You’ve heard the saying, “Music is the universal language”, right? Well, I used to think it was just something musicians were expected to say, like the beauty contestants in the movie Miss Congeniality who were coached into mentioning world peace. Don’t worry, I won’t be quoting the lyrics to “We Are the World”. But it’s true what they say. Music really is universal. But only the good stuff.
I suspect this understanding always lurked in the back of my mind. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the “music is universal” message truly struck me as I listened to Jean’s part-Spanish, part-English album, On. I realized an important fact: I’m not fluent in Spanish. Not even close. My attempt at a conversation would look like this (with some assistance from a high school Spanish textbook):
Other person: ¡Hola, Quentin! ¿Cómo estás? [Hello, Quentin. How are you?]
Me: Bien, gracias. ¿Y tú? [Good, thank you. And you?]
Other person: Muy bien. [Very Well]
Me (after a long pause, running out of vocabulary): Um…Me gusta lavar platos. [Um…I like to wash dishes].
Given the above fiasco, can you imagine me listening to an album of Spanish tunes? Aside from Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita”, Nice & Smooth’s Spanish remix of “Hip Hop Junkies”, and my Santana albums, I don’t own any Spanish recordings (and I know that Madonna one is a stretch). Although the album itself isn’t perfect, Jean’s release has convinced me it’s time to upgrade.
Jean’s album contains three English songs (“Get There”, “Spanish Holiday”, and “Girls”) alongside his Spanish songs (“Duele”, “Juegas Con Fuego”, “No Te Puedo Alcanzar”, “Vamo’a Chocar”, “Dulce Café”, “Cruel”, and “Ves”). After giving this disc plenty of rotations, I can safely say the following: (1) Jean never sings, “Me gusta lavar platos”, and (2) Jean is a talented vocalist, arranger, composer, and producer. Of the album’s ten original songs (the album contains two versions of the song “Get There”), Jean either wrote or co-wrote nine of them. Although he’s not particularly interested in a wide range of topics, it’s still an impressive feat in the pop world. As for the language barrier, Jean’s voice and vocal arrangements are excellent—it wouldn’t matter if his songs were in English, Spanish, or Klingon.
As soon as you hear the guitar riff in “Duele” that opens the album, you know something intriguing is on the way. Jean’s skills are apparent from his first note, quiet and subdued, and as the song progresses, he finds his full force and range. You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to know “Duele” captures feelings of pain and regret. And while the liner notes are helpful enough to include song lyrics, Jean’s voice explains everything with each breath and inflection. Vocal influences abound in Jean’s vocal styling—you might say he’s a cross between Chico DeBarge, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. At the same time, he personalizes his sound through his tone and arrangement, if not through subject matter.
Two songs, “Spanish Holiday” and “Dulce Café”, demonstrate Jean’s strength in covering familiar musical territory while customizing these sounds to his vision. First, “Spanish Holiday”, a hip-hop-infused invitation for some lucky lady to join Jean’s view of romance. Assisted by rhymes from rapper Epidemic, Jean relies heavily on island imagery, complete with coladas to sip, cool water, and soft sand. In fact, the sand is so good he asks his honey to treat it like a bed. The cool part about the song is how smoothly he transitions between Spanish and English, darting back and forth between languages as if to illustrate a sense of traveling and movement.
Lyrically, “Spanish Holiday” is faintly reminiscent of R. Kelly’s remix of “Fiesta”, Mary J. Blige’s “Seven Days”, and Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love”. The latter two songs come to mind when Jean sings these lyrics:
Don’t look behind
Just think ahead for what’s in store
Cause Monday and Tuesday is a Friday
and Wednesday and Thursday is a Saturday
and then on Sunday
anotha day for us to sunbathe…oh, oh, oh
Mary J.‘s “Seven Days” is, of course, an altogether different song from Jean’s. “Seven Days” was the story of two friends who jeopardize their friendship by sharing a night of passion. But the use of time and related cyclical themes were expressed in much the same way as in “Spanish Holiday”. Mary J. sang:
Monday, a friend of mine
Tuesday, we played a game
Wednesday, you went away
Thursday, things weren’t the same
On Friday, you came back
I wanted to kiss you
On Sunday we made love
Now what are we gonna do.
In similar fashion, “Saturday Love”, a duet between Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal, told the story of former lovers who reminisce over an affair that’s been long extinguished. “I see you haven’t changed”, Cherrelle tells her old flame, and then she adds, coyly, “It’s good to see you anyway”. What R&B fans remember about the tune is the chorus, as it symbolizes the extent to which the lovers were trapped in their affair by repeating the days of the week: “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday love”. “Spanish Holiday” employs the same effect, except Jean’s purpose is to forever woo and charm his beloved rather than stir up past angst.
“Dulce Café”, the other tune that finds Jean working an old school vibe, is built decisively on flowing horns and heavy drum beats. The song also sounds very much like Prince’s “Satisfied” from his 3121 LP.
Overall, the album’s best moments occur in “Duele”, the romping “Juegas Con Fuego”, “Vamo’ A Chocar”, “Spanish Holiday”, and “Dulce Café”. The album’s downside is its predictable and repetitive subject matter. Jean has no problem letting the world know he’s all about the girlies, and if you don’t pick it up from the Spanish lyrics, he recorded a song in English (aptly named “Girls”) to give you a hint. The repetitive hook in “Girls” (“I just wanna love you long time / Love you long time / It makes me feel high”) is representative of Jean’s basic message.
Likewise, “Get There” poses as an inspirational song about commitment and overcoming obstacles (“‘Cause I’ve never heard of an open sea / Without rough waters, and full tranquility”). It’s not a bad tune, but its this ocean of sentiment that threatens to drown the album’s vibrant appeal. On top of that, there’s an alternate demo of “Get There”. The double take was intended as an acoustic version, but as its squeaky guitar becomes an irritant, it does little more than showcase Jean’s voice.
By track number 11, however, we already knew he had the pipes; we just wanted to see more interesting material flowing through them. Fortunately, there’s enough here to keep us curious and looking forward to Jean’s next effort.
- Multiple songs [streaming] artist website
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
// Notes from the Road
"Saul Williams played a free, powerful Summerstage show ahead of his appearance at Afropunk this weekend.READ the article