Exactly How Gangsta Is
This is part of the chorus of Christina Milian’s single, “Say I”:
I’ma keep it gangsta
I’ma make it hot
If you feelin’ like I do
Then people throw ya hands up and say “I”.
Whenever I hear that “keep it gangsta” line, I can’t help but giggle. It’s as if somebody walked over and said, “Yo, Rudy Huxtable’s album is the bomb.” Then, while I’m standing there scratching my head, the person continues, “That’s right, the little girl on The Cosby Show whose goldfish died—Rudy Huxtable! She’s keepin’ it gangsta!” Hilarious.
Maybe that’s a little much. Plus, we’ve been using the term “gangsta” in a wide variety of ways lately. It’s like that scene in the movie Donnie Brasco where agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), known undercover as the movie title, tries to explain Mafia lingo to his FBI homies. When asked the meaning of the ubiquitous phrase “fugeddaboudit”, Pistone explains that you say “Forget about it” when: you agree, when you disagree, when you see something cool, when you want to tell somebody off, and of course when you just want to say “Forget about it”. Likewise, I recently heard a kid say, “That’s gangsta,” about a bike he got for his birthday. Pretty soon, the voice-overs in commercials for prescription pills and medical supplies will be using the word too: “Best of all, Medicare pays for it. Isn’t that gangsta?”
But it still sounds funny when Milian sings it. It’s even more weird when, on her latest release So Amazin’, she says, “F**k you” and “I still loved you / when yo a*s got laid off” in “Who’s Gonna Ride”, or when she begins the song “Foolin’” with, “You supposed to be that ni**a.”
“That ni**a”? It’s so bizarre to hear that on this album, particularly when these same songs generally keep the lyrics a notch below PG. Then, ka-blow, out of the blue, there’s a randomly placed “a*s”, “sh*t”, “f**k” or “ni**a”. Especially that last word.
Now, I wasn’t trying to get all Al Sharpton about this, but let’s address this before someone says, “Hey, you all review albums with the n-word all the time and nobody says anything” and “How come it’s okay for the male rappers to say the n-word, but not Christina Milian?” I’m not too fond of the “Why not everyone” implication in that second question but, in any event, it shouldn’t be about any of that. I’m intimately familiar with the n-word. Heck, I’ve been called it a few times, in the “What’s up, Buddy” way and the “Why don’t y’all go back to Africa” way.
Rather, it’s supposed to be about diction, word choice, and crafting lyrics that enhance a track rather than distract from it. This ought to be important since Milian has done a large share of the writing on this disc. Yet, there isn’t an “a*s”, sh*t, “f**k” or “ni**a” on this album that couldn’t have been avoided, with the possible exception of the “Don’t let the door hit yo a*s when you leave boy” line in “Who’s Gonna Ride”, and even that one is an eyebrow raiser. If it helps at all, that “Who’s Gonna Ride” song features Three 6 Mafia, and I think it was a mistake not to edit this line from their rap: “I got twelve inches long of ding dong I’m layin’.” That’s not exactly Langston Hughes, but hey, what can you do? They’re Oscar winners.
At the same time, there are plenty of albums (like, almost all of them) that could probably be more effective if they omitted a few of the expletives. I remember the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” from way back when—the ear-friendly radio version was, in my opinion, far superior to the explicit album version, in terms of diction and imagery. Same thing goes for movies—how many “f**k"s do you really need to get that R rating? So what’s really going on here?
As I examined my response, I realized my reaction to “Gangsta” Milian was at least partially due to perception. See, when I think of Christina Milian, I see “Paris Morgan”, the character she played in the film Love Don’t Cost a Thing opposite Nick Cannon’s Alvin, the usual Steve Urkel-like outcast. As Paris, Milian was the sweet and popular high school girl who looked nice, lived a well-cushioned life, and sang poems from her diary. No matter how many times she could “pop - pop - pop that thing” in her hit song “Dip It Low”, I’ve been stuck thinking of her as sweet and popular, which leaves no room for gangsta. Since her appearances on MTV’s TRL and Regis and Kelly haven’t persuaded me otherwise, it’s almost like she’s the Anti-Gangsta.
Accordingly, your perception of Milian—of her image and of who she seems to be—will affect your overall view of So Amazin’. If you accept her in the role of streetwise ride-or-die-chick, the album comes closer to an 8 out of 10 rating. On the other hand, if the lyrical slip-ups have you vigorously shaking your head to counteract the image of Rudy Huxtable keeping it gangsta, you have to shave off a point or two. That’s lesson one. The other lesson is to be aware (and wary) of your influences. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” What he didn’t say was that if you can’t hide your sources, then you might be able to call them “tributes” if you’re bold about them and mimic them well enough.
For Christina Milian, the influences on So Amazin’ are bold, abundant, and (mostly) well done. Let’s count them.
There’s her Jennifer Lopez look on the album cover and the back picture of the CD case.
There’s the black-and-white photo among the liner notes that mimics Michael Jackson’s photo in his Thriller album booklet, the one where he’s stretched out, with one leg bent skyward, while leaning on one elbow and stroking a baby cat with his free hand. The only difference, other than the absence of color, is that Milian’s pose shows her with a large dog.
“Say I” borrows a few bars from the Beyonce songbook, particularly in terms of Milian’s delivery. On the multimedia tip, Milian’s video for “Say I”, imbedded with the CD, reinforces how important the Jackson family’s (that is, Michael’s and Janet’s) choreography has been to the MTV generation.
Like Mariah Carey’s forays into hip-hop alongside the late Old Dirty Bastard and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Milian recruits Young Jeezy for “Say I” and the aforementioned Three 6 Mafia for “Who’s Gonna Ride”. She even indulges herself in a cutesy Bone-Thugs moment at the beginning of “Gonna Tell Everybody”. Bone was famous for their sing-songy mantra “Gonna miss everybody” from the song “Tha Crossroads” and Milian sings her “Gonna tell everybody” line with the same cadence and in almost the same key.
Meanwhile, “Y’all Ain’t Nuthin’” might remind you a bit of Destiny’s Child in “Where’d You Go”, albeit at a slower pace, from their The Writing’s On the Wall album. It’s a nice song—not great, though—with an equally nice melody.
On “So Amazing”, Milian’s verses sound similar to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” or Ciara’s cameo in Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control”. Musically, the song sounds a lot like Kelis’ “Milkshake”; in fact, you can actually sing “Milkshake” to it (not that I’m admitting that I tried it or anything). The tune’s downside is its weak chorus in which Milian and guest star Dre take turns chanting, “This is amazin’, ‘mazin’ / That is amazin’, ‘mazin’”. A wiser choice, aside from writing a better hook, might have been to use an echo to get that mazin’ effect. Or the vocalists could have taken turns acting as each other’s echoes. Actually, anything would’ve worked, including no hook at all.
Speaking of Missy Elliott, the song “Hot Boy” wears a similar title to Missy’s hit “Hot Boyz” and Milian croons her way through it like one of my all-time favorite R&B stars, Aaliyah. “Hot Boy” thumps, as does the beware-of-playas anthem “Foolin’”. Of course, “Foolin’” will make you say, “Is this about the breakup with Nick (Cannon)?” with lines like:
Now the media’s gossipin’
Pinnin’ me in magazines
Sayin’ I was the one (no)
Comparin’ us to that Brad, Jen and Angelina affair
Look baby I ain’t the one
Regardless of the song’s inspiration, it’s one of the album’s best tunes, right down to the bouncy tempo, Milian’s superbly arranged vocals, and a coy sample of the Average White Band’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”.
In addition to the influences above, the production work on this release informs and often guides the direction of the record. Cool & Dre, the Miami kings of crunk, keep Milian’s party from cooling off, and they do it with style. As already noted, the songs are enhanced by well-chosen samples, such as “Give Me Just Another Day” by the Miracles in “Say I” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Joan Crawford” on “Who’s Gonna Ride”. Probably the biggest applause goes to “Gonna Miss Everybody”, which manages to meld R. Kelly’s “Half On a Baby”, Bone Thugs’ “Tha Crossroads”, and the Notorious B.I.G.‘s duet with Bone called “Notorious Thugs”.
Other highlights include the hard drum track “Twisted” and the Spanish-flavored “She Don’t Know”. The latter actually opens up the possibility of Milian recording more songs like this, perhaps even a song completely in Spanish. As long as the “keep it gangsta” idiom resists easy translation into Spanish, I’m all for it. It would accentuate another facet of Milian’s abilities and would allow her to distinguish herself from the highly competitive field of young R&B singers, which includes: Ciara, Rihanna, Teairra Mari, Keyshia Cole, Brooke Valentine, and Amerie. Plus, Beyonce and Alicia Keys are never far away.
All in all, Milian’s got a good thing going, despite a few lyrical hiccups, a couple of lackluster hooks, and some obvious influences. I don’t mean to get all Paula Abdul from American Idolbut, you know what? Christina Milian sounds good and she looks great. Whether she can keep it gangsta or not is immaterial. Forget about it.
// Notes from the Road
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