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Album Review: Ne-Yo’s Libra Scale

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Grammy winning singer/songwriter Ne-Yo returns with his fourth CD, Libra Scale, which features the singles "Champagne Life," "Beautiful Monster," and "One in a Million"

Alright.  Let’s get this out of the way right now:  Michael Jackson’s influence on Ne-Yo is severely obvious to the average person.  He’s released songs that harken both the signature vibrato vocal style and musical arrangements of the gloved one.  His latest album, Libra Scale, is no different.  In fact MJ’s spirit has been injected into each and every song like steroids!  And now, having said that, let’s get to the heart of the matter.  The album is incredible!!   While Ne-Yo’s been no stranger to hit singles, (“So Sick,” “Because of You,” “Closer,” etc.), his three previous albums have been a touch patchy.  Where Libra Scale differs is that it follows an arc; a story, which makes every song significant.

As a big comic book advocate, Ne-Yo set out to create an ambitious project about three garbage men (one played by himself) who are given superhuman powers, fame and fortune, provided that their powers are used for good and they don’t fall in love.   He even wrote a script for a short film, opting in the end to limit it to separate music videos.  But if you remove the plot and literal concept of Ne-Yo as Jerome the garbage man saving the day against evil doers, you’ll notice that Ne-Yo crafted a CD that told a broader tale of a man who revels in bachelorhood – playing the field and loving every minute – who unexpectedly finds love with just one woman, only to end up forever changing her into the same “monster” he still was on the inside.

With 10 songs on the CD, Ne-Yo wrote with nine different producers.  The irony is that none of his previous albums have ever sounded this musically cohesive.  “Champagne Life” sets the tone, a celebratory track of “fast car nights and big full days.”  After “Makin’ a Movie” with another conquest, things get soothing out when a special girl catches his eye.  Things shift quickly, from the smooth moving “Know Your Name” to the ultra-sexy “Telekinesis” to the funky Ryan Leslie produced “Crazy Love.”

Every song here is equipped with sultry-sliding background vocals that gives each song a magical density.  This is no more evident than in the album closer “What Have I Done.”  Preceded by the club friendly “Beautiful Monster,” Ne-Yo takes responsibility for his part in changing a good girl into a bad one.  This track is special because it contains a air of introspective darkness and regret not heard from Ne-Yo before.  And while the MJ comparisons may be warranted, “What Have I Done” captures the under-appreciated ominous essence of Michael that no other artist has been able to emulate on record since him…until now, albeit briefly.

This was the first time I could listen to a Ne-Yo CD from front to back without skipping a single song.  As mentioned previously, each track spills into the other, with exquisite pacing and variety.  As picky as I can be about my music, that’s saying a lot.  Having said that, his best days are still ahead of him.  Having seen him perform with a live band on award shows and TV appearances, there’s still a missing element of musicianship that has yet to be tapped on wax.  Once he explores that, watch out!  Until then, go pick this up.  You won’t be disappointed.

Ne-Yo’s Libra Scale Get Four Headphones Out Of Five

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Categories: Reviews

What Defines Success: Fame or Substance?

November 21, 2010 1 comment

Rapper Kanye West feels that artists need to step up, embrace fame in order to affect the world at large.

Earlier this year, Hip Hop artist/producer Kanye West made a surprise visit to Rolling Stone Magazine to emplore some of his thoughts on the evolution of music, himself and culture.  One statement he made was particularly compelling; it dealt with the issue of good artists not being in the limelight, due to fear of success or complacency.  Here’s a quote, as he addressed the magazine’s employees:

“It’s such a shame that all your favorite artists are so underground.  It’s like it’s not cool for no one to here shit anymore.  That’s the hipster’s justification of failure.”

The preceeding comment West made was how artists like himself and fellow rapper Eminem must embrace  their fame and use their wide reaching influence and noterioty to showcase their unique music, in effect changing how music is made and received.  Basically, no matter how great an artist is, if he/she is underground or on an indie label, they might as well be the tree that nobody hear’s falling in the woods.  If no one hears it, it won’t make a difference.  But is that true?  How do you measure success, anyhow?  Is it record sales?  TV appearances?  Awards?  Or is it what they say or how they say it?

For the past three years or so, I’ve been spending the majority of my time listening to music that you don’t hear on the radio.  This very blog’s existence is based on my goal to help bring lesser known artists and music to the consciousness of so-called popular culture.  Here’s a list of artists I’ve been supporting lately: Lee Fields and the Expressions, Aloe Blacc, Janelle Monae, Raul Midon, Esperanza Spalding, Blitz the Ambassador, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Jose James just to name a few.

Esperanza Spalding is a bass prodigy with a sparkling voice. She's worked alongside Prince, Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder, but she more comfortable being a "visitor" in the celebrity realm. Will that compromise the chance for her music to be heard on a grand scale?

With the exception of Janelle Monae, I’ve yet to hear any of these artists on Kiss 98.7, Hot 97 or WBLS.  All of them are making TREMENDOUS strides in recording creative, uncompromising music and dynamic stage performances.  But because they haven’t sung a hook on Drake’s latest cut, or spit 16 bars on Rihanna’s new track, they might as well be invisible.   Where the argument comes in, however, is that it maybe that these artists are happy not to be confined by the limiting, image-obsessed machine that comes with being attached to a major label.  They don’t want to be told to lose weight, cut their hair, sex up their outfits and, most importantly, cookie cut their music.  Perhaps they don’t want to work with Just Blaze, Brian Michael Cox or Trickey & Dream.  I, myself, alway get mad because I can’t share the music I’m growing to love with others.  I got so used to having talks about big names like Michael Jackson and Prince, that I often feel it’s not fair that some of these indie artists aren’t better known by the public.  I believe what Kanye was trying to say was that artists like Spalding and Midon have an obligation to do what’s neccessary to be heard, before they can say what they truly feel.  Would Lee Fields have to trade in his husky, James Brown-esque voice for an auto-tune machine just to get people’s attention?  After all, there are numerous examples of well known artists performing the old bait and switch tricks to galivinize the public.  MJ baited people with “The Girl is Mine” before unleashing the brooding “Billie Jean;”  Eminem used the humerous “My Name is…” to get folks to buy the maniacally themed The Slim Shady LP.

Even an artist as big as Michael Jackson had to pull one over on the record buying public. He released the safe, saccharine Paul McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine," so that people would pay attention when he dropped the ominous, paranoia dripping "Billie Jean."

Underground artists have integrity.  They ultimately want to make music without censorship.  That is commendable.  But the artists today like Rihanna, Ciara, Trey Songz and Drake could stand to learn from them…if they feel trapped by the expectations, that is.   In the end, I think the people need to step up.  The recording buying/radio listening public has been spoiled by radio and MTV.  The powers that be will NOT try to un-spoil you, so you’ll have to do it yourself.  Keep your ears to the streets more to Sirius Satelite.  I guarantee that these great singers and musicians in background will come from behind the current if the demand for them become evident.  And don’t forget, the true way to measure success, in my opinion, is legacy; what does an artist leave behind when they’re all finished?  I just hope we can be that patient.

Categories: Big Picture

Addition to “Quotes” Page – MJ

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Here’s the latest installment to “Quotes,” the blog’s page of sagely utterances from musicians, writers and other all-around geniuses.  Today’s quote comes from Michael Jackson, the late great singer/songwriter.  It’s plucked from a 1992 interview from Ebony Magazine, pertaining to his definition of what art (music especially) is to him:

I believe that all art has as its ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine.  And I believe that that is the very reason for the existence of art and what I do.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Music Revolution 2010: Four Women, One Moment

November 15, 2010 1 comment

Nina Simone, the author and original performer of the song "Four Women." Simone is best known for composing songs that depicted the both the plight and pride of the those with African Descent.

The key to the prosperity of any culture is originality.   The unique interpretation of an existing entity, however, can prove just as effective and enduring.  History has shown that the recreation of something is easier to introduce to people, rather than something brand new.  After all, the best way to incite a revolution is to infiltrate the system and change it from within.

On Sunday, November 7th, BET aired the first annual Black Girls Rock special, honoring African-American women who’ve made outstanding strides in their respective fields.  Among the honorees was actress Rudy Dee, recording artist Missy Elliot and author/public speaker Rev. Dr. Iyanla Vanzant; celebrated for forging their own path in a male dominated world and making differences on their own merits.  Enhancing the event were performances by today’s up-and-coming Black female singers, like Fantasia Barrino, Keyshia Cole, Ciara and Keri Hilson.  But far more memorable than any recognition received for community achievements was a stage collaboration that can only be described as instantly legendary.

Kelly Price, Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott

Kelly Price, Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott and Ledisi performing Nina Simone's "Four Women," on BET's Black Girls Rock Special

and Ledisi performed Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a melodic role call of women of color, with each singer capturing the spirit of the women whom they each represented through song.  All illuminated with their own spotlights, with each woman unique in vocal style, appearance and demeanor, this once-in-a-lifetime performance shattered any notion that black is not beautiful, in any form.  Price embodied the homely, humble sister with her trademark control and warmth.  Ambrosius represented the woman of awareness and pride, singing far beyond the confines of her former group, Floetry.  Next was Jill Scott, who caressed the microphone with a dynamically sensuous vocal to capture the woman who exploited her own extraordinary physically beauty, yet hid her inner insecurities.  Lastly, there was Ledisi, who unleashed her climbing vocal range to channel the mad, but driven woman with a tone so powerful and shocking, it called to mind the late great Phyllis Hyman.  The four women in the song all possess different personalities; different skin tones, different hair textures, different dispositions; but have the same four qualities: strength, knowledge, ambition and pride.

After the goosebumps and butterflies began to cease, you’d be hard pressed to attempt to remember anything else that happened on that special.  Every type of style and image was present on that stage for two hours, but the powerhouse quartet has proven to endure long after the fade to black.  It was a microcosm of mainstream music: artists with sexy, shining covers sing songs that are good only for two listens, but others not so easily categorized go much further.  In fact, it was so far ahead of the other performances of the night, it served not only as an affirmation of the character and the strength the Black woman, it also was a manifestation of where the Black female artist has come and where they could go… if they follow the lead of four special women:  Aunt Sarah, Saphornia, Sweet Thing and Peaches.

Categories: Music Revolution

Overlooked Songs From Notorious Names – Marvin Gaye’s “Falling in Love Again”

November 13, 2010 1 comment

In 1979, Marvin Gaye released "Here, My Dear," an operatic ode to his divorce from his wife, Anna Gordy. "Falling in Love Again" was the hopeful coda to an opera of pain and divorce.

Anguish. Paranoia. Lust. These are the words most associated to the late Marvin Gaye’s life and music. Whether he was singing in his highest register to add a voyeuristic tone to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” or stacking background vocals to make “I Want You” seem more haunting, Marvin’s feelings were always complex and included an underbelly of doubt and bitterness. These emotions reached its tipping point on his 1979 double album, “Here, My Dear,” an uncensored opus on his divorce from Anna Gordy. Unable to pay alimony, Marvin was ordered to give the proceeds of this album to Anna. At first he was going to do a bad record, but he was compelled to purge the layout of their failed relationship. The titles say it all: “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,” “Is That Enough,” “Anger,” and “You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You” all radiated Marvin’s resentment, cynicism and disillusionment. Here, My Dear followed a linear path of Gaye and Gordy’s 12 year marriage from courtship to chaos. That considered, the album’s last song was not expected.

After nearly 70 minutes of jaded confession, “Falling in Love Again” was a cheerful exultation of unexpected happiness. As his marriage was crumbling, Marvin fell hard for a beautiful teenage girl named Janis Hunter. His obsession for her became the muse that inspired “Let’s Get it On.” Given his complicated relationship with Anna, Marvin was apprehensive to pursue Janis beyond lustful encounters:

“She’s pretty outside and in/She’s so wonderful, I tried not to let my heart step in/What to do, babe/What do I do when somebody real comes in/Someone you feel comes in/Now I’m falling in love again.”

Gone were the minor piano keys and foreboding bass lines. Instead, Marvin’s vocal overdubs exuded a jovial tone, calling back to the days of doo-wop harmonies when love was innocent and coveted rather than confusing and deceptive. There’s a springtime atmosphere thanks to the freewheeling sax playing throughout the track, sounding like chirping robins. The intermingling of the funky drums and wah wah guitar provides a celebratory rhythm – three cheers for love!

“Here, My Dear” would be Marvin’s worst selling album and his eventual marriage to Janis Hunter ended after two years, but the album saw Marvin Gaye utilize every aspect of his musical greatness and “Falling in Love Again” was his flag still standing amidst a barrage of rockets and bombs.