There is a critical scene in the 1991 film The Five Heartbeats—Robert Townsend’s love letter to the Dells and a litany of groups spanning three decades—where he laments that truly great songs and the performers who bring them alive are born of a life’s worth of pain and heartbreak. Surely, young Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and a host of others might disagree, but the truth is it’s hard for young singers to have much to say over even the most juicy beats their producers have created.
So hear comes 17-year-old Teairra Mari Thomas, swinging wide the doors of Roc-A-Fella Records, damn near regal real estate in the rap game, home of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Freeway and others. On the shoulders of a chorus of expensive producers such as Rodney Jerkins, and Kwame’, the Detroit native treads over ground well-covered by another young singer Ciara, whose hits “Goodies” and “1, 2 Step” married her smokey, near-whisper of a voice with sparse southern crunk beats, pioneering a new party feel on that raw electronic rap style.
At the same time, solo artists such as Rihanna and Keyshia Cole have emerged with unique takes on the barely-legal hip-hop songstress model, a role that, arguably, Aaliyah owned before her untimely death. (Despite her title as “Queen of Hip-Hop soul”, Mary J. Blige has always been in a category unto herself.)
No matter. Mari has the backing of a fully functional Deathstar—namely, Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella records, right? But Roc-A-Fella Records Presents Teairra Mar ain’t Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, or even Ludacris Presents Disturbing Tha Peace, both classic works, each steeped so deeply in the flavor of the presenter, that there was no question it was fruit from the same sweet tree. Sadly, even faithful Roc-A-Fella fans would be hard pressed to find any of the label’s touch or top names represented on this project, save for one (non-rapping) cameo appearance by Jay-Z.
That leaves Mari to fend for herself. She’s essentially a girl from the ‘hood, hoping the man she is allowing to spend money on her will continue to be true to her, or she’s looking for a boy to make her feel good, or she’s been mistreated by some guy, all trite topics that make unbearable the wait for, say, an inevitable Jay-Z interlude—that never comes. Rare are cuts like “MVP” and “Get Down Tonight”, where the essence of Mari’s singing talent and sassy urban attitude peaks through. Strip away the label and Mari is left with not much to say.
Hip-hop labels have always, with mixed results, sought to diversify by adding R&B acts. Puff Daddy, excuse me, Diddy, had Faith Evans and Total, Cash Money resurrected Teena Marie—hell, Roc-A-Fella in 1997 even rolled out the male duo Christion. However, Mari’s ability to sing her way into our collective attention pales in comparison to those performers, and her would-be champions from “The Roc” fail to come to her rescue. Perhaps next time, Teairra Mari will be a little older and wiser, have move struggle or joy to discuss and won’t need anyone to “Present” her, if shes lucky.