Dave Hollister’s new disc is titled Things in the Game Done Changed and Hollister, for sure, changed the game when he dropped his solo debut Ghetto Hymns in 1999. Hollister had been one of the co-leads of Blackstreet—he’s the lead vocalist on the group’s “Before I Let You Go”, easily one of the finest slow jams of the 1990s—before heading out on his own after the group’s debut, Blackstreet (1994). Though efforts in the neo-soul world, notably those of D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu welded hard-bopped old-school soul rhythms with hip-hop, Hollister successfully brought “thug niggas” into conversation with the ghost of Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Sam Cooke and living legends like Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverley, Bobby Womack, and Otis Clay. Executively produced by the Erick Sermon and filled with cameos by Redman and Jazzy Pha, Ghetto Hymns was the real deal spawning underground classics like “Baby Mama Drama” (and furthering the cottage industry of baby-mama hate) and “My Favorite Girl”. It was the success of Ghetto Hymns that created the commercial space for the Tanks, Transitions and Jaheims of the world, so much so that the latter (whose new single “Fabulous” is simply ethereal) has easily transcended the shadow of Hollister. Even fellow Chi-town native R. Kelly had to re-tool a bit, as evidenced by tracks like “I Wish”, “A Woman’s Worth”, and his still unreleased Loveland which is his most mature and affecting recording to date. On Things in the Game Done Changed, Hollister, as the title suggests, is less the thug nigga (much of Ghetto Hymns was about Hollister negotiating the challenges of celebrity and post-Blackstreet “authenticity”) and more the soul singer-poet, trying to navigate the joys and despairs of love, life and mortality. And in this role Hollister has never been better.
As the follow-up to his solid Chicago ‘85 the Movie (2000), Things in the Game Done Changed is Hollister’s first recording for the famed Motown label. Musically, the disc hits on the same soul/hip-hop hybrid that marked Hollister’s first two projects, but also features more radio-friendly tracks like the lead single “Baby Do Those Things” which harks back to the sweetness of “Before I Let You Go” and tracks like “One Woman Man” and “We’ve Come Too Far” (both from Chicago ‘85). Like most of Hollister’s recordings, he never misses a chance to “church” the flow and he does so deftly on the bridge to “Baby Those Things” as he sings “Can I get a witness in here / Somebody know what I’m talking about / Only heaven knows how you make me feel” as “praise and worship” (for the real playas, ya’ll know how long that can take) gets all up in the bedroom. “Baby Those Things” is one of three tracks produced by Robert “Big Bert” Smith. On the chunk-funky “It’s Okay” (one of the disc’s best tracks), Hollister’s vocals lay on top Bert’s droopy keyboard and north of Orleans (meaning Chi-town) brass lines. The song also features Hollister’s now signature vocal arrangements. On the breezy “No One Else” (which could have been the lead single, though urban radio would have slept it), Hollister’s sings sweet romances into the ear of his wife (“sometime we be going through, that’s just how lover do / Still we’re together stuck like crazy glue / If I ever thought that we’d ever part / I might as well give up on love, cause you have my heart”) behind a steppers-groove (not Craig David’s boring ass “two-step” by the black social dance of which Chicago is the home).
As much of Ghetto Hymns took aim at Hollister’s “chicken-head” dramas and Chicago ‘85 was an opened armed apology to his wife (see “Doin’ Wrong” and “Take Care of Home”) so much of Things in the Game Done Changed is about Hollister and his wife of seven years finding the pace and rhythm of their relationship. Hollister opens “For You” with the spoken words “This is for wifey, I know I put you through a lot and you stayed right there. This is for you”. Produced by Gerald Haddon, the song’s chorus feature Haddon’s “rain drippy” piano lines and a background vocal breakdown (Hollister’s own vocals), that could have lasted well longer than its 15 seconds. But Hollister doesn’t just sing (and write) about the good times, but rather the difficulties associated with keeping it all together on those days when “love” means you want to put a foot (to quote Bilal) up your honey’s ass. Such sentiment dominates “Love Hate Relationship” (written and produced by fellow “thug nigga” soul man Tank) as Hollister sings on the song’s chorus “I love you so much, but I hate right now / I love you most times, but I hate you somehow / I love you deep down, but I hate you comes out / This love-hate relationship is tearing up our house”. Hollister’s cascading background vocals, give “Love Hate Relationship” the feel of a gothic drama, one that reaches a crescendo when Hollister conjures a sanctified “exorcist” as his background vocals “I’m trying” alternate violently against his repeated gospel shouts of “Lords knows!”
Noting that Hollister’s wife “hates” the song, Tonya Pendleton is on point when she states that the song’s ability to capture the “conflicts that distinguish even the healthiest relationships” is part of Hollister’s genius (BET.com 10.08.02). Hollister has always had the appeal of a “Soul Griot”—the one willing to speak the difficult truths in song—as witnessed in his classic “Baby Mama Drama”. However problematic the song and video’s depiction of single mothers, it was clear that when Hollister testified at the end of the song that “somebody out there know what I’m talking about” (a regular refrain in Hollister’s songs and those of his primary inspiration Donny Hathaway), that it struck a powerful communal chord. Talking about artists of Hathaway’s generation, Hollister tells Pendleton, “You knew what was going on with them. In a sense, same way with Mary [J. Blige]. You know what’s going on with her, because she puts it all right there in your face. I do sing about whatever about whatever it is I’m going through when I step through those studio doors.” Such personal passions are depicted in the cautionary tale “One Addiction”. Produced by Loren Dawson, the song has the feel of D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” (less so in the music, more so in Hollister’s vocal phrasing) and could easily be added to the pantheon of “I love her” drug songs (Rick James’s “Mary Jane” and D’s “Brown Sugar” within the specific tradition that Hollister draws from). But the song effectively blurs the lines between drug addiction and sex addiction (“this girl has got me feenin’ twisted reminisces about her ebony thighs / I need rehabilitation, I must admit I’m shook, ‘cause shortie got me hooked”) and thus taps into a tradition of recent songs like Musiq’s “Seventeen” and the real-time dramas of R. Kelly and Eric Benet.
Of course, one of Hollister’s strengths has always been the old-school big soul ballad (see T.P.‘s “Close the Door”, the O’Jay’s “Let Me Make Love to You”, and Luther’s “A House is Not a Home” for some of the more classic renditions) and Things is the Game Done Changed has its share of those, though “I’m Wrong” is the clear standout. Hollister laments that in the current programming environment, young folks are rarely exposed to the more classic styles of R&B and soul, as those styles have been relegated to “quiet storm” programs and “urban adult” shows like Tom Joyner in the Morning and the younguns are inundated with the hip-hop and hip-hop/R&B hybrid styles of Ashanti, Mario (though I am seriously feelin’ “Braid My Hair”), and Amerie. As Hollister tells Pendleton, “Of course we do music that’s geared toward the adults . . . But then again, so did they back in the day. For God’s sake, ‘Sexual Healing’. Songs like Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You’. ‘Inner City Blues’, that’s grown folks music cause [Marvin Gaye’s] talking about problems” adding that “we didn’t have a choice when we were kids. If Al Green was on in the house you’re going to end up liking Al Green when you grow up. If Jay Z and Wu-Tang is all the parents listen to in the house, that’s all the kids gon’ know.”
Dave Hollister has never had the kind of commercial breakthrough that will ever get him recognized alongside current R&B fabs like Ja Ja (Jaheim), Maxwell, and Usher, and Things in the Game Done Changed is unlikely to change that. The quality of so-called urban programming is less because Hollister doesn’t have the same kind of access of some of his less talented peers. But like fellow old-sprit/new school soul men Gerald Levert (who shares Hollister’s “sexy big man girth”) and Joe, Hollister has never really been about the hits but continuing to uplift the tradition, and in that regard that game might have changed, but the playa’s still the same.