Everybody got drama. Like Alanis Morissette proved on Jagged Little Pill, psychotic emotions and random paranoia are widespread. But when some of this is packaged, marketed and sold back to the public as The Jerry Springer Show or, worse still, cutting edge R&B or hip-hop, reality flies in the wind. This ain’t about ‘hate, bruh understand that folks got to compete and create whatever persona necessary for that regular airplay on More Trifling Videos (MTV) and Black Entertainment Tragedy (BET). Witness the emergence of Kelis, the next generation of what Cindy Fuchs calls “angry black woman.” Now rage is a good thing. Nina Simone, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, the Black Arts Movement, Abbey Lincoln and Public Enemy are just a few reminders of the power of black rage and I’m all for a sista willing to step to trife-like brother given to scheming and demeaning, but let’s not pretend that this is the new face of “ghetto-fab” feminism. Kelis’s debut Kaleidoscope is more like “Ghetto-fab” psychosis.
Now on the real, the current state of male-female relations in black urban America is in crisis. Even more disconcerting is that much of this drama is played out publicly as one of several fetishized commodities (shout out to my homie Sharon Holland) that emanate from black urban culture, as opposed to a group session in some psychologist’s office. Lately sistas have been on the offensive with ditties like TLC’s “Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bug a Boo.” This is after years of madness from the likes of Bell, Biv, Devoe (“Never trust a big butt and a smile” or when all else fails, blame it on the booty), David Hollister’s “Baby-Mama Drama” (which I admit is in regular rotation on the drive-time cassette) and current faves like the insipid “Thong Song” by Sisqo, Nas’s “You Owe Me” (patriarchy, prostitution, slavery and hedonism in one felled swoop) and “Bitch with No Man” by Something for the People. In this black masculine universe, the realities of police brutality, economic and political injustice, the “prison industrial complex,” etc. have been displaced as symbols of oppression and replaced by the ominous “Skeezer/Baby Mama/Chicken-head.” While the theorist in me is apt to suggest that this displacement is connected to the erosion of public space and a military like policing of black communities and black youth culture, largely tied to “post-industrial” transformations of urban space and Transnationalism, (yeah, yeah, I know…enough of the psuedo-socio-political babble), I’ve seen way too many exchanges in rap magazines, talk shows on BET and the classroom to know that most of these brothers just have some ill opinions about women, sexuality and most importantly their OWN masculinity.
The chorus of recording’s lead single “Caught Out There” features the refrain “I hate you so much.right now.” The rage in Kelis’s voice was only matched by her brandishing of a pistol, when she performed the song on The Chris Rock Show last fall. That performance, which included her stalking off the stage and refusing to engage Rock in post-performance banter, was an interesting and ultimately justified reaction to Rock’s interview with Ananda, an MTV video host and former co-host of BET’s Teen Summit. During the interview, while Ananda tried to address the crisis faced by America’s children, who she incidentally helps to traumatize on MTV, Rock repeatedly objectified her by making reference to her “ass.” According to fellow critic Nicole Johnson, Ananda’s attempts to deflect Rock’s “rhetorical groping” and Kelis’s subsequent response, were undermined by Ananda’s willingness to embrace the imagery of the same “video-hoes” she critiqued during the interview as a host on MTV. When Kelis’s taped appearance on MTV’s JAMS was broadcast several days later, one was hard pressed to believe she was the same artist who appears in the song’s video or who performed on Rock’s show.
The best cuts on Kaleidoscope are those in which Kelis’s somewhat thin voice is assured, like “Get Along with You” (the follow-up single), “Mafia,” which flips the context of love and devotion, and the slow-burn ballad “Wouldn’t You Agree” which features Justin Vince. By far the best track on the recording is “Ghetto Children” which features the vocals of the underexposed Marc Dorsey, veteran of at least three Spike Lee soundtracks (Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus). Unfortunately, the track is likely to be overshadowed by more dramatic tracks like “Good Stuff” and the aforementioned “Caught Out There.” The project’s production, manned by The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) is provocative though at times uneven. Tracks like “Mars” and “Roller Rink” sample sounds some of those awful, but addictive video games from the early ‘80s. “Mafia,” really the most interesting song on the recording, features a sampled sitar.
Unfortunately throughout Kaleidoscope, Kelis simply inverts the logic of some black male artist by constructing the singular demon-breathing brotha/infidel, who in some ways resembles the “lone gun-man” that the Warren Commission suggest assassinated JFK, as the face of black female oppression. I realize thoroughly that for many women the prevailing patriarchy within American society, provides little options for them than to invest fully in the man who lays next to them. I also fully understand that many of these men fail as first lines of defense against the “violence” directed towards women, both physical and rhetorical, because they are often the source of such violence. I ain’t mad at Kelis for taking things, metaphorically at least, to the next level. But while Kelis’s naivete in understandable (she’s barely 20 years old), the willingness of some critics and listeners to crown her as the embodiment of hip-hop feminism obscures the real issues that many black feminist address (let’s start with wage inequities, lack of health insurance, inadequate child-care, poverty, HIV, and widespread societal gender oppression) and the very real crisis that black and Latina women confront daily.