Soul Out the Box
Am I the only one who allows himself to think outside the box.?
—Dale Gribble, King of the Hill
Though neo-soul and its various incarnations has helped to redefine the boundaries and contours of black pop, often the most popular of these recordings like Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul and Musiq Soulchild’s Aijuswanaseing exist comfortably alongside the trite blah, blah, blah of the 112s and Destiny Childs of the world. Just a small reminder that “difference” is often only valued when it smells, taste and sounds like the same old same old. And even when artists break the mold, as Maxwell did with Urban Hang Suite and D’Angelo with Brown Sugar, they are expected to remain true to that formula lest they risk the critical backlash that both faced in the aftermath of artistically compelling projects like Embrya and Voodoo, respectively. The bottom line is that contemporary R&B and the radio and video programmers responsible for making that music available to listeners and viewers remain trapped in a small black box largely informed by hip-hop bottoms and Blige-like histrionics with traces of Luther and Whitney and enough tone deafness to have Clara Ward, Mahailia Jackson, and Sam Cooke turn twice in their graves about every four and a half minutes. With such a small margin to work with the seminal hybrid-soul of Lenny Kravitz, The Family Stand, Seal, Corey Glover, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Dionne Farris, Michael Franti (both the Disposable Heroes and Spearhead), and even Wyclef Jean has been consistently marginalized save an occasional MTV buzz clip and the hordes of “pomo-bomos” like myself who continue to crave great “black” music even if it don’t sound like Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. Shareese Renee Ballard (Res) refuses to be placed in that “black little box” as evidenced by her genre-bounding, eclectic debut How I Do.
With How I Do, the Philly-born Res (pronounced “Reese”), will naturally be compared to her Philly Soul cohorts, but no one will ever mistake Res’s sound with that of Jill Scott or any thing produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson or the Soulquarians. As an post-integration baby who did the Catholic Prep thing as opposed to the Philadelphia Arts academy that is responsible for so many in the current crop of Philly Soul elite, the 23-year-old Res was exposed to wide array of music ranging from the Italian arias that began singing at age 14 to the music of Annie Lennox, Pearl Jam and The Roots, which is not as much an eclectic brew of music that one might suspect but more so reflective of the diverse landscape of contemporary and the ease in which audiences—if they so chose—can cross musical boundaries. The fact that Jigga could use the music of Alana Davis for his chilling “There’s Been a Murder” gives an indication that the diversity that black radio claims that “urban” audiences don’t appreciate is more likely a product of programmers and A&R folks wanting to have better control over the tastes of those audiences. According to Res with her project , “the vision was to put everything I like—the hip-hop, the rock, the pop, the drum ‘n’ bass stuff—into one sound.” To achieve that seeming allusive mix, Res employed the services of DOC who was largely responsible for Esthero’s Breath From Another (1998). It was with DOC’s production that Res was able to achieve the guitar-based hip-hop vibe that she desired, but one that didn’t come off as cheesy like say Run-DMC’s “King of Rock”.
On the lyrical tip, Res was largely assisted by her Philly homie Santi White who is currently lead vocalist of the alternative-soul band (whatever the hell that means) Stiffed. It was White, who contributed lyrics on 10 of the project’s 11 tracks, that was largely responsible for Res’s start in the music industry. White was an A&R assistant at Epic, when she invited Res to NYC to work on the songs that eventually comprised How I Do. With White’s assistance, Epic offered Res the opportunity to become lead of the revamped Groove Theory, replacing fellow Philly siren Amel Larrieux in that capacity. Res turned down the offer and eventually landed a solo deal with MCA. Res’s decision to rebuff Epic is in part an attempt to eschew the kind of easy “cute black girl equal R&B ingénue” equation that pervades the industry. As she relates “I’m a black chick and I’m cute. I mean I’m not busted or anything, you know?. I could sing R&B if I wanted to and it would be kinda nice, I think, but that’s not me. I mean it’s music, you know? F*ck R&B. F*ck alternative. F*ck the rock and roll world. Just do what makes you feel good.” Before releasing her debut, Res made cameo appearances on GZA’s Beneath the Surface and Talib Kweli and Hi Tek’s Reflection Eternal.
It is White who is responsible for How I Do‘s bombastic opening track “Golden Boys.” Dedicated to the veritable army of “bald headed cuties,” (who could be named Tyson, Tyreese, or for the old-school Jordan) the track calls attention to the incongruency of the sanitized black masculine images that adorn fashion magazines, MTV and ESPN and the menacing black masculinity that is assigned to those who look just like the “bald heads” but minus the celebrity. More alarming is the ways that many of these “artists” acquiesce to these photographic black (wet) dreams in order to achieve the fame and material wealth that they desire. As Res sings in the chorus “But then there’s girls like me who sit appalled by what we’ve seen / We know the truth about you / Now you’re the prince of all the magazines.” While the lyrics suggest the obvious collection of photogenic Nubian Sex-Lords, including P-ditty himself, the lyrics seemingly take a swipe at one of Philly’s favorite sons, Will Smith. Throughout the song Res references the word “prince” and in one lyric sings “When I was young I thought you had it won / I saw you on TV you made life look fun. I realize it ‘s all a freak show,” alluding to Smith’s television sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The kicker for me was the lyric that begins the second verse in which Res sings in full swagger, “Place you in these robes and tell you you’re the greatest man / And you believe and play your cards,” which seems like a veiled reference to the Ali biopic that Smith will star in later this year. At issue is not the falsity of these images but the investments that many make in the belief they reflect a reality. Res makes such a point when she laments in the song that “We’ve got these images / We need them to be true / Not ready to believe we’re no more insecure than you.” Even more dangerous are the investments made by black female viewers in these images (and the countless strippers turned video hos turned singers that adorn them). Already challenged by a general disregard for a fuller presentation of black female identity in the entertainment industry and a downright stifling and damaging concept within that industry of what the quintessential black female should look like, Res’s line that “Girls like me don’t need no bubblin’ mind state thrown in my face,” like the song itself, is a sobering disclaimer against that which is marketed as authentic black culture.
Sobering is a fitting adjective to describe two of the project’s best tracks, the lead single “Ice King” which was co-written by Res and “Sittin’ Back”. Both tracks are easily the closest things on How I Do to anything in the mainstream of the “urban” music universe. Both tracks are co-produced by DOC and Mr. Khaliyl, who also adds production on “If There Ain’t Nothing”. “Ice King” is a brilliant sojourn into the mind state of a young woman dating a local drug dealer. “Ice” is of course a reference to the diamonds and metals (“ice and bling, bling”) that adorn playas (“internationally known and locally accepted” as Common and Bilal put it) in the industries that traffic in illicit drugs and “authentic” urban culture. Res begins the song by acknowledging that the status that she derives from her relationship with the “Ice King” makes her complicit in his “wicked” activities as she sings “Everything that you gave me / Come from the destitute and the torn / I can’t live like this no more.” But she remains mesmerized by the character admitting that “Although I’ve seen your wickedness / I’ve still love your effervescence” falling in line with those women who have been drawn to despotic “ghetto” poets like Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Aaron Hall, and Bill Withers and the nameless ghetto overlords for whom “playa, playa, pimping” is both personal and business and never a simple performative gesture.
It is this very desire for “bling, bling and booty” (“it’s platinum baby!”) that Res deconstructs on the highly ironic “Sittin’ Back”. In the song she juxtaposes the kind of well publicized school shootings that have made terms like “trench coat mafia” part of dinner time conversation with the “anger in the nation” (to shout out to Pete Rock and CL Smooth) that undegirds the desire for celebrity, material wealth and social status that is evidenced in the ‘hood. Understood fully “Sittin’ Back” is a powerful indictment of the flaccidness of (commercial) hip-hop’s anger and rage (“You talkin’ ‘bout white children / Who kill their parents before school / I’m talkin’ Lexus with rims black / So when I drive by I look cool.”) No matter how menacing some of these acts come off as in their music videos and promotional photos—part of the stylized violence that looking cool while doing a drive-by implies—most of them “just wanna blow up”. The song again reflects Res’s (and Santi White’s) fixation with the bluff and fluff that exists in the entertainment industry and that How I Do attempts to counter. As Res sings at one point in the song “I think I’m jaded make a sport of it / Now I’m numb to the shit,” which speaks to the ways that contemporary commercial hip-hop and those who embrace it as emblematic of somebody’s “ghetto” reality, have been desensitized to the faux violence and sexual objectification in hip hop, but even more alarmingly, desensitized to the violence, injustice, and exploitation that marks the lives of so many of the genre’s core constituency. Like the challenge that Sarah Jones offers to hip-hop in “Your Revolution” (the FCC head Michael Powell’s favorite) and Ursala Rucker offers on the brilliant “What???” from her forthcoming Supa Sista, “Sittin Back”, represents Res’s desire to offer trenchant critiques of hip-hop at a time when, as Tricia Rose suggests, folks aren’t even allowed to ask questions about it’s gratuitous violence, crass materialism and its championing of sexual exploitation, without being questioned about the validity of their “ghetto passes”.
Other standouts on How I Do include the very fine “Let Love”, the reggae in inflected “700 Mile Situation”, which uses a distance relationship as metaphor for a woman’s partner who is emotionally distant and the stuttering funk of the title track, which is produced by A Kid Called Roots, who also produced “The Hustler”. On the latter track Santi White’s lyrics reference Nas’s “You Owe Me” and Wilson Pickett’s “Engine # 9”. The latter reference is a nod to Philly’s rich soul traditions as the song was initially recorded on Pickett’s In Philadelphia (1970) recording in which the young Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff engineered a comeback for the master of “country grit” soul, with tracks like “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and “Don’t Knock My Love”.