As summer winds down, I thought I’d throw up a few videos by artists I can always rely on. Two of them–Björk and St. Vincent–have albums coming out next month. Jill Scott is the third artist featured here, and The Light of the Sun has been in personal rotation this summer. I’d include Rihanna’s Avril-sampling “Cheers (Drink to That),” but Rihanna slants her eyes at the 3:11 mark, bringing to mind Miley’s racial insensitivity incident, so I can’t endorse it without a lot more context.
Directed by Terri Timely
“Hear My Call”
The Light of the Sun
Co-directed by Jill Scott
Directed by Michel Gondry
We’re in February now, which means people are releasing albums again. Yesterday, I listened to new stuff from Toro Y Moi, PJ Harvey, and Adele. I giggled at Urban Outfitters streaming Underneath the Pine, but that’s not unexpected. UO and retailers like American Eagle sell compilations upon occasion. As I mentioned in my review of TOKiMONSTA’s Midnight Menu, the first time I heard an Air song was at the mall. It makes sense. Both artists make music for looking at your ass in expensive jeans. Matter of fact, Chaz Bundick is straight up trying to make Air records.
By the way, if anyone has written on department stores using music as a part of brand identification, please let me know.
In anticipation of their official release dates later this month, NPR is streaming Harvey and Adele’s new albums. I’m sure most readers would expect that I’d devote some space to Harvey’s Let England Shake. However, I’d imagine that regular followers of this blog are already digging the new album and are excited about the short films that are accompanying it. They can probably also tell you that she didn’t peak with Rid Of Me and continues to make great records. They might even say that White Chalk is far more intense than To Bring You My Love. Regardless of whether you know this or not, do check it out.
But I thought I should trumpet my excitement about Adele’s 21. It might be a populist vote, and I strongly encourage fans who want to check out lesser-known artists to give a listen to Orgone and Andreya Triana. However, I’m a believer in supporting good musicians with universal appeal–folks like Jill Scott, Sharon Jones, and fellow Texans like Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones. My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played “Sawdust and Diamonds” for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?
The Grammys are this Sunday, and I plan to tune in and perhaps live Tweet alongside the folks over at In Media Res, who are devoting this week to critical explorations in pop music. I’ve got a cocktail riding on the Album of the Year winner. If it goes to Katy Perry, the hellmouth will open and we won’t have any new Septembers. You’ll recall Adele won two awards in 2009, including the contentious Best New Artist prize. I totally think she deserved it. I admitted my love for her (and my scorn for Vogue‘s sizeism) early in this blog’s run. My only reservation with 21 is that I don’t think there’s a song that matches lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” which opens the album and is powerful enough to bring about a Biblical flood. But “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go” are also in heavy rotation, and her version of the Cure’s “Lovesong” honors the original (which I have tepid feelings for, as I don’t need Robert Smith when I have Siouxsie Sioux) and far exceeds the 311 cover. Adele’s sophomore album is exactly what it needs to be–accomplished, singular, and lousy with hits. She’s well on her way to becoming the Dusty Springfield of my generation, and is becoming our Adele in the process.
If we lived in a just world, Jill Scott would be a superstar. She’s got presence, people. It was obvious to me she was a star when I saw the music video for “A Long Walk”. It was probably obvious to her friends who encouraged her to pursue acting in the early 2000s. This has culminated in several television and film roles, most notably in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? series and HBO’s 2008 series No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The camera loves her face, she’s got a great voice, her eyes draw you in, she’s got a movie star smile, and her easy gait suggests someone magnetically comfortable with who she is. Actually, that’s probably why she isn’t as famous as her star power seems to demand.
That said, I think there’s something to be said for celebrities who demonstrate mainstream crossover appeal while remaining somewhat under the radar. While I wish fringe appeal wasn’t all but guaranteed to a confidently fat black woman in our wrong-headed media culture, I think there’s something great about someone at once seeming true to themselves while radiating star power with eminent potential to permeate beyond a niche audience.
But you know what? I still call bullshit on Scott’s peripheral celebrity. Because her performance as Precious Ramotswe in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency could have catapulted her to stardom. It’s not a game-changing procedural. Often the dialogue, apparently lifted directly from the Alexander McCall Smith book series on which the show is based, is leaden and the characters are quite broad. But it has a lot to recommend and could appeal to a mainstream audience with little effort. Despite some shortcomings folks seem to have no trouble overlooking in other procedurals that aren’t as good as The Wire, I found the show to be pretty likable. Scott’s performance has much to do with that. However, you wouldn’t know it, because the series opened to positive reviews but ultimately got no love come awards season. So maybe I can convince you, or your mom, or that coworker who loves Burn Notice, or the book club you’re in that read the books to catch up with this seven-episode series. I’ll do this in list form. I’m swiping a bit from a friend’s personal blog, because the entry encouraged me to watch it. But see? It just goes to show you that I’m not alone in being taken with Jill Scott and wishing more people recognized her considerable talents.
1. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency stars a confidently fat black woman playing a confidently fat African woman. Yes I’m repeating myself. I wish I didn’t have to. But that’s pretty remarkable. And unlike her character in the first installment of Why Did I Get Married?, at no point is Ramotswe apologetic about her size or shown eating as a means to pathologize her figure. She often sets people at ease by mentioning that her figure is “traditional” and conventionally attractive to older beauty standards within African culture, but I think she also just really enjoys her body. Yes, I wish she didn’t always have to remind people that fat women are super-sexy. I’d imagine Jill Scott feels that way too.
2. Ramotswe inherits land in Gaborone from her somewhat distant deceased father and decides to use it to help people (particularly women) in her surrounding community with legal problems and matters of the heart. Her reasoning is that women always know more about what’s really going on in their neighborhood than their male counterparts, who are usually in charge. She’s also dedicated to her job and really cares about providing a service to her community. She’s also a complicated woman with unresolved business with her ex-husband, a surreptitious attitude toward marriage, and the affections of a sweet car mechanic (JLB Matekoni, played by Lucian Msamati).
3. Ramotswe’s tightly-wound assistant Grace Makutsi is wonderfully played by Anika Noni Rose, perhaps best known for her work in Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog. Makutsi prides herself on superlative organizational and administrative skills, often noting that she scored 97% on her secreterial school exit exam. She also lost positions at more lucrative offices and law firms because she takes her job more seriously than some of her class mates, who view their work as stepping stones to becoming the boss’ mistress or next wife. Though the women encounter personality differences and struggle to keep the agency afloat, their professional relationship develops into a close friendship as the story develops. Also, if we’re looking for a black female nerd, I elect Makutsi for consideration. She’s also got a geek chic wardrobe that could give Glee‘s Emma Pilsbury a run for her wardrobe department’s money. If there’s a blog or a tumblr devoted to Makutsi’s style in the spirit of What Claudia Wore, I’ll gladly subscribe.
4. Yes, some of the supporting characters are rendered as flat and cartoonish. Makutsi suffers from this, as does BK (Desmond Dube), a gay hairdresser who runs a salon neighboring the agency. However, the actors beat the page and fill in their roles in surprising, poignant ways. Sometimes, the scripts meet them there too.
5. The series was filmed in Botswana. There is such a difference between location shooting and filming it at a studio (for a counterexample, hazard to watch five minutes of Outsourced, which fails at attempting to pass Studio City off as an Indian marketplace). Apart from employing local actors (which might allay anxiety about a predominantly white production staff), the city itself expands and deepens to create the show’s distinct sense of place. The women pursue their case work and go about their daily lives in it and in doing so, Botswana’s dimensions and complexities continue to reveal themselves. Charles Sturridge, Tim Fywell, and the late Anthony Mingella draw upon the cityscape’s distinct look and feel to create a larger universe in which these stories established themselves and unfold.
So seriously, there’s only seven episodes and Jill Scott’s delightful. What are you waiting for?
Ya’ll, the Lilith Fair is getting a reboot this summer. I missed the festival during its original run in the late-90s. Honestly, I wasn’t too invested in it. I was happy that founder Sarah McLachlan was putting it together, but the majority of the bill offerings were pretty nice white lady adult contemporary at the time.
But co-founder Terry McBride has resurrected the festival and it’s coming to Austin some time next summer. I gotta say that this summer’s roster looks good: Loretta Lynn, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Cat Power, Gossip, Metric, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Beth Orton, Emmylou Harris, Janelle Monáe, Teagan and Sara, Corrine Bailey Ray, fuckin’ Heart. Of course, we’ve still got plenty of nice white lady music, but it seems as if there was some effort to mix up the genres a little bit so it isn’t only about ladies strumming acoustic guitars (ex: Mary fuckin’ J!). On that tack, I’m pretty uninterested in Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Sara Bareilles, and Colbie Caillat’s involvement, but I understand that the festival’s gotta draw in some big MOR names. That said, I like that there’s some rad queer ladies and women of color on the bill.
As I don’t think the bill is 100% finalized, I’m hoping Thao and the Get Down Stay Down gets a spot on the bill. I’d also support additions like Jean Grae, Bat for Lashes, Neko Case, Marnie Stern, Shunda K, and Ponytail. I think it’d be cool if a stage was set up for local acts so folks like Follow That Bird, Yellow Fever, and Schmillion could get some more exposure — or even cooler if said bands formed their own counterfestival. Oooh, and if only they could get Sleater-Kinney to reunite. Can’t wait to see how this shapes up. For more up-to-date information, keep an eye on the festival’s Web site.
Originally, I was going to write about Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu’s second full-length album, in tandem with PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The reason for this was two-fold: for one, I got the two albums within a week of one another my senior year as Christmas presents (one of the few perks of having divorced parents) and, for another, both albums are turn-of-the-century declaratives about the complexities and contradictions of women being in and out of love, sometimes thrillingly occupying both positions at once. I also thought, as a neat aside, that it might be useful to think about contemporary female artists’ work across racial and/or generic boundaries.
However, I worry that I’d be doing a disservice to those particularities by glossing over them in what would inevitably be an overgrown post. Furthermore, there are some jarring differences between the two albums that I cannot yet resolve in thinking about them together. Harvey’s “happy” album is largely believed to be about her by-now defunct relationship with hipster auteur and New York die-hard Vincent Gallo; Badu’s “game-changing” album is conclusively about the end of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and possibly the beginning of another one with Common. Harvey’s album finds her brightening her sound after her more experimental, less well-received Is This Desire? (which absolutely will be discussed as a record that made me a feminist once I start recounting my college years). Badu’s album finds her expanding her sound (and perhaps the sound associated with “neo-soul,” however silly a term that became), a project she would continue to do with last year’s mind-blowing, radically political, and tremendously funky, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War.
Most importantly, for my purposes, while the former speaks more specifically to love’s ability to project, the latter speaks to the embodied, conflicting feelings of a female place in a relationship.
Badu and I had met previously. Baduizm came out in 1997 and I found out about it thanks to Kurt Loder and the good people of MTV News who proclaimed that I would, in fact, hear it from them first. I bought it that summer for my birthday (for what it’s worth, I bought it with Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen — happy birthday to 14-year-old me!). She also made appearances on One Life To Live as herself, and acted in Blues Brothers 2000 and Cider House Rules (which I still have not seen in its entirety, but I know that she does a good job playing a tragic character in what I thought was an otherwise totally boring movie). But I treasured my copy of Baduizm, marvelling that someone could make vintage jazz, R&B, and funk sound so refreshingly hip and contemporary. She had such an interesting and beautiful voice. I loved that the music was coming out of a Texas girl who also spelled her name with a “y” (albeit for far more politically motivated reasons than me; Erykah Badu changed her name to be closer to her Ghanan roots while I became “Alyx” because we were studying Egypt in sixth grade social studies and I thought the spelling looked — ugh, white girl fail – more hieroglyphic).
But this album, which came out during my senior year hit me like a soft, sexy bomb (an apt reappropriation of Tom Breihan’s assessment of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, another pioneer 2000 release that, for some reason, I don’t own. I have, of course, seen the delightfully NSFW video for “Untitled“). I actually heard “Didn’t Ya Know” for the first time at a movie theater in West Palm Beach visiting my dad on Christmas vacation (I think it played before a screening of Cast Away). The Spice Girls’ “Holla” played some time after that, but as J. Dilla’s warm, soulful production wrapped around me and Badu’s at-times wrenching and at-times assured vocal delivery let me know what I’d be spending that Sam Goody gift certificate on.
Speaking of J. Dilla, Badu’s collaborative spirit was also something of an inspiration to me, especially since was able to work with men. Like Björk, who has worked extensively with like-minded dudes like directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, as well as producers like Matmos, Mark Bell, and Nellee Hooper, Badu was always able to forge creative spaces with men while still standing her own ground. With The Roots or producer J. Dilla (and later Madlib and 9th Wonder), she was still fully able to articulate her artistic imperatives. When she duets with Stephen Marley on “In Love With You,” she seems to be coming at the song (and its subject matter) as an equal. It should also be noted that she’s got room for the ladies too, working with women like Jill Scott and, on this album, Betty Wright.
One thing I’ve always felt Badu doesn’t get enough credit for as a musician is her loopy yet razor-sharp sense of humor. Anyone who follows fatbellybella on Twitter can tell you Badu is hilarious. But her humor is also evident in her songwriting, which while often confessional will often diffuse potentially maudlin moments with daffy yet incredibly perceptive asides (the bridge to “…& On” recounts memorable moments – in loose rhyme – going with her mom to the laundromat, her first period, learning about oppression at school, watery cereal, hearing herself on the radio, and wearing head wraps). Her self-awareness is also evident — “…& On” makes several direct references to Baduizm‘s breakout hit “On and On,” and “Cleva” mediatates on how she uses her brains and wit to compensate for self-perceived physical deficits, lamenting that her breasts sag when she’s not wearing a bra, bragging that her thrift-store togs look awesome, and stating, upfront, that this is what she looks like without makeup.
Her humor is also in her voice. People tend to focus more on her voice’s supposed “jazziness,” especially early on in her career when critics were clamoring to figure out how most subtly to compare her timbre and tone to the tragic Billie Holiday’s. And while Holiday’s humor also gets obscured from this discussion, if we have to compare Badu’s voice to someone else, I actually think Badu is closer to Blossom Dearie, the recently deceased singer who used her high-pitched coo to utilize a myriad of possibilities, whether it be taking pot-shots at hipsters or singing about unpacking adjectives. I could hear Badu doing both, maybe even in the same song.
What makes Badu’s approach to songwriting interesting is that her sense of humor can turn a song whose subject matter seems silly or inconsequential or rote on the surface into something surprisingly more progressive. Take “Booty,” for example. The song originally seems to be a a diss song directed at a woman whose man has turned his attentions toward Badu. While the woman has a PhD, is more conventionally attractive, is a better cook, boasts a fast-tracked career, and is more financially stable than Badu (at least in this song, as college-educated Erica Wright went to Grambling), Badu still has to fight off her partner’s advances. At first, when Badu says “I don’t want him,” it seems to suggest that this man (and, by association, this woman) are beneath her. Yet, in the bridge (the song has no verses), Badu reveals that her intentions speak toward a kind of female solidarity, albeit one strained by classed circumstantial differences. She doesn’t want this man, not because she has designs on someone else, but because he doesn’t respect his current relationship enough to be honest and make arrangements with his partner. In essence, Badu believes both women need to cut this man loose because they can do better.
She performs a similar feat with “Bag Lady,” which at first seems to be an indictment about women who enter into relationships with too much baggage. What it ends up becoming is an anthem about personal freedom and empowerment, with Badu encouraging the woman to break free from her self-imposed shackles, stressing that self-love will make it better while being backed by a euphoric women’s chorus.
Many would argue that “Green Eyes,” a ten-minute suite that stands as the album’s final song, is its centerpiece. I’d be one to agree, and find it especially astonishing that OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson,” which tells André 3000′s side of their break-up was released but a few months before Mama’s Gun came out (Badu also makes a cameo on the album, singing with her former partner about broken dreams in the chorus of “Humble Mumble”). As Touré discusses in his Rolling Stone review of Mama’s Gun, it’s hard not to read into these musicians’ personal moments that then get projected into their work, with the audience knowing who’s singing (or rapping) to who. You could easily do it with Beyoncé singing about being “Crazy in Love” with Jay-Z, who would then reply that he’s got hip hop and R&B’s “number one girl . . . wearing (his) chain” in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” You could also easily do it with Badu’s appearance in the music video for Common’s “The Light,” a song the rapper wrote for her about their (now-defunct) relationship, strengthening the musical association by having J. Dilla steer the production.
But on its own, “Green Eyes” is an epic, discursive, devastating break-up anthem whose power few since have touched (though I think Aeroplane and Kathy Diamond’s “Whispers” comes the closest). It begins with a flirtatious, jazzy lilt wherein Badu claims that her eyes are green, not because she’s jealous that her former lover now has a new partner. Instead, she unconvincingly lies, her eyes are green because she eats a lot of vegetables. After claiming “it don’t have nahhhh-thing to do with your . . . friend,” the music becomes slower and more dirge-like. Her voice and lyrics also become less certain, shakier. She doesn’t know if she loves him anymore, but thinks she might, and is clearly frustrated how love is putting in her in such a tether. From here, she pushes her lover further away in one phrase, claiming to do fine and realizing how angry she is at him for not recognizing her worth, while a few lines later asks if they can make love one last time. Her humor is still there, at times helping her sell the lie of her feelings, while other times confronting her with the truth. She calls herself silly at the thought of her lover being true, stating that she should change her name to “Silly E. Badu.” It’s a joke, but no one — least of all her — is laughing. You know she’ll get through it eventually, but she has to work through her hurt before she moves forward. I know it was a song that helped me work through a broken heart, even if I had to lie face down and sob into the carpet to do it.
But there is plenty of love and lust on this album, acknowledging that women can turn art out of being happy and healthy. “Orange Moon” begins as a stately, romantic ballad to finding someone helped her believe in love, only to erupt into pure, unadulterated about how good/God her lover is (the “God” reference potentially serving as a Five Percenter allusion). “Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” focuses its attentions instead on the more immediate nature of necessary gratification. The inclusion of these songs evince that for women, love and sex are neither mutual nor exclusive concepts. They can be both.
The album also allowed me to think outside of love (and thus myself) to start questioning more political matters and begin to want for more radical action. While Badu may be charming and funny, she’s also a fine, agitated mind. The song that accomplished this most specifically for me was “A.D. 2000,” a song about Amadou Diallo and his brutal murder at the hands of a quartet of trigger-happy police officers. Excepting the Rodney King beating and subsequent hearing, this was the first time I really thought about police brutality (note: Bruce Springsteen also addressed this horrible tragedy in song, to some controversy).
A year later, I would read about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Two and a half years after that, I would start dating a person who got pulled over by a cop for driving the speed limit with the headlights on in a residential area at 10 p.m. while listening to GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword. Eight months after that, I would read Assata Shakur‘s profound autobiography. About a year after that, I would read Angela Davis‘s autobiography, stunned that this intelligent, sensitive individual was the same person Ronald Reagan swore would never teach in California. Two years after that, I would get accosted by a cop for jay-walking through a red light at 3 a.m. when it was clear that the officer was more concerned by the nervous young college student of either Middle Eastern or South Asian descent walking three steps in front of me. In all this time in between, I would come to know several people who shared similar stories or worse, whether they were arrested for “obstructing a passageway” during protests or were accosted with racial profiling. I would also read about similar reported items in the news, always sad and horrified and sick and helpless that these kinds of actions still go on.
Badu would continue to be concerned with political issues like religious freedom, institutional racism, the drug trade, poverty, and sexism, and incorporate these matters into her music, which became increasingly more experimental as she matured as an artist. But with the political she always intersected personal issues, whether it was remembering growing up on hip hop records, motherhood, reconciling the fact that she had three babies with as many men, growing older, working within the mainstream, looking for ways to work outside of it, and always thinking about the ways that she fit (or chose not to fit) within it. This album was the start of thinking through these issues for me. I look forward to what Ms. Badu has to say next.