes as such, because I didn’t think it was a view that anyone would sincerely hold about what I listen to.  But then I recently read an excellent article over on Stereogum about The O.C. and the gentrification of indie rock .  It proposes that, in an age where there seems to be something akin to a landfill of indie guitar bands, to be interested in guitar rock is just not, well, that interesting.  At one point the article notes, “if you want to pop wheelies on the zeitgeist, you dabble in EDM or R&B or hip-hop or black metal — anything but indie rock”.  I don’t think whether it’s “cool” or not will ever affect just how much I love, say, The Strokes – nor should it; it’s a horrendous notion.  You love the music you love, regardless of how it’s perceived by others.  Similarly, then, I would hate for anyone to think that my love of R&B and pop is feigned for the purposes of looking alternative or something similarly ridiculous.

While there were certainly Bollywood songs I knew when I was little and while my dad loves telling the story of how I used to sit in the bathroom singing 2 Become 1 to myself when I was four, the R&B of the ’90s and early ’00s is, I think, the first music I ever properly fell in love with of my own accord.  A significant number of my CDs are from the genre – off the top of my head, there are singles and albums by the likes of Brandy, Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige amongst the stacks in my room.  When I was nine I was considering getting a Kelly Rowland hair cut.  Sister Sister wasn’t just a TV show, it was a lifestyle choice (and can be heavily credited for my love of Blackstreet and all things Motown).  At the age of ten a friend and I once did a very questionable dance routine to Christina Milian in a school assembly.  This music is always going to mean a lot to me – though perhaps less so the music of Ms Milan.

So yes, I thought it was about time I expressed my adoration for the genre and address it with the proper affection it deserves by writing a series of posts primarily about ’90s and ’00s R&B.  I’ll be taking a chronological look at the ladies, the fellas, the groups – and, well, realistically that’s about it, but we’ll see – over the coming week or so.

First off, though, I thought an introduction of sorts was necessary.  What exactly is R&B?  An older generation might rightly associate it with African-American funk and soul and jazz – that’s certainly the original Rhythm and Blues, and where the name comes from.  But from the ’80s onwards, the name began to cover something a little different – contemporary R&B was and is a much more electronic-based genre with a lush and polished (if occasionally a bit urban and gritty) sound that, generally speaking, has a lot of crossover with what’s going on in hip-hop at the same time.  It’s such exciting, varied music, with artists taking hold of the original Rhythm and Blues sounds and using them in completely new ways.

So yes.  I hope the next few posts do justice to this excellent period of this excellent genre.

Here’s a little gem to whet your appetites:

 

Also, click here for the link to a top quality mid-90s R&B mixtape by Onra and Lexis, which will similarly help you get down in preparation for the coming posts.

Mind Enterprises, musical project of Italian 27-year-old Andrea Tirone, is on the roster of Because Music, the record label also home to the likes of Metronomy and Django Django.  And I think the sort of music one might expect of an artist belonging to that roster is almost exactly the kind of music that Mind Enterprises’ ‘My Girl’ EP showcases.

I mean that in a very positive way, overall – it’s an EP that boasts that sparse yet complex brand of thoughtfully produced electronic pop that’s just a little bit strange.  Lead single ‘My Girl’ is full of fun, vibrant splashes of synths; weirdly, nicely intricate layers of his falsetto vocals and light as air, glitchy, shuffling beats.  Recently announced second single, ‘Morning Lie’ has a kind of tropical tinge with spirals of rich, hazy instrumentation and beats that jump all over the place.  Then ‘New Underground’ slowly shimmers and crescendos into another woozy dance number while ’74′ is all scratchy, fun beats with some more lovely swathes of melody.

It’s that brand of alternative, eccentric electropop that everyone seems to be loving right now and rightly so – for now, it’s a fresh, exciting sound and style.  I guess I just can’t help but wonder if this sort of glitchy, sparse pop is going to get a bit stale soon.  For now, at least, Mind Enterprises has a delightful little EP under his belt.

The ‘My Girl’ EP is out now on Because Music, and you can buy it here.

beachhiphop

I have no idea what the weather is like where you are, but the past two days have been kind of wonderful and sunny where I am and it got me thinking about how great that Jazzy Jeff and Mick Boogie summer mixtape is.  A friend first introduced it to me last September but remarked that it was really best enjoyed in the summer – and certainly I’ve been realising this past month that it’s a real nice place to start your soundtrack for a sunny day.  But for those of you compiling your own summer playlists and looking to go further, here are five more fairly randomly selected hip-hop songs which are not so well known but which I think are excellent for blasting out beneath those sunny blue skies:

1) Mobb Deep ft. Nas – ‘It’s Mine’

Breezy nonchalance with beautiful, light instrumentation (with what I think is a sample from Scarface?) and smooth lyrics – especially from Nas – this would be so great to cruise along scenic routes with the windows rolled down.  Excellent little tune (though it is admittedly hard to not think of that similarly great Brandy and Monica tune during the chorus).

2) M.I.A. – ‘Amazon’

As far as I’m concerned M.I.A. has enough elements of hip-hop to be considered as an artist of said genre and I’m a big fan of this lady – possibly because she’s South Asian and cool and artsy and I’m South Asian and wish I was cool and artsy.  I digress.  This little tropical-tinged beauty from ‘Arular’ twinkles with sunshine, wild, jungle beats and lyrics alluding to those sweet little Rubicon juice boxes.

3) Tupac ft. Snoop Dogg – ‘If There’s A Cure’ 

My flatmates of the past year will attest to the fact that I play this song a lot.  Like, probably an annoying amount.  That brilliant, lazy bass line, the (not unexpected) incredible flow from both artists and that chorus.  “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it, I don’t need it” – so simple but so sublime.  Lounge around in the sun and have a little bop at a barbecue to this.  Ahhh.

4) 213 – ‘So Fly’ 

213 were a veritable hip-hop supergroup with Nate Dogg, Warren G and Snoop Dogg, and this song is kind of great.  The orchestral sample is delicate but joyous, the vocals are all soft and smooth and in general it just has a nice, chilled vibe for a sunny day.

5) Kendrick Lamar ft. Dr. Dre – ‘Compton’

My current favourite to turn on and turn up and generally jive to when the sun is out – absolutely glorious brass fanfares and a euphoric chorus, I do not live in a place with any cities nor have I ever been to the much lauded Compton but there’s still something so perfect about that refrain of “ain’t no city quite like mine”.  The Kool and the Gang sample is so nicely executed too and the way the song builds up in general is just fantastic.  Happy days of sunshine encapsulated.

Yeah, needless to say, I have a whole lot of love for hip-hop in the summer.

miguel

It has been something of a whirlwind few months for Miguel.  His second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, climbed to number three in the Billboard Charts, its exquisite lead single ‘Adorn’ earned him a Grammy award for best R&B song and he’s been supporting Alicia Keys on her ‘Set the World on Fire’ tour.  His flight only landed in Dublin a couple of hours ago but there’s no time to rest: there are interviews to do, then preparations for the night’s show – the first gig of Keys’ European leg of the tour.  Then in two days he will be popping back to the States to perform on television with Mariah Carey before immediately returning to Europe to continue the tour. It is perhaps understandable, then, that as he sits down across from me, America’s favourite new R&B artist seems a bit tired.

“I’m a little sleepy but I’ll be okay”, the singer reassures me with a grin as he pours himself a glass of water.  And, indeed, it isn’t long before Miguel is talking animatedly about the tour so far, and how interesting he finds the variety of the crowds who come to watch Alicia Keys.  I point out that such diversity in audience is something that he himself could boast, with critical accolades coming from outlets as far removed as Entertainment Weekly and Pitchfork.  “Yeah, it’s pretty cool”, he agrees before hesitating slightly, “I mean, Pitchfork definitely wouldn’t have been paying attention to my music a couple years ago – but my music was different then.”

Miguel’s 2010 debut album, All I Want Is You, was met with relative critical apathy upon its release and the music style it showcases, while good, is far more in the vein of standard top 40 R&B than his current output.  Kaleidoscope Dream, meanwhile, has been incredibly well received - perhaps in part due to being released in the aftermath of the likes of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, artists with whom Miguel is often compared.  “I’m happy to be mentioned in the same breath as any artists that are doing something different and unique, so I guess I take that as a compliment”, he says of such comparisons and, although his response initially seems somewhat wary, he does quickly add, “And I’m a big fan of both of their music.”

He is also a big fan of current poster boy of hip-hop Kendrick Lamar, with whom he worked on an excellent version of the slick and sleazy ‘How Many Drinks’.  Much to Miguel’s frustration the track did not make the final cut of his beloved Kaleidoscope Dream, and was instead recently released as a remix.

  

All of that isn’t to say that Miguel is not still very proud of his debut, however – “You should listen to it”, he tells me with no trace of irony when I admit that I’ve yet to do so properly, “It’s really good.”

This sense of confidence in his work is something that is visible throughout the interview and, in general, Miguel exudes an affable air of certainty regarding his occupation.  “I truly believe this is what I’m here to do, y’know?”, he tells me towards the end of our conversation.  Statements like that should seem a bit corny, perhaps, but given the quality of Kaleidoscope Dream his self-assurance certainly seems justified.  It’s an excellent album – all sensual, lush, innovative, spacey and soulful R&B with swooning Marvin Gaye meets Prince vocals and an almost baroque sense of theatricality. All of this is combined with the often startlingly frank, honest lyrics – “just lie to me, lie to me…tell me that the pussy is mine” he begs an unfaithful lover  on ‘Pussy Is Mine’ and while the title and conceit should be questionable and borderline misogynistic there’s something almost humbling about his decision to put such an incredibly raw song on the album – again, perhaps an indicator of his innate self-confidence.

With that confidence in mind I ask if any of this monumental success had seemed possible to him at the time of releasing his first album.  “You imagine it”, he says with a thoughtful smile, eyes lighting up behind his sunglasses, “But you don’t really know.  I mean, you know and you believe it but it’s a completely different thing when you achieve it. And I think that’s the greatest part – you believe, even in those moments where it seems completely out of the picture, you keep on believing and you fight for it and then one day all of a sudden it comes almost unassumingly.”

He talks a lot about believing, and I wonder aloud if it has anything to do with his unusual upbringing.  His parents divorced and Miguel spent his childhood between his mother’s fiercely religious Christian household and his father’s more relaxed – in his words, “not religious” – home.  “I think, more than anything, that just taught me how to make choices”, he says after some consideration, “What it is I believe in, what I stand for…deciding for yourself what you’re gonna be.  And I think that all contributes to solid creative decisions.”

On the subject of creative decisions, I ask how much of his second album is representative of him.  Certainly Miguel’s marketing and music videos have been heavily dependent on his personal control.  “Kaleidoscope Dream is definitely the clear picture of who I am and what my lifestyle is like – what I’m drawn to, what inspires me”, he reels off with enthusiasm,  “It sounds like my life – the sound, the pace and the taste and the texture of how I live.  I think that’s the biggest difference between the albums; that this one is more of an honest portrait of who I am as an individual.”  Every now and again Miguel will say something like this – something that seems more like a prepared sound bite than an immediate response – but as the interview progresses it becomes apparent that this is just the way he is.  The more he talks, the more Miguel’s genuine love for what he does comes through and if he talks like a press release now and again it’s out of a sincere desire for people to appreciate his music.

This concern with presenting himself in a certain way means that I can’t help but broach something that must have shaken his confidence a little – the incident at the Billboard Awards a few days prior to our meeting.  Mid-performance the singer misjudged a stage dive and landed unceremoniously on top of two fans, right on top of one of their heads. “Everyone saw that.  Did you see the memes?!  I’m ‘that dude’ now”, Miguel says with a good-natured groan, although his formerly poised position does seem to slump a little, “I feel horrible for almost injuring someone but”, he pauses, and continues in a very measured manner, “Anyone who’s seen me perform will tell you I’m a very passionate person. In the moment I just do what feels right but that’s no excuse – I shouldn’t have done it.  The hardest part is not being able to go online and apologise, for legal reasons – I can’t say anything, it fucking sucks.  I’ll tell you though, that first night I was really, really in a bad place.”

Is all this media scrutiny worth it, then, I ask – is this what being successful means? “I get to do what I love so with that comes a huge responsibility – a trade-off”, he replies judiciously, “I have to sacrifice something for that, and if it means being in the public eye; making mistakes in front of thousands or millions of people; if it requires being laughed at, being judged, being torn down – whatever it requires, I do it regardless.  For me there’s no separation between public success and personal success – as in, I don’t think one has to be sacrificed for the other.  The ultimate success for me would be to remain true to what I believe in and still touching the world – as idealistic or clichéd as that may sound.”

Something tells me he doesn’t have to worry too much about his aspirations being idealistic – Miguel’s music is exciting and fresh and, combined with the sense of sincerity and genuine compassion he exudes, success on his terms seems a fairly realistic aim.

“You don’t really have to like me”, he says, frankly, as the interview comes to an end, “You don’t have to love me, but at the end of the day I think life is all about being passionate.  I respect passionate people, I appreciate them – not everyone’s gonna like you for the decisions you make but as long as you’re passionate about what you do and you stick to it they’ll have to respect you.”

Again, it is one of those strange, almost-rehearsed sounding sentiments, but the way that Miguel talks makes it clear that he means what he says.  There’s nothing all that rehearsed about his performance that night, anyway – it’s polished, yes, but the way he leaps around the stage with an incredible energy and abandon makes me consider what he said about passion and getting caught up in the moment.  In the aftermath of the Billboard Awards there’s no doubt that Miguel will continue to get some abuse and, while other rising artists might have let it get to them, it’s to his credit that he takes it in his stride.  His genuine passion for what he does combined with his creative insatiability means that, regardless of whether you’re a fan or not, Miguel and his theatrical brand of soul-infused R&B are here to stay.

As he says in regards to his success so far, “You send a man to the Moon, but then you realise there’s Saturn, there’s Mars – there’ll always be another star, another planet; it’s innate.  So all the fighting I did, all the hard work I put in – I realise now that was just to prepare me for the next level.”

After we part ways, my immediate feeling is that there is something very engaging about Miguel; that the sometimes out-there things he says are reflected in the soaring and strange sounds in his music while his frank honesty is similarly conveyed in his lyrics.  And so, for all I scrutinised him for it, it seems Miguel has a point about how Kaleidoscope Dream is an honest self-portrait.  His talk of the Moon and Saturn still remains farfetched on consideration – though if he keeps things up, it seems that Earth might well be Miguel’s for the taking.

 

Kaleidoscope Dream is out on Sony and you can buy it here.

Image
When the first you hear of an artist is shortly after they’ve announced their retirement from the music industry it can be pretty upsetting.  But luckily it seems the artist in question has gone back on their December announcement and isn’t retiring after all – there’s something about the exquisite ghostly R&B of  Phlo Finister that suggests a longevity that outlives such claims of quitting the music industry.  That, and the fact that her debut ‘Poster Girl’ EP comes out at the end of July.

[Listen to the 'Poster Girl' EP Sampler here]

The hype is suggesting 50% Aaliyah, 50% Lana Del Ray as good points of reference – and while I’ll admit I haven’t listened to Lana beyond the singles, she’s definitely got that haunting, grainy sound with touches of Aaliyah’s wispy, crisp R&B with vague middle-eastern vibes.  It’s very cool and poised music; all sultry and knowing lyricism on top of soft, slick beats.

Phlo Finister’s Poster Girl EP is released on 29 July by Night Beach – very much worth getting hold of, especially lest she does decide to retire after all.

Cloud Control 04 HI

Australia’s Cloud Control are one of those groups whom I always seem to hear good things about; in spite of this, it was only this morning that I decided to follow up all the praises and accolades that surround them and give their music a listen.  And I am very glad I finally did.  Swooning, swirling, hazy psychedelia with melancholic, pretty vocals, there is something very charming and organic about their sound.

They recently released the video for their new single ‘Dojo Rising’ which is out next month and it’s one of those videos which is quite strange but with a somehow affable nature.  And I guess that’s a decent way to describe their sound too – the single is dazed and pleasant and there is something undefinably unusual about it.  There’s a warmth to their music; an endearing sort of magic that will – hopefully – be found on their second album Dream Cave, due to be released in the UK on September 16th via Infectious Music.

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