In the March installment of this column, I recalled the “good old days” of cassette tapes, along with the pros and woes of building “mixtapes” via tape decks. That installment produced a 60-minute mixtape of “oddball” hip-hop songs like De La Soul’s “Bitties in the BK Lounge”, MC Lyte’s “Zodiac”, and Tanya Morgan’s “Ode to Tanya”.
This month, the series tackles love and relationships. You can build at least three types of mixtapes focusing on these subjects. First, there’s the Lovemaking Mixtape. This type generally consists of songs specifically chosen to elicit arousal. I can’t speak for the ladies, but I’ve seen guys try to work the evening a lil’ somethin’ like this: after the guy and his beloved enjoy dinner (in college, that might’ve been Taco Bell) and a romantic movie (that means no car chases and nothing blows up), the two of them go back to his place (dorm room, apartment, borrowed car, etc.) and make out.
But of course you can’t just “make out”, can you? That’s bad etiquette. You need the right tunes. So you prepare the mixtape in advance to create the right ambience with songs like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” or “Sexual Healing”, Silk’s “Freak Me”, Janet Jackson’s “Anytime Anyplace”, or En Vogue’s “Don’t Go”. You can also throw in some Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross. Go easy on the Barry White, though, since the Maestro’s high level of coolness ain’t for everybody, only the sexy people.
Next, there’s the Romance Mixtape. The purpose of a Romance Mixtape is different from the Lovemaking Mixtape. Although lovemaking might be the ultimate destination, the more immediate goal is to display affection. It’s a classier affair, featuring songs along the lines of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “I’ll Write a Song for You”, Jewel’s “You Were Meant For Me”, and Prince’s “Adore”. Here’s the beauty of it: (1) you can’t resist 60 minutes of music telling you your boyfriend/girlfriend will love you until the end of time, can’t stop thinking about you, and will beat the living daylights out of anybody who tries to take you away; (2) the mixtape is proof positive that you put some thought into it since you had to pick the “right” songs for the occasion, which ultimately demonstrates your devotion; and (3) it’s cost effective (or, as we all like to say, “It’s the thought that counts”).
Finally, there’s the Breakup Mixtape, which is self-explanatory. After you’ve been dating awhile, things inevitably fall flat. You’re unable to “keep the music playing”, you no longer believe you’ll be unable to “breathe again” if you lose your “sweet thing”, and you’re almost 100% sure “a change would do you good”. The Breakup Mixtape does what you’re too sheepish to do: it sends your beau or sweetheart the message, “You’re history, you moron. You just don’t know it yet.” It’s cowardly, if you ask me, but quite effective. I probably think it’s cowardly because I’ve been on the headphones end of a Breakup Mixtape or two in my day (now you understand why my headphones are “busted”). Believe me, you don’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell you the relationship is over when your “boo” thinks it’s time for you to hear (in one sitting) Donell Jones’s “Where I Wanna Be”, Alanis Morissette’s “Not the Doctor”, Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’”, and Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love”.
Good songs about relationships are insightful. That’s why I’ve compiled a second mixtape of these songs to pinpoint the problems in our love lives. This 60-minute mixtape of R&B and soul tracks has been divided into two parts: Side A showcases songs by female artists, while Side B offers the male perspective.
SIDE A: “She Said”
“Blue Bottle Afta Shave” (4:24)—Cherokee, from I Love You…Me (1999)
This might sound obvious, but songwriters and recording artists like to emphasize it: you really should only date someone you like. I know, I know. That deserves a big “Duh”, but it’s true. Don’t hook up with somebody, give them the wrong idea, and then have to develop a plan worthy of James Bond to extricate yourself from the “relationship”. That’s what happened to sassy soul singer Cherokee, who admits in “Afta Shave” that she’s been sleeping with a guy she’s not even physically attracted to. It’s his smell that intrigues her, the scent of his aftershave. At least Cherokee was woman enough to finally tell this guy the real deal (albeit in a song), like Cherrelle did in “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” (famously remade by Robert Palmer).
Lesson: Date people you like. Don’t tease people you don’t like. Men: find the right aftershave.
“Saving All My Love for You” (3:58)—Whitney Houston, from Whitney Houston (1985)
All right, Ladies. Let’s say you actually like the guy you’re dating (go figure). Now you need to find out if he’s married. As Whitney Houston found out, it’s tough to get quality time with married men. Their pesky wives seem to think these men should honor their marriage vows and spend time with their children. In “Saving All My Love for You”, I think we discover what Mr. Jones was up to while that other guy had a “thing going on” with “Mrs. Jones”. So what does the mistress get out of the deal? “A few stolen moments,” Houston pines, knowing how impossible her situation is. “You’ve got your family and they need you there”. Carl Thomas had the same dilemma in “I Wish”. The difference is that Houston still longs for her married man while Thomas claims he wishes he’d never met his married woman in the first place.
“I’ve got to get ready,” Houston says, “Just a few minutes more / Gonna get that old feeling when you walk through the door / ‘Cause tonight is the night / for feeling all right / We’ll be making love the whole night through / ‘Cause I’m saving all my love for you.” You know a singer’s got it goin’ on when she can make adultery sound good.
Lesson: Your boyfriend/girlfriend shouldn’t be married to someone else. Also, I miss the Whitney Houston of the ‘80s more than I can say.
“Exclusively” (2:05)—Jill Scott, from Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds, Vol. 1 (2000)
Jill Scott’s “Exclusively” drives home a subtle reminder: don’t get too comfortable. Rendered in spoken word style, Scott describes a morning of “good extra lovin’” with Rahim, her boyfriend. Apparently, the scent of his cologne is unforgettable because the cashier lady at the local store recognizes the scent coming out of Scott’s pores and says, after several dramatic sniffs, “Rahim…right?” This lady should be on C.S.I.. But wait, is this the dude from the “Afta Shave” song?
“Exclusively” ends abruptly, right when I’m anxious to know what happens next. Do they argue? Do they have a wrestling match? Do they compare notes and plot a course for revenge?
There are many songs that let you know how important it is to stay alert. A few of my favorites are: En Vogue’s delightfully suspicious “Strange”, Me’shell Ndegeocello’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)”, Tony Toni Toné‘s “My Ex-Girlfriend Is a Ho”, “Say My Name” by Destiny Child, and of course Atlantic Starr’s “Secret Lovers” and Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover”. There’s a funny cell phone commercial where one guy’s phone has a caller list that includes his friend’s girlfriend. After his friend confronts him about the list, the affair is initially denied, but he’s busted when the phone rings, triggering the “Secret Lovers” ringtone.
Lesson: Ladies, don’t get so comfy in a relationship that you overlook warning signs. Fellas, don’t wear the same cologne all the time.
“Artificial Heart” (5:05)—Cherrelle, from High Priority (1986)
“Artificial Heart”, by Cheryl Norton (a.k.a “Cherrelle”), is a beat-heavy, bass-bumping (like a heart!) diagnosis and psychoanalysis of a lover’s inability to display affection. Her man is as cold as the frozen tundra, and she surmises he inherited the trait from his father, “‘cause you’re a chip off the hardened heart.” Cherrelle’s not the only lady to feel this way. “Ice King”, by Res, also tackles the mysteries of the masculine cold front. In “Artificial Heart” and “Ice King”, there’s warmth beneath the ice, but it’s difficult to reach, as Res explains, “Although I’ve seen your wickedness / I still love your effervescence / And I know that loving you don’t make no sense / I guess that’s why I like it.” Contrast that with the complete emotional detachment illustrated in Rick James’s “Cold Blooded” and Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake”.
But let’s face it, Fellas. Cherrelle and Res have a point: men have a tendency to internalize things. I think sometimes we refuse to open up because we’ve been hurt before and we try to compensate by donning a “calm, cool, and collected” exterior. For example, one of my ex-girlfriends told me…that, um…hmm…. You know what? We don’t need to talk about that right now. Let’s move on.
Cherrelle’s lesson of the day: “How do you expect someone to give love when they’re not receiving?”
“Bag Lady” (Cheeba Sac Radio Edit) (5:11)—Erykah Badu, from “Bag Lady” [single] (2000)
Fellas, don’t feel bad if you’re an “Ice King”. Erykah Badu wants you to know women carry plenty of baggage themselves. Whether it’s a name-brand bag, a grocery bag, or a nickel bag, these accessories are symbolic of unresolved emotional issues that keep piling up. Maybe Badu’s hankering for spring cleaning motivated Eminem to clean out his closet.
Badu’s lesson is simple: don’t let your past become an obstacle for your present and future. At the very least, work on being discreet about your baggage before you saddle someone else with the weight. “One day,” Badu croons in that neo-Billie Holiday way of hers, “he gon’ say, ‘you crowdin’ my space’...so pack light.” On a musical note, I included the remixed version of “Bag Lady” because it shows off the fly gangsta rhythm and guitar lick that Dr. Dre used for his song “XXplosive”.
“Bills, Bills, Bills” (4:16)—Destiny’s Child, from The Writing’s on the Wall (1999)
What exactly is an “automo-bill”? I don’t know, but Destiny’s Child made it famous and unexpectedly inflammatory when they sang this part of the chorus: “Can you pay my bills, can you pay my telephone bills, can you pay my automo-bills?” Somehow, TLC’s “No Scrubs” and DC’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” became synonymous with “male-bashing”, sliding sly lyrics over luscious grooves. In the case of “Bills”, I suppose lines like “You’re triflin’ / Good for nothin’ type of brotha” could be interpreted as male bashing, but let’s get real here. If you run up your girlfriend’s cell phone bill, shouldn’t she expect you to pay her back? If you drive her car so much the gas meter is pointing at “G” instead of “E” for “Empty”, can you blame her for being mad when you don’t refill the tank? Sorry, but I’m on Destiny’s side on this one (call me “Destiny’s Brother”)—you are indeed triflin’.
To show you the extent of the song’s impact, “Bills” seemed to inspire a response from Me’shell Ndegeocello, who usually records like she’s in her own world. In “Priorities 1-6”, she sings, “I ain’t gon’ pay your rent; all I got is love and time to spend”. In Me’shell’s liner notes for the song, she lists “a mate to pay bills, bills & automobills” as the sixth “priority” behind “gaudy jewelry” at number one and “sneakers made for $1.08 but bought for $150” at number two. Wait a sec. She’s poking fun at our “priorities”, isn’t she? Now that’s cold.
“Superwoman” (5:47)—Karyn White, Karyn White (1988)
In my book, “Superwoman” is the ultimate song about a relationship gone bad. Fellas, if you ever hear your wife or girlfriend humming this song, be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Think of Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale. Think of The First Wives Club.
When I listen to “Superwoman”, I’m impressed by the details. “Early in the morning,” she sings, “I put breakfast at your table / And make sure that your coffee has its sugar and cream / Your eggs are over easy, your toast done lightly / All that’s missing is your morning kiss that used to greet me.” You can tell from the quiver in Karyn White’s vocals that the narrator is really into this guy—making his breakfast, racing through rush hour so she can cook his dinner and have it waiting for him when he gets home. But all he does is complain about the juice being sour and how “it used to be so sweet”, prompting her to wonder if he’s talking about her. What a jackass! If she were a “Superwoman”, that kind of nonsense wouldn’t bother her, it would bounce off. Yet, despite everything she contributes to her marriage and family, this is the one task she can’t accomplish.
Really, this level of under-appreciation should be considered a criminal act. That’s probably why Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds recorded “Whip Appeal” (“Whip all your sweet sad lovin’ on me,” he suggests), promising to do any and everything to please his lady.
Babyface, if you’re out there, I appreciate the gesture, my brotha. You took a hit for Team Testosterone, so the ladies who feel like Superwomen don’t get pushed over the edge by our insensitivity and decide they should kill us all. Sometimes, the way we behave, no jury in the world would convict them.
SIDE B: “He Said”
“Segue” [track 7] (0:43)—New Power Generation, Exodus (1995)
The New Power Generation’s Exodus album is often considered a side project from the Artist Then Known As the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Rumor has it he’s the “Tora Tora” listed in the liner notes as being responsible for “double bass, vox and other shit”. Fact has it that Exodus, while fortified with Parliament-Funkadelic-like funk, possesses far too many skits, or “segues”. In the second segue, track number seven, we hear a couple making out, causing the bed to squeak. In the background, we hear a newscaster on the TV, reporting, “Fighting broke out overnight between rival factions at the Israeli-Syrian border…”. The man gets distracted from the amorous activity, so the woman asks, “Oh, Baby, what’s the matter?” He responds, “I guess I just got a lot on my mind…damn, why don’t you just TURN THE TV OFF!” Minutes later, he shoots the television. “Dang,” she gasps, “Whatchoo do that for? You need a hug or somethin’?”
Lesson: Talk to your partner before your anger makes you do something you’ll regret. How many household appliances do we have to lose before we change our ways?
“Poison” (4:22)—Bell Biv Devoe, from Poison (1990)
Ricky Bell, Michael Bivens, and Ron DeVoe—better known as Bell Biv DeVoe—branched out from New Edition to bring us music with more edge. They went from singing about a “Candy Girl” to singing about “Poison” and, in the process, gave us the wise warning, “Never trust a big butt and a smile.” Okay, so it’s not Confucius. Still, you can take a lot from Bell Biv DeVoe’s mix of R&B harmonies and hip-hop beats. “Beware, she’s schemin’,” they say, “She’ll make you think you’re dreamin’.” This is the antithesis of “That Girl”, the woman in Stevie Wonder’s song who “doesn’t use her love to make him weak, she uses love to keep him strong.” This woman, to quote Hall & Oates and Nelly Furtado, is a “Maneater”. Robert Palmer said she was “simply irresistible”; Prince called her an “Irresistible Bitch”. Michael Jackson agrees with Bell Biv DeVoe and calls her “dangerous”. I don’t know. Perhaps you should just call her “Angel of the Morning”.
Who knows if Bell, Biv, or Devoe is right or not about this “poison” theory, but that’s not what you need remember. The real lesson here is that you need to be careful when you take advice about women from your homeboys. It’s not always on point. Sometimes, you should beware of the person who says, “Beware…”
“Previouscats” (4:00)—Musiq Soulchild, Juslisen (2002)
“Previouscats” isn’t my favorite Musiq Soulchild song, but it’s one of his deepest. Usually, you’ll find Musiq running this line on the ladies, from his song “Just Friends”: “I’m not tryin’ to pressure you / Just can’t stop thinkin’ ‘bout you. / You ain’t even gotta be my girlfriend / I just want to know your name.” Yeah, sure, Musiq. Whatever. Lately, he’s been saying he wants to be some lucky lady’s “b-u-d-d-y”.
At any rate, “Previouscats” cuts through the crap and says, “I’m not to blame / For the pain / Caused by previous cats / Who had your heart before me.” Her beefs with her ex-boyfriends shouldn’t get dumped in his lap, he argues, especially when he’s been rock-solid, supportive, and attentive. I love it when he does the roll call, “See, I’m not Steven, or Anthony even / Leroy or Ivan.” The fact that her exes screwed up doesn’t mean he’ll do the same. Musiq tells it like it is: “I put in too much time for another brotha’s crimes.” And there endeth the lesson.
“Listen to Your Man” [featuring Joe] (5:19)—Chico DeBarge, from The Game (1999)
At first, “Listen to Your Man” sounds singularly preoccupied with interference from outsiders. Chico DeBarge and Joe get heated when their girlfriends’ girlfriends interject their opinions into the relationship. “Lately, you’ve been on some bullshit,” Chico declares at the outset. He’s outraged, insulted, and feeling utterly disrespected that his girl’s taking random advice from her jealous friends.
This “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” vibe is prominent and certainly relevant to why she won’t just listen to her man, as the song suggests. Yet, at a more basic level, there’s the problem of interpreting his behavior rather than listening to his words: “You don’t understand / The makeup of a man. / If I treat you like a dog / Then you wanna stay / If I treat you like a woman / Then you wanna walk away.” That’s an interesting slice of psychology there, alluding to the effects of misplacing trust in one’s friends simply because it’s too scary to trust one’s love interest. Then again, trust issues are understandable, aren’t they? For all she knows, he’s got the woman from “Side A” saving all her love for him.
“Confessions, Part 2” (3:50)—Usher, from Confessions (2004)
So your girlfriend finally learns to listen to you. At that point, I’m afraid of what will happen if you do what Usher did. Usher started dropping bombs “about that chick on Part One I told y’all I was creepin’ wit’ (creepin’ wit’) / Said she’s three months pregnant and she’s keepin’ it.”
Wow. Every time I hear Usher’s confessions, I wonder why “Confessions, Part 2” isn’t the theme song for Maury Povich’s talk show. Maury can solve any problem with a paternity test. Having trouble in school? Maybe you’re having problems because the guy sitting next to you isn’t your real dad. Maybe your real dad was as terrible at algebra as you are. Let’s find out. Just take this paternity test…
If “Confessions” won’t cut it as theme music, perhaps Usher can reprise his soap opera role as Raymond on The Bold & the Beautiful. He caused a lot of problems for Amber Moore (Adrienne Franz) back then. Hey, don’t look at the screen like that—all the cool people watch B&B! At the very least, Usher could create a new soap called “Confessions” and invite Justin Timberlake to play his archrival.
Whatever happens, we can all learn from Usher’s experience: If you’ve cheated on your main squeeze, it’s all right to confess—Usher encourages it—but try to tell it all in one sitting. You don’t want to have to return with a sequel, “See, what had happened was…she’s sayin’ she’s pregnant, but we can go see Maury and figure this thing out.” Forget it. Maybe you need to take Erykah Badu’s advice and call “Tyrone” (call him!) and “tell him come on, help you get yo’ shit’”. At a minimum, I recommend you leave the state.
“The Rain” (5:11)—Oran “Juice” Jones, from Juice (1986)
When Rockwell sang, “I always feel like…somebody’s watchin’ meeeeeeeee”, I’d like to think he was talking about Oran “Juice” Jones in “The Rain”. The “Juice” is on the loose for real on this track, backed by the synthesizer sound that defined the ‘80s. Instead of receiving the courtesy of a confession, Jones partakes in a wicked game of I-Spy in which he spots his lover with another man. “I saw you, and him” he sings in the infamous chorus, “Walking in the rain / You were holding hands and I’ll never be the same.”
It’s like an episode of Cheaters, except Jones’s “heat of passion” doesn’t move him to confront his girl and her boy toy. He thought about it, though, as he admits in his legendary monologue at the end of the song. Instead, he invites her to take off her coat when she comes home. He’s been waiting, with hot chocolate on the stove. “Did you miss me?” he wants to know. “Oh, you did? I missed you too. I missed you so much I followed you.” That’s when she, whose voice we never hear, figures out she’s “cold busted”. When he realized he’d been played, Jones emptied all the bank accounts, cancelled the credit cards, reclaimed all the jewelry he’d bought her, and packed up her belongings and stuck them in his guest room. “I gave you things you couldn’t even pronounce,” he admonishes her. “You, without me, is like cornflakes without the milk!”
The lesson, from Oran “Juice” Jones’s lips to your ears, is this: Be thorough. Make a clean break. But don’t go overboard. Prince took his cheating lover to court in “Eye Hate U”, but his cross-examination went berserk as the judge evidently allowed Prince to tie her up and cover her with a sheet. Blu Cantrell, in “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, settled the score by having extravagant shopping sprees on the cheater’s dime and by paying all of his bills about a month after the due date. Wicked.
There’s also a flipside to the lesson. If you find yourself in Jones’s position (i.e., following your lover around town), maybe it’s time to go home and make yourself a Breakup Mixtape. Few relationships can withstand undercover surveillance and stalking.
“Distant Lover (Live)” (6:22)—Marvin Gaye, from The Master: 1961-1984 [Box Set], Disc 3 (1995)
Long distance can sometimes be as problematic to a relationship as secret trysts and meddling friends. Unfortunately, with long distance, there’s generally no one to blame. When Marvin Gaye recorded this song, people weren’t hooking up in chat rooms, sending text messages, or having video conferences. You didn’t see people driving around on their cell phones, looking like they were talking to themselves. But for all our technology, we’re still unable to bridge the gaps. Singer-songwriter Linda Draper’s “Cell Phone”, from 2007’s Keepsakes, makes me think we might be more isolated with our gadgets than without them.
Yet, if there’s anything capable of bridging the distance, I believe it’s Gaye’s voice, which is why I dig the live version of “Distant Lover” so much. His voice expresses his urgency and communicates how deeply he longs for his lover. And since it’s a live recording, the setting feels authentic, the way a performer on tour might be thinking of a loved one back at home, as in Luther Vandross’s “Superstar”. I also love the contrast between Gaye’s connection with the live audience and the physical disconnection described in the lyrics. And when he sings the first two words of the song—“distant lover”—you can hear that crowd go bananas