Category Archives: Contemporary R&B

2016 is Anderson .Paak’s Year, We’re All Just Living in It

Sometime around the middle of this year, I realized that a surprisingly large proportion of the new music I loved was being made by one person: Southern Californian recording artist and producer Anderson .Paak. Paak isn’t a newcomer, per se; he’s been around since 2012, when he released his debut album under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy, and his 2014 album Venice generated some minor buzz among people who pay more attention to contemporary music than I do. But I first became aware of him right around the time a lot of other people seemed to: late 2015, when he signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records and contributed to several tracks on his new label head’s comeback record Compton.

From that description, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Anderson .Paak is a rapper–and he is, at least under the expanded definition of what constitutes a “rapper” in 2016. He contributed a freestyle (above) as part of XXL magazine’s annual “Freshman Class,” alongside other such unconventional artists as Desiigner and Lil Dicky; he was also recognizably rapping on the first track I heard from him, “Unique” by yet another generically hybrid artist, Washington, DC’s GoldLink. But that’s not all he’s doing: even on his most conventionally hip-hop songs, Paak’s flow is like a more musical, less rhythmically complex version of Kendrick Lamar‘s rasp on To Pimp a Butterfly, with a little bit of Southern soul shouting and even a dash of Morris Day‘s cartoonish jive in the mix. On “Come Down” (below), the most recent single from his album Malibu, he certainly struts like a rapper, but the groove he’s tapping into comes from a tradition that far precedes hip-hop as a genre.

And that, I suppose, is the heart of Anderson .Paak’s appeal. Like the aforementioned Kendrick, he’s undeniably contemporary, but with a deep sense of musical history: he was, in fact, recently embroiled in a minor “beef” with viral trap mumbler Lil Yachty over the responsibility of artists to be “students of the game first.” Personally, I’m not all that interested in comparing the two; I think there’s room for Anderson .Paak and Lil Yachty. But Paak’s insistence that young artists know their history says a lot about where his own work is coming from. Malibu bounces from rap-influenced heaters like “Come Down” to soulful, jazz-inflected ballads like “The Bird” to the expansive alt-hip-hop suite “The Season/Carry Me” (below), and sounds equally convincing on all fronts. It’s the work of an artist who’s deeply invested in his influences, but not beholden to them. In concert, Paak is just as versatile: moving back and forth from the front of the stage to behind the drums as the situation–and his sense of showmanship–demands.

Malibu may very well be my favorite album of 2016 so far–which is saying something, since it came out way back in January. But even outside of that album, Paak has kept coming to my attention. There he was in May with a feature for electronic producer KAYTRANDA:

Then there he was again in August with rapper Mac Miller:

Most recently, Paak has released a second full-length, Yes Lawd!, with Stones Throw producer Knxledge as NxWorries. It’s also great: a glitchier, druggier, less organic incarnation of Paak’s laid-back hip-hop soul.

I’m not gonna lie: it’s been a while since I’ve been as excited about a new artist as I am about Anderson .Paak. His blend of vintage influences with contemporary sensibilities is pretty much tailor-made for my tastes, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. And when it comes time to put together my “Best of 2016” list for Dystopian Dance Party, the only question at this point is how many separate times Paak is going to show up.

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Filed under 2010's, 2016, Contemporary R&B, Hip-Hop, Uncategorized

‘Miss Sharon Jones-Cultural Reflections from

Sharon Jones

Cultural Reflections
“Miss Sharon Jones” an exceptional story
By Ron Wynn

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s newest documentary “Miss Sharon Jones” is an exceptional tale of triumph and perseverance in the face of recurring obstacles, as well as a chronicle of the way things work for independent musicians and bands in the 21st century. Jones and the Dap-Kings, a New York ensemble who’ve become quite popular on the neo-soul and contemporary R&B circuit despite never having any radio hits or selling large numbers of albums, are spotlighted during a key three-year period between 2013 and the present when they were trying to maintain momentum from previous acclaimed releases and tours. But during this time frame, Jones finds herself battling pancreatic cancer, enduring multiple procedures and having to take time away from recording and touring each time to rebuild her strength and regain her stamina. Simultaneously she battles guilt feelings over being the reason why her band members have to deal with layoffs and lost pay because she’s unable to work.

Kopple doesn’t sugarcoat or obscure any of the tough moments during Jones’ battles. The audience sees her occasionally discouraged, downcast and irritable, as well as pensive because she also is dealing with the recent loss of her mother and the fact that she never got to really see that her daughter did become a successful performer.  Dismissed frequently for being too short, unattractive, even too dark, she didn’t even have her first LP released until she was 40. At one time she worked as a prison guard. Yet through all the struggles and despite the negative claims of some critics, she and the Dap-Kings persisted, and the band’s ultimate victories are seen late in the film as they appear on national and syndicated programs like “Ellen” and “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”

The assistance of holistic nutrionist Megan Holken proves especially vital, as her efforts and those of manager Alex Kadvan and assistant manager Austen Holman help Jones maintain her spirit during the lowest moments. She also returns to her Augusta, Georgia hometown to relive old memories (both good and bad), do some fishing, and recall the impact that the great James Brown had on her. He was an inspiration and mentor, and she cites his message to her as among the things she always recalls in times of need.

The film also segues into other timely aspects of Jones’ life, among them an incredible performance that she gives at her church, where the spiritual side of her personality comes across just as vividly as the soul diva/R&B shouter side does in concert. The finale, a sold-out comeback concert at the Beacon Theatre, with Jones’ returning to her adopted New York home. She’s initially worried that she won’t be up to the challenge, but then shows in a decisive and memorable opening number that she’s not only back in form, but even more intense and determined to succeed.

Whether this earns Barbara Kopple a third Oscar win or not, “Miss Sharon Jones” is every bit as powerful and magnificent as anything she’s ever done, and a superb story about a singer and band who’s defied both professional and medical odds and won both times.

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Filed under 2016, Barbara Kopple, Contemporary R&B, film reviews, musical documentary, Neo Soul, Ron Wynn, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Anatomy of THE Groove 10/31/14 Rique’s Pick : “Creepin” by George Duke

The late great George Duke was a master of the musical approach he termed “Funny Funk” in a 1974 song on his album “Feel.” He’s not alone in this category, sharing the ability with esteemed funkers such as Rufus Thomas, The Time, Joe Tex, Jimmy Castor, Junie Morrison and of course George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and their Parlafunkadelicment Thang. In truth, most funk artists include some humorous asides in their songs, lyrics and grooves, but George Duke was a true master at it! Todays spooky funk song features Duke spinning a yarn about the type of incident that is humurous only in the tragicomic sense. “Creepin” is a tale of those folks who want to have their cake and eat it too, the people for whom “One Fun at a Time” simply will not do.

The song begins with a theatrical aside, George Duke playing some dramatic, tense, close piano intervals with a slight horror/troubled soap opera feel while the drummer John Roberts plays some simmering cymbals. George is rapping with bassist Christian McBride, telling him he saw his woman doing something she “shouldn’t be doing” recently. Before long the sinister groove kicks in, a funky riff influenced by the old horror film music. The groove weighs in as extra large on the funk scale because its played by Christian McBride’s upright bass, teh bass clef notes of George Duke’s piano, a muted guitar, some sort of synth string patch and vocals singing in their deepest bass voice about a dude creeping at the club when his girl is asleep. Duke’s groove makes the act of stepping out on your loved one sounds like the truly precarious, harrowing experience it is, both in terms of the plots one has to undertake to make it out undetected as well as the emotional, financial and even physical danger the Midnight Creeper risks.

After the basic groove slithers its way in, a brief horn riff is introduced as well. The drumming is a tight, funky and slightly swinging modern day funk/hip hop fusion, taking that hip hop swinging drum style created on drum machines and putting it back in the hand of a live player. It could also be a mix of live and electronic drums. Along with the horn riffs Duke and co also deliever wordless spooky singing. This is followed by a more meditative passage where Christian McBride’s upright bass is allowed room to play a passage. When the lyrics return we learn you have to be “Jeckell and Hyde with a strong alibi” to creep. The acoustic bass passage returns with George Duke sprinkling some piano lines on top. Around 2 minutes and fifty two seconds in George Duke comes in with a acoustic piano solo, mainly spinning single note melody lines, very melodic yet very fluid at the same time, working all the way up to the high register of the piano. After that the spooky chorus comes back with more instructions/commentary on the methods of the Creeper. The song ends with a dramatic yet rhythmically funky string interlude, essentially sealing the fate of the Creeper for us.

George Duke and his band utilize their tremendous musical skills to have fun on this song, while also talking about something very serious. As I mentioned earlier, the predicament of the Creeper is truly tragicomic, as it sometimes includes hiding in cars, under beds, in closets and various other sundry places. Yet, people have always done it and will continue to get it in. It’s a tribute to Duke’s songwriting skills, mastery of music, and understanding of the human predicament that he made a jam about Creeping both humurous and spooky at the same time, just like the activity he was funking about!

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Filed under "Skeletons", Contemporary R&B, George Duke, Halloween, Hip-Hop, Jazz-Funk, Music Reviewing, Nu Funk, P-Funk

Antomy of THE Groove 10/17/14 Rique’s Pick : “Lovely People” by Earth, Wind & Fire

There are certain songwriting and producing jobs in music that just stand out above all others if you’re a fan of music. One of them, that will.i.am was able to achieve for my side of todays “Anatomy of THE Groove” figure, was writing and producing a song for Earth, Wind & Fire’s 2005 album “Illumination, called “Lovely People.” It was not the first comeback I’d witnessed from EWF, a group who’s peak was right before I was born yet who’s music was an essential part of my upbringing. 1987 and ’88 were one of my favorite times ever in my young life for music. EWF had a great album called “Touch The World” at that time with a fantastic electro funk single called “System of Survival”, one of my favorite songs ever. But while “System of Survival” employed a treacherous electro funk beat put together by a writer/producer named Skylark, that contained a dope and classic EWF lyrical story, the beat was a whole other edge of the 21st Century thing. on “Lovely People” will.i.am takes the classic EWF joyful funk Afro-Diasporic dance sound and edits it for modern sensibilities. The results are a reinvigorated EWF, soudning as if they continued as a group with Maurice White from the end of their run to the present day. Mainly, it’s a song with that true Earth, Wind & Fire message of joy, love and blessings.

Right off the bat, the Kalimba sounds along with harmonizing let us know it’s EWF. The track begins with snippets of Kalimba, electronically processed and running in reverse, backed by what sounds like vocals from the song running in reverse. The sound of the Kalimba and the obscured vocals immediately put one in that EWF “Pyramid” frame of mind, like some of their mystical concert entrances and exits. The next thing in the arrangement is another band signifier, the horn section playing a magisterial ascending riff. And just like that, we’re back in the zone of the elements of Earth, Wind & Fire!

A thunderous groove kicks off, a real rollicking, rolling Native American sounding groove, remeniscent of the types of drum beats Maurice White’s fellow Memphis native Al Jackson Jr would play behind Al Green, and that Syliva Robinson copped on her classic, “Pillow Talk.” The guitar plays very short, clipped chords, and Verdine White slides down his bass. The feeling is that of a tremendous groove motor beginning to rev up, as will.i.am plays the party M.C.

After that intro, the horn phrase announces the beginning of the chorus section. The verse drops right there at the top of the song, “To all of my Lovely People/step to the floor and disco.” The phrase “Lovely People” is one that caught my attention when the song first dropped. What struck me is that it was such an EWF, Maurice White phrase, full of optimisim and love for humanity. It impressed me that an outside writer such as will.i.am could come up with that with the group in mind! The vocals are backed by a lively Afro-Carribean dance funk groove. In addition to EWF’s obvious and classic Brazillian stylings, they were also a master of integrating other grooves from the African diaspora. They had the greasy grooves of Memphis and the transplanted blues, soul and gospel of Chicago deep in their musical DNA. The cool of California lent a shiny sheen to their recordings. But also in the mix, was the sound of the festivals of the Carribean, found on such EWF classics as “As Love Goes On”, which was itself recorded in the Carribean.

The Afro-Carib groove features lively rhythmic guitar strumming with the classic high EWF guitar tone, innovated and promulgated by Al McKay, Johnny Graham and Roland Bautista. will.i.am’s vocals in the mix with the bands helps provide the Carribean element as well.The verse groove is definitely influenced by the more spare modern hip hop/R&B approach, with the guitar playing a busy rhythm, horn stabs in and out, and Verdine White’s bass only providing occasional funky accents. All in all its a model of economy of groove. As the “Lovely People” verse ends, the next section features classic worldess EWF harmonizing around the solfeggate of “La”, with “Lovely People” being sung by Phillip Bailey. Verdine White is also allowed more room to stretch out on bass on that section.

Around 1:45 in, the band hits a nice EWF musical interlude, with will playing MC over the lively beat and harmonizing. After that he comes in with a rap, not too much, just lyrics with the intention of moving the party on. That is followed by a lively horn riff that supports some vocalinzing from will. The song has a long groove fade out with another EWF signifier, an actual Kalimba solo!

Songs like this always fascinate me. I was always interested in how to bring the classic funk sound into the here and now. Not by sampling it, but by a more subtle process of incorporating elements, including some and exvluding others. “Lovely People” features the Kalimba, an Afro Carribean rhythm, harmonizing, the horn section, and many other elements of EWF’s classic sound. It also has a lyric, that while not dealing with any heavy topic of inspiration, still manages to inspire through its positivity matched with an uplifting groove. will.i.am accomplished what any modern musician would want to, updating his influences sound to what it would sound like TODAY. It’s almost like a father figure or uncle wanting you to help them pick out some modern clothes, and you show them pictures of themsevles when they were younger and then go into their closets and pick out some things they already have. Then you might add a touch or two from your closet to top it off. The results here were a fresh look that still said “Earth, Wind & Fire”, rather than the band simply trying to look fresh.

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Filed under Brazil, Contemporary R&B, Earth Wind & Fire

Anatomy of THE Groove 10/17/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Stressed Out” by Babyface

By the time the new millennium had officially arrived? Kenneth Babyface Edmunds found himself in a position of becoming nearly a total musical cliche’. His high,soft voice matched with coaxing lyrical insinuation and an instrumental preference for very soft adult contemporary pop ballads-quite often oriented around the acoustic guitar, gave the impression of an artist barely capable of expressing either yearning sexuality or vitality of character. Inwardly the man had a very different side however. So ‘Face rounded on than new producer Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes to showcase another side of his musical talent that,even from his days as a member of the 80’s boy band The Deele,had been rather subdued. This is showcased most heavily on the song “Stressed Out” from the 2000 album Face2Face.

After a whispered declaration of “make your dreams come true” from Babyface,a keyboard/guitar oriented melodic solo kicks in with a pulsing choir sound. This melody,backed up by a marching beat,comes to a refrain of these phrase that features a straight up funky…well either it’s a guitar or a synthesizer simulating one. Due to the technological progression of the time it’s hard to tell. This stop/start funkiness is basically the instrumental bed for Babyface’s vocals on this songs-which he delivers in both straight ahead and more dragging vocal drawls that accompany the harmonic flow of the song. Toward the end of the final refrain,there is a beautifully written Stevie Wonder-like chord progression before the last verse of the song.

This song is also a case where I feel it’s important to focus on the lyrical content of the song,and how Babyface’s vocals present them. As mentioned earlier, Babyface presented himself as a man who was willing to sacrifice his own confidence to secure a given romantic association. On this particular song? Not only is physical sex more then a little implied, but Babyface is telling the lady in his life (unsure if this was written with Tracy Edmunds in mind or not) that her own fears of intimacy and distant attitude can only really be successfully alleviated if she merely relaxes (as he tells her not to “stress out”) and simply allows herself to feel some sense of joy and life in the experience. So here,Babyface is a romantically uplifting and encouraging force rather than a merely submissive one.

Musically speaking this song is not merely about Babyface changing his own approach to his craft,but also part of the ever evolving sound of Pharrel’s production as part of The Neptunes. With the success of similar minded songs to this,in particular Nelly’s famous “Hot In Here”? The sound that The Neptunes were developing during the early aughts were to become the popular R&B/dance sound of that era-spawning a number of very half baked imitations of their sound in what became known as “contemporary R&B”. This was a very similar chain of events that occurred with Teddy Riley’s innovation of new jack swing over a decade before this. But on this song and others from the source of The Neptunes? The sound had a strong,uptempo groove travelling on a vital musical road. A road right into the rhythmic nucleus of funk. And for Babyface that was just what the metaphorical Dr.Funkenstein ordered!

 

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Filed under Babyface, Contemporary R&B, Funk, Pharrell Willaims, The Neptunes