When someone is living in an age when most female soul artists are presenting themselves largely through the most shallow end of physical sexuality, it can be easily to become cynical that well rounded feminine sensitivity had been lost along with an overall sense of poetry. The same goes for male artists in the same position. Two people who are looking towards the Afrocentric futurism that the jazz-funk era represented in the 1970’s in today’s music world are the bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and Janelle Monae. While recognized by a certain creatively minded musical community,deserved recognition by the masses still evades them. Most still obsessed with sexually profane “contemporary R&B” female artists who are often more photogenic than innovative. Some react to this by assigning blame to past decades political problems,others blame the genre of hip-hop. However at a time when music wasn’t exactly having the usual healing effect on my soul? A song came my way that was a collaborative effort between Spalding and Monae. It’s called “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”.
Instrumentally the song begins with a slow and steady Afro-Cuban conga based percussion line,over which is played a slippery and multi tracked high synthesizer solo-in which each track has the effect of a round echoplex type reverb effect which gave it the glistening glassy effect. After this introduction a live drum sound enters as Janelle begins singing a lyric that describes a very glamorous yet mysterious feminine figure (possibly Janelle’s android doppelganger character Cindy Mayweather) whose has a romantically bewitching persona. At the end of each chorus a high trombone is heard almost like an apparition in the back round of the song. The bassline weaves in and out of the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the song very much in the manner of a thread through a sewing needle,which maintains the jazz oriented flavor of the chord progressions of the song. The bridge is composed entirely of Esperanza engaging in some powerful multi tracked vocalese as the melody of the song entirely changes before going into the refrain-after which Janelle herself presents a romantic spoken word verse before the powerful jazz-rock guitar solo which closes out the song-accompanied by the chorus of “She’s got Dorothy’s eyes”.
Deeply inspired by the vital instrumental and production dynamics of late 70’s Stevie Wonder/Quincy Jones style jazz/funk/soul/rock hybrids,this is the type of somewhat minor chorded funk with a dreamy atmosphere that might fool the listener into believing its a slow jam ballad. But actually its uptempo funk in the vein of a Michael Jackson number such as “Rock With You” and “I Can’t Help It”. On the other hand,what distinguishes this song from them,and almost all contemporary funk/soul music is the heavy jazz elements. I didn’t realize until researching this song that Esperanza and Janelle both shared the vocal refrains throughout this song. Their vocal styles are so close and compatible its often hard to tell when one is singing-especially when their vocals are melded into the others through the production like melted aural caramel. Because of cultural changes in the perception of music production that occurred in the post Prince era, most modern funk in a band context even tends to prefer to keep a live instrumental aestetic with no frills.
This song clearly utilizes live instrumentation but enhances them with the most magical end of studio production. The song openly celebrates not only studiocentric musicality,but also showcases a strong female characterization of someone who is of great physical beauty yet is also astute enough to be able to bring out emotional fantasies in potential suitors as physical ones. There’s a strong sense of adult sensuality in this song-instrumentally and lyrically reflecting the hopes,desires and mysteries of someone secure enough with themselves to view romance beyond simply the physical desire. Not to mention paying tribute to the historically significant movie star who gave the song its title,”Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”-featured as the next to last song on Janelle’s September 10th album release The Electric Lady is not only a beautifully eloquent jazz funk song but an important blueprint for all modern female artists in this musical spectrum who are in all truth in need for a new and more meaningful creative voice.