Full-on Genius in a Half-Shirt
I almost don’t want anyone to know about this record, because I am developing a very close relationship with it. Very Close. DISTURBINGLY CLOSE.
Brooke Valentine is a young singer who has been able to hook up with some of the music world’s hippest and trendiest people for some of her songs. “Girlfight”, the opening single, which came out months ago and is pretty huge right now, features Lil’ Jon doing his whole growling thing and Big Boi from OutKast doing one of the shortest guest raps ever. This is a standard trick these days, setting up the young female singer with people who already have an established fan base. This record also features a guest shot from Dirt McGirt (better known as Old Dirty Bastard) from beyond the grave and a collaboration with underground reggaetón señorita Queenz Deliz.
Fortunately that’s about the only industry gimmick thrown at us on Chain Letter, a record full of true strangeness and cutting-edge pop music in a number of different genres. It might be the best record I have heard this year.
“Girlfight” is, of course, a classic. If you haven’t heard this song booming from your car stereo, or seen the incredibly sexed-up video, then you are failing to participate fully in American life and thus you get ten demerits. It is pointless to analyze “Girlfight” because we’d have to get into a lot of boring issues like whether or not today’s music incites violence in young people, and how we end up rooting for the protagonist and her posse to whip someone’s ass, and the eroticisation of the catfight, etc. More importantly, the thing just sounds like a monster. This is a shiny smoldering rock song that thinks it’s crunk, with Brooke V. cooing about how she’s going to beat us up (read, some girl who we are assumed to be) outside the club. With its deceptively hous-atronic synth line buried under some acid-rock guitar, the song is menacingly perfect, right down to Valentine growling about, “If you try to call your cousin and them / Don’t forget that I got some of them”. A lot of people think this is the song of the year so far, and I’m not going to argue.
Yet if the rest of the tracks sounded like this, the album would be a huge dud. Thankfully they do not. There is a ton of golden goodness here, and it all sounds different. The sloppy strange organ-fueled reggae-funk of “Blah Blah Blah” turns Valentine into a naughty girl who still loves her thug boyfriend, strangely demure and believable (although anyone might sound like this next to ODB’s effed-up interjections), kind of a 21st century “Always True to You in My Fashion”. Right after that she’s in the middle of a guitar-based folk song—well, one with a huge fat bassline, so it’s kind of like Stax-folk—called “Cover Girl”, lamenting that she just has to put on a lot of makeup to get noticed by a neglectful guy: “I know I’m not Halle Berry / Girls from videos / I just wanna be / Someone you can hold”. (Without getting too much into this, let us just note that there is a lot of irony in Brooke Valentine saying this. HAVE YOU SEEN HER? DAMN! My wife saw the cover of this record and was like, “Who’s the porn star?”)
But enough of that; the real reason for the existence of Brooke Valentine is her versatility and odd vision of the world. Her base is R&B, but sometimes she’s kind of riot grrrl-punky (“American Girl”), sometimes she wants to be Aretha Franklin in Glitter (“Dying From a Broken Heart”), and sometimes she’s straight out of 1970s soft-rock (“Laugh Till I Cry”, a haunting and ambiguous take on domestic violence). I wouldn’t characterize her voice as technically amazing, but it is sexy and expressive and rich in nuance.
Her take on things is kind of twisted, which is a much-needed outlook these days. “Thrill of the Chase” uses a great Hendrix riff to underscore her rant against her boyfriend for demanding that she commit to him: “I’m really feeling you but you don’t understand / I’m not sure if I can settle down with just one man.” “Taste of Dis” is a hyperactive club banger, jumping around like everyone involved has ADD and is medicating it with E. But the most messed-up song here is “I Want You Dead”, which is pretty much what you think it is, a very angry song where B.Valentine details all the ways she will ruin the life of her ex-dude, including poking holes in his prophylactics, getting him fired, and selling his stuff on Ebay while he is getting eaten by maggots in his coffin.
At any rate, the only potential flaw with this record is if Brooke Valentine goes on to make a lot more records that are even better, thereby making this one look weak by comparison. As it is, it’s brave and scary and hilarious and awesome and I love it like it’s the new girl in junior high school.