Thug Soul (for Misha Gabrielle)
The common thinking has always been that “thugs” are somehow outside of the mainstream of the places and spaces where they prey. Real thugs don’t go to church, real thugs don’t love their mommas, and real thugs can’t appreciate fly-ass chords in a classic soul recording. Or so folks thought back in the early ‘90s when the brothers Hailey and Degrate (K-Ci, JoJo, Mr. Dalvin and Devante) dropped their debut Forever My Love (1991) and started riffing on joints like “Stay”, “Come and Talk to Me”, and “Feenin’”. Yeah they were thugs, or at least they tried to dress like ‘em (one of Diddy’s great moments as an A&R man), but the members of Jodeci were church boys, who in the best spirit of Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, and Al Green simultaneously conjured the feel of the black church, fed both the fears of and heightened desires for black male sexuality in the mainstream and provided another visual component for the continued demonization of black men in popular culture. The only thing that really distinguished Jodeci from say, OJ and Pac (they were all accused of sexual abuse), was the fact they were a direct lineage to the Soul man tradition. Still Jodeci’s thug image was always presumed.
By the late ‘90s a generation of R&B singers, most notably Dave Hollister, Joe, Chico Debarge, and veteran R. Kelly, seemed more interested in confirming their thug status, not simply via their styles of dress and the hard-core rap artists that cameoed on their songs, but in the music itself. What distinguished these artists from real-time thugs and connected them to the Soul Man (really the Race Man with a fly-ass vocal flow) was their willingness to posit themselves (however ludicrously) as vulnerable targets, who were beguiled and profiled, by a generation of “skeezers” and “chickenheads”. This followed a line of reasoning that Bell Biv Devoe (BBD) first publicly broached with “Poison” (“never trust a big-butt and a smile”). As if “chickenhead” episodes somehow counter hundreds (hell, thousands) of years of patriarchal privilege, Hollister can get open with “Baby Mama Drama” (“somebody out there know what I’m talking about”) and Joe gets his sympathy on with “Stuttering”. Jersey native Jaheim, fully embraced the “Thug Soul” aesthetic on his debut Ghetto Love which featured tracks like “Just in Case” and “Could It Be” where he sang about his thuggish-ruggish lifestyle and his vulnerability (“could it be the drop-top Benz, that got your friends going out on the limb . . . could it be the time-piece flooded with chips”). With a voice that conjured Teddy Pendergrass in his prime and flirted with a Luther Vandross-like deep register, Jaheim easily overshadowed his “Thug Soul” peers. With the release of his follow-up Still Ghetto, Jaheim is poised to become one of the most significant R&B vocalists of his generation.
The first name that comes to mind when you hear Jaheim, is the man who was often referred to in his prime as “Teddy Pender, the Female Bender”. But Jaheim’s voice also brings us back to a long-forgotten time when Luther Vandross’s own vocals encouraged comparisons to the still reigning king of “the panties on stage”. What made Pendergrass so appealing as vocalist, was the fact that his voice was so strong and so virile, but at the same time you understood that it didn’t come easy to him—bruh worked hard for the panties and it is in that struggle to reach the high notes that you knew he couldn’t or to once again hit hard before the folks at Sigma Sounds faded out (listen to “Can’t We Try”) that a listener came face to face with Pendergrass vulnerability. And so it was with some of the greatest Soul Men—Misters Womack, Hathaway, Green, Ingram (both Luther and James), and Junior (listen to the Dell’s “Stay in My Corner”)—whose vocal timbres waved violently between vulnerability and ebullience, often on the same note. Jaheim embodied many of these attributes on his debut, particularly on the stirring “Could It Be”, but too often he was let down on Ghetto Love with material that presumed a “Thug Soul” affect but ultimately failed to challenge Jaheim’s gift. Though the disc was written and recorded rather quickly over a four month period, Still Ghetto is one of the most accomplished pieces of corporate soul, produced in the last few years.
Nowhere is Still Ghetto‘s luster more on display than on the fabulous lead single “Fabulous”. “Fabulous” is short for “ghetto fabulous”, that ghetto survival mode that has been elevated to a level of high style. “Ghetto fabulousness” has often been an excuse for some folks (the folks, if you know what I mean) to celebrate the absurdity of ghetto life (see anything by the Big Tymers). But “Fabulous”, written by producer Kay Gee and Balewa Muhammad (of the Transitions), is more in the vein of the “way out of no way” spirit that has defined so much of post-Middle Passage black life—creative transcendence over the absurd and the ridiculous. Against the backdrop of those folks who think dysfunctional behaviors are positive attributes (no really, anything by the Big Tymers), “Fabulous” is truly inspiration. The song gets much of its inspirational power from a subtle chop of the opening piano (likely a celeste) riff from Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’s classic “Wake Up Everybody” (1976), itself a call for “ghetto renewal”. On the song’s sing-sing chorus Jaheim riffs defiantly about the folks (our folks if you feelin’ me on this) who “spend up all our dough on them chromie things / Named our kids them funny names” and have “pre-paid cellies for local calls”—the folks who use pre-paid phone cards and cell phones because they can’t afford to have their regular service turned back on or who bequeath their kids with names like “Shaniqua” or “Dequan”, guaranteeing that they will never be mistaken for anybody else (it’s about doin’ you, dun), while invoking some faux-mother-land regality.
Most telling about “Fabulous” is the line in the bridge where Ja sings “we got love for y’all, but y’all don’t love us”. While it would be easy to perceive the line as directed to white folks, anybody familiar with Chris Rock’s now legendary diatribe about “niggers and black folk” know that Ja’s flow is directed at some of the folks who think “ghetto fabulousness” is more a threat to national (Negro) security than the Patriot Act. The song and video (featuring a cameo by the definitive round-the-way girl Mary J. Blige) makes its most powerful point, by focusing on the young folk who survive amidst the myths and the madness of so-called ghetto-life; They sing proudly in the background “don’t hate on us we’re fabulous” and get their spell on at the song’s end chanting “cause U-N-I-T-Y is all we need / To get our R-E-S-P-E-C-T / And never G-I-V-E U-P and keep your H-E-A-D U-P”. There’s just a natural sweetness invoked seeing the little folks in the beginning of the video asserting that they’re “fabulous” (yes, Misha I know you are) and later engaging in what Ursula Rucker calls the “mattress flipping Olympics” (“Philadelphia Child”) or watching Ja and Mary swaying back and forth on the stoop (like Robert said, “come on an braid my hair”).
Like so many of his peers, Jaheim is nostalgic for ‘hood days gone by and those times when “shots get popped” and “cops shut down the party”. On “Let’s Talk About It”, Ja reminisces “about a time and a place when we thought we’d never see tomorrow, from the drama”. Of course for Jaheim (who co-writes the song with Lighty and Muhammad) these were the good times (“no more younger days sipping brews getting blazed—wish I could turn back the time”) before “Pataki killed crack with the RICO act”. “Let’s Talk About It” follows the logic of Biggie’s “Things Done Change” (“Remember back in the days, when niggaz had waves Gazelle shades, and corn braids / Pitchin pennies, honies had the high top jellies / Shootin skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly”), suggesting that there really must be some dire conditions in some contemporary inner-city communities if they are longing for the Reagan era. As Julianne Malveaux notes in Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century, despite the growth economy of the 1990s, many folk, especially those who were not homeowners, did not reap the benefits. The illicit drug trade was one of the spheres where some folk could get their earn on and as such a figure like Jaheim can wax poetic about the passing of that era.
Jaheim’s ambivalence about the present is also captured on the track “Beauty and Thug” where he trades riffs with Mary J. Blige. On the track, written and produced by Malik Pendleton, (who tries too hard on this one, witness, the use of faux horn-lines and the jazzy vocal breakdown at the end of the song), Mary and Ja vocally juxtapose the lyrical image of the a “lion sleeping on the bosom of a sheep”—the metaphorical coming together (perfectly embodied by Mary and Ja) of the “round-the-way” girl and the thug-nigga (or at least Whitney and Bobby). As Ja describes it “she’s the type that compared to a rose that grew in the concrete / Sweet you know, from the streets you know . . . it’s beautiful, yet thugged though”. The sweetness of the thug is jettisoned by the very next song—accordingly titled “Me and My Bitch”—where Ja sings about the local hoodies trying to step to his lovely (“riding on my riches, yeah he will get slayed / Messing ‘round with me and my lady, yeah, me and my bitch”). The song, co-written by Eric Williams, who also co-wrote “Could It Be” and Dave Hollister’s “Baby Mama Drama” is a subtle revision of Pac’s (who get named dropped on “Beauty and Thug”) “Me and My Girlfriend”. While this thug definitely has soul—and let’s be clear, it’s the thug that moving units—the real gems of Still Ghetto are those times when Jaheim is all Soul Man.
Jaheim joins the bevy of folks who have recently recorded over a sample of William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” (1971), including Calvin Richardson and Dilated Peoples; “Put that Woman First” though, is less a sampled version of Bell’s classic and more a revision. Though the song features original lyrics, Jaheim et al. keep the song’s chorus intact (“Now, I realize that you need love too / Spend my life making up to you, ooh, ooh, ooh”. In comparison, “Backtight” features a straight chop of the piano riff from Teddy Pendergrass’s “Somebody Told Me”—a direct invocation of Ja’s affinity to Pendergrass—that falls flat. While Ja should be encouraged to do a straight cover of Pendergrass (only Christopher Williams has “successfully” done it), his formidable talents suggest that he shouldn’t just cherry-pick Pendergrass’s most well known tracks (like “Somebody Told Me”, “Close the Door”, and “Turn out the Lights” but take a stab at some of Pendergrass’s more difficult material like “Can’t We Try” or “You’re My Latest, Greatest Inspiration”.
Ironically the song that most powerfully invokes Pendergrass’s music is Pendleton’s “Special Day”. On the track, likely to become a wedding day favorite, Jaheim’s vocal are measured and thoughtful, easily the most mature work that he done and the kind of strong material that Ghetto Love often lacked. Throughout the song Pendleton’s lyrics cleverly reference classic soul ballads. For example the lyric, “You’re a gem, you’re the reason” why I found “one hundred ways” to “adore” “you three time a day” drops a nod to D-Train’s “You’re the Reason”, James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways” and Prince’s “Adore”. The reference to Pendergrass is made most explicit during the closing breakdown, where background vocalist Lesley Massiah, responds to Jaheim’s urgent queries (“would you like that what you gonna do, think about it”) in a cadence reminiscent of the female voice responding to Pendergrass (“I’m thinking about it, I’m thinking about it” on his classic come-one “Come on and Go with Me”. By the end of the song, Ja is repeating the lines “honest I do” as if taken directly from the “Book of (Sam) Cooke”.
Despite the inspirational power of “Fabulous” (which has a strong thematic affinity to R. Kelly’s “I Wish”), the emotional center of Still Ghetto is “Everywhere I Am”, a song co-written by the underrated Eddie Ferrell, Sylvester Jordan, Jr., and Lighty. The song was written for Jaheim’s mother Julie, who died before Jaheim’s fame. Where Kelly openly addresses his mom (who responds) on tracks like the aborted long version of “I Believe I Can Fly”, Jaheim lets the lyrics do his bidding as he sings tearfully, “Watching me, I can feel in my soul . . . just when I’m inches away from losing my mind / I hear your, I hear your voice (inside my head), Julie, Julie, Julie, Julie, Julie, I love you, Julie we miss you”. Other standouts on Still Ghetto include the sweet, sweet sexy “Tight Jeans”, where Ja laments the blossoming of his school-girl buddy (“You’re not that girl from junior high school / That’s for sure, you’re changing the rules, now that you’re fine as hell, you been looking real good lately . . . you can’t be coming around me tight jeans”).
On Still Ghetto, Jaheim evidences growth beyond the artistry he first exhibited on Ghetto Love. Though too many songs are still geared to the post-hip-hop’s generation’s idea of what soul music is (see the title track, “Whut You Want” and the aforementioned “Me and My Bitch”), it is clear that Jaheim has the kind of talent to outlive R&B’s “thug of the moment” moment. Still Ghetto is easily one of the best “corporate” soul recordings of the year.