Checking Road Rage
I have terrible, seething road rage. I’m the jerk who will honk at a moron who takes longer than a nanosecond to push his ride through a green light; I mutter under my breath at people who take four beats to move into another lane. Speed limits are more like friendly suggestions to me than actual law. I’m agitated every time I put my foot on the brake . . . you get the point.
Music is the perfect antidote to this, depending on the genre. Rock tends to agitate my condition, unless it’s the Eagles or Foreigner, hip-hop induces speeding tickets (especially Ludacris or Jay-Z), and current R&B annoys me so much that I end up grinding my teeth while cursing on the freeway. This is important for you to know because, surprisingly, the only music that really reminds me to breathe while I’m on the road is Blackstreet.
Stuck in rainy traffic, forty miles from my teeny apartment on a parking lot someone sarcastically named a freeway, I reached back and retrieved my new-but-used Blackstreet tape. I’d inherited the group’s first tape from a fellow music writer while I was living in Seattle; CDs had been flooding into her apartment, replacing her need for her massive collection of old R.Kelly, Tevin Campbell, or Aaron Hall tapes from almost a decade ago. All it took to keep me from chewing the top of my steering wheel was the intro to “Before I Let You Go”.
The legacy of Blackstreet is not that of a particularly classic group, but one that succeeded in its mission to become an updated version of the Temptations (even down to the ever-changing line-up)—sans fancy footwork. Not every love song is meant to induce a slow-dance-to-baby-making session, but after Teddy Riley’s success with Guy and New Jack Swing, its no surprise that much of his best work with Blackstreet yielded some great hits.
Even the corniest songs represent an era between our parent’s hip-swaying and kissing (think Barry White or Teddy Pendergrass) and the booty-shaking, penis-rubbing of right now; they were a much needed way station for black romance. Regretfully, there have been no runners up—not Jagged Edge (dammit, take off those stupid matching jumpsuits), Boys II Men were always way over the top in the preppy department (the harmonies were so lovely though), definitely not Public Announcement (who are you people without R.Kelly?), and, god help us, wasn’t Playa in the running for a little while?
No Diggity: The Very Best of Blackstreet, possibly the group’s last compilation, reminded me that Blackstreet was good for what it was—a group of very good voices with very good production and not so great lyrics. When they emerged in 1994, after Riley had delivered his New Jack Swing-style production to the SWV and Bobby Brown camps (among dozens of others), they came out in their black jumpsuits ready to replace the raunchy wake of Jodeci with a little old-fashioned mushy stuff. It worked: their first album achieved platinum status—and even when Dave Hollister left to pursue a solo career, they followed up with hits like “No Diggity”, a song I never liked with a borrowed bass line I couldn’t deny. The same was true with “Booti Call”—the fast-paced New Jack Swing thing is great for nostalgia purposes: it reminds me of the good old days, before I knew too much to be moved by a trite song.
No matter what I did, I could never resist the charm of Blackstreet in the long run. I stopped honking at people who were moving in front of my Corolla without signaling, or lurching toward my steering wheel, gritting my teeth at people for a second, when I listened to “Joy”, an ode to some very lucky, lovely lady. Sure, the music seems archaic compared to the glossed-out, Neptune-dominated sound R&B takes on these days. “Fix”, featuring the insanely bananas Ol Dirty Bastard, seems stuck in that era, as does “Girlfriend/Boyfriend”, featuring Janet Jackson. Sometimes the sap is way too much on the ballad version of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
While we’re on the subject of excess, remaking “Billie Jean” was a horrible mistake for inclusion here; their rendition doesn’t fall under the umbrella of Very Best anything. That said, aside from the glaring omission of Blackstreet’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s classic, “Love’s in Need of Love Today”, the songs that really make Blackstreet a fixture in R&B history are in this collection: all the ones that just so happen to be songs they made a decade ago on that first tape.
Even the sappy stuff from Blackstreet—like “Falling in Love Again”—distracted me from ramming my 1998 fender into someone’s brand new whip. It wasn’t just temporary euphoria that calmed my spirits, but the nostalgia-inducing formula that made Blackstreet famous—sweet words, tacky-now-but-slammin’-then music, and real, down-on-my-knees-girl sincerity.
If they never make another album, I’m fine with the one I’ve got: and with No Diggity in my possession, I can practice patience in the privacy of my own home instead of behind the steering wheel.