[15 June 2010]
In hip-hop, three or more rappers collaborate in songs we call “posse cuts”. Rappers build these tunes with aims as lofty as expressing a common purpose (as in the anti-violence theme of “Self-Destruction”) or objectives as simple as showcasing the skills of the participants (as in Marly Marl’s “The Symphony”, featuring Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G. Rap, and Big Daddy Kane).
Rappers in a posse cut are usually not members of the same musical group, so there’s a tendency among fans to imagine the possibilities, to wonder how the contrasting styles of several rhymers might pan out over a track by a particular producer. Although posse cuts aren’t as meticulously executed as they once were, and are sometimes confined now to halfhearted “remixes”, their continued presence still underscores the cooperative elements of the culture so often overlooked in the general critique.
On the other hand, R&B is not known for producing posse tracks involving multiple vocalists. Duets are more the rage with the singing crowd, and these duets include songs that emphasize harmony of voice and tone as well as songs that rely on contrast. Unlike hip-hop posse tracks, R&B artists have less of a need to advertise their skills by piling singers into a single track. Where rappers are competitive by trade and seek to have their verses outshine those of their collaborators, R&B singers don’t need three or four other voices getting in the way. Vocal arrangement might also become a casualty in this regard, not to mention the perils presented to the length of the song itself. It takes longer to sing a verse than to rap it.
Considering that hip-hop, even now, relies on posse cuts far more often than R&B does, there ought to be good reasons for singers to go for collaborations with multiple vocalists. Indeed.
Romance & Intimacy
No genre does the romance and intimacy dance quite like R&B. Lyrically, sexuality might be conveyed through innuendo or with a more explicit presentation. Many times, you’ll find singers inviting their beloveds to “make love”, and they sing about it with fervor.Indeed, “making love” is frequently cited as a cure for loneliness, separation, conflict, and long distance. They claim they can do it “all night long”, that they’ll “make it last forever”, and they aren’t always particular about who’s watching or who’s around. Racy stuff, at times, and not always the ideal type of song to blast on your stereo.
Equally intriguing are the posse cuts that tackle these intimate feelings. In hip-hop, these tunes leave me scratching my head because it seems awkward to listen to a line of rappers committing their love of carnal knowledge to rhyming verse. The language is coarse, leaving little room for subtlety or finesse. The R&B posse cuts that demonstrate a flair for the romantic aren’t nearly as frank, but there’s still the awkwardness of listening to a line of singers cooing their suggestive come-ons.
Nevertheless, the best song in this category has to be “Secret Garden”, from Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block LP. The album itself found Quincy Jones melding jazz, African rhythms, R&B, and hip-hop into something fresh and innovative. It certainly stands out for Jones’ embracing hip-hop as an artistically robust culture, recruiting rhymes from hip-hop’s top scholars Big Daddy Kane, Melle Melle, and Kool Moe Dee, among others.
For our purposes, Back on the Block stands tall for the song “Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)”. Peep the lineup: Al B. Sure, James Ingram, El DeBarge, and Barry White! As much as I question how, as a practical matter, seduction takes place in group collaborations like this, this song still exudes a great deal of sultriness and appeal. Supposedly, the song is being reworked for today’s audience with folks like Usher and Robin Thicke and so forth, but come on. The original’s got Barry White. Why would you want to mess with that?
An inferior descendant of the “Secret Garden” legacy is R. Kelly’s “Pregnant”. This song, featuring Tyrese, Robin Thicke, and The Dream, opens with the declaration that love has changed the narrating singer from a seeker of one night stands to a family man. Unfortunately, I’m describing it far more delicately than the song does.In a stutter stepping cadence that recalls R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” series, you hear the crooning, “Girl you make me wanna get you pregnant.” Of course the catalyst for this magnificent transformation is a “girl in the club with an unbelievable booty”.
Personally, I find a number of things unbelievable about this song, aside from the aforementioned pregnancy hook and the transformative powers of the female anatomy: (1) it continually makes this appalling correlation between pregnancy and the occasion of meeting a woman at a club (who does that?!); (2) the fellas use “plant this magic seed” as a euphemism for conception (really, who does that?!); and (3) at one point there’s talk of exploring the lucky lady’s “secret garden” (like, why did they do that?!) ! All of this leads me to wonder about the nature of posse cuts in general.When the guys on a posse track go for romance, are all of the vocalists singing about the same woman or are they going for individual triumphs? Creepy, and not so cool.
T-Pain’s “Reality Show” deserves a mention here, but not because it exemplifies romance or intimacy. Rather, it’s quite un-romantic, although not in the uncomfortable way that “Pregnant” is. On “Reality Show”, T-Pain gets help from Musiq Soulchild, Raheem DeVaughn, and Jay Lyriq. It’s something like a musical version of The Bachelor, as they make reference to entertaining lots of women instead of the one-on-one contact we might associate with romantic relationships, and being in public comes up a lot in the lyrics. In the song’s defense, however, there is a blurring between the idea of the singers making the audience swoon through music, versus the idea of male-female interaction. At the same time, there is no blurring of the fact that T-Pain’s vocal modulations and effects are downright annoying.
About the intersection between group-oriented music and remakes, you might recall the remake of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade”. In the remake, singers Pink, Mya, and Christina Aguilera join Missy Elliott and Lil Kim for what was supposed to be a sexy take on the original in hopes of generating interest in the movie Moulin Rouge. No doubt, there was probably some hope for scoring a hit single too. I didn’t see the movie, so I can’t comment on that, but the remake? Kind of corny, kind of creepy, and maybe a little cool, if you happen to listen to it when you’re in just the right mood (Translation: the original is better).
Having several artists on deck adds options to the songwriting process. Songs that are narrative in scope, that tell a story, are more easily dramatized with the help of a full cast of singers rather than a single storyteller. Take Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You”, a steamy tale of a mistress longing for romantic bliss with a married man, and imagine how it might play out with a multi-perspective delivery.
The mistress, rendered by Ms. Houston, kicks things off, setting the stage with the hope that the “few stolen moments” she shares with her beau might blossom into fulfilling (and, hopefully non-adulterous) desire. Give the second verse to the passionate but cheating husband. “It can’t be very easy living all alone,” he might sing. Verse three could then go to the jilted and disapproving wife, flabbergasted by the betrayal and painfully aware that she’s likely to lose the stable and loving marriage she thought she’d been building for so many years. Each character laments saving their love for one of the others, obviously with varying degrees of success.
Kelly Price, R. Kelly, and Ron Isley brought a similar plot to life using a formula like this. In the remix to “A Friend of Mine”, Price turns to her Godfather, “Mr. Biggs” (voiced by Isley), for solace amid the betrayal of infidelity between her husband and her best friend. The result is part sob story and part argument, as Price explains the situation during her phone conversation with Mr. Biggs. Concerned about Price’s heartbreak, Mr. Biggs requests that R. Kelly be brought into the call. With the discussion thusly expanded, Price, Kelly, and Mr. Biggs attempt to hash out the problem. R. Kelly and Ron Isley continued the Mr. Biggs saga over the course of several songs. Unfortunately for Kelly, his character doesn’t always fare well in these exchanges.
Unity & Strength in Numbers
Perhaps the most logical reason for employing the posse track strategy is that it demonstrates the maxim that there is strength in numbers. The more voices promoting a particular viewpoint, the more unified the front. In some cases, unity alerts us to the importance of the issue in question and the sincerity of the commitment to that issue.
A giant in the field of non-hip-hop posse tracks is the Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie-penned “We Are the World”. The star-studded project was called USA For Africa, and it boasted participants ranging from Tina Turner to Dan Akroyd. “We Are the World” spearheaded a campaign to bring international attention to the African continent, and the inclusion of so many talented folks played a tremendous part. In all fairness, the song shouldn’t be delineated as merely an “R&B posse track” since, after all, the song’s purpose was to bring people together rather than confine them to artificial labels.
In this regard, it stands on its own, even with the sentimentality of its lyrics, given the fact that the biggest names in the industry were involved in the project. Besides, it’s pretty darn catchy, and it blends some really distinctive voices together. My favorite part is when Bruce Springsteen rolls up behind Al Jarreau and belts out the chorus. Overall, it’s such an achievement, in fact, that 2010 saw a remake of the tune as a motivator for relief efforts in Haiti. It’s hard to compare the two versions, though, and since they’re both for worthwhile causes, it’s probably best to leave it at that (Translation: the original is way better).
Before “We Are the World” came along, there was “That’s What Friends Are For”, written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and originally performed by Rod Stewart. The remake by Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder follows in the charitable footsteps of “We Are the World”, as it helped to raise money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In both instances, the songs specifically highlight the collective and cooperative aspects of our existence, reminding us that people from various walks of life can be connected. The impact of “We Are the World” is enhanced by the efforts of so many musicians, and both songs underscore the power inherent in increasing the numbers involved in a single cause.
“Freedom”, from Mario Van Peeples’ Panther soundtrack, takes the numerical advantage away from charitable subscriptions and points it toward social injustice. Panther chronicled the history of the Black Panther Party, and “Freedom” worked well within the movie’s theme while also counterbalancing the Black Panther Party’s generally male-dominated organizational structure. This version (dubbed the “black bag mix”) of soul singer Joi’s tune benefits from the wide-ranging and freewheeling mesh of styles over hardboiled production.
Here, with so many collaborators in the mix, the results are sprawling, highlighting contributions from scores of Black female artists, including Me’shell Ndegeocello, Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige, En Vogue, SWV, TLC, and Monica. I think it’s significant that the soundtrack yielded a rap-only version of “Freedom” in addition to the R&B-focused track. The separate songs emphasize the flipsides of the freedom movement. The rap version is lyrical and, perhaps, preachy, but intent upon stimulating intellect and action. The R&B version goes for the soul, stirs emotion, and stimulates action through goose bump-inducing vocals.
In 2010, Raheem DeVaughn pulled off a like-minded trick. On his The Love & War MasterPeace set, he managed to combine his romance with his politics, hoping to share more of his worldview as a companion to his penchant for play. “Nobody Wins a War”, the title of his anti-war tune, reads like a bumper sticker, but this thumping collaboration brings in heavy artillery to add life to the slogan: you get Jill Scott, Bilal, Anthony Hamilton, Algebra, Chrisette Michele, Shelby Johnson, Ledisi, Citizen Cope, Dwele, Chico DeBarge and Rudy Currence. As with “Freedom”, “Nobody Wins a War” is intent upon highlighting a crucial social issue through the use of multiple voices. The more artists, the better.
Every now and again, the course of human history forces concerned citizens to take matters into their own hands. In an effort to underscore the value of pursuing dreams, dignity, and personal responsibility, scores of R&B artists came together under the moniker Black Men United. The resulting tune, “U Will Know”, which appeared in the ho-hum film Jason’s Lyric, has a coming-of-age feel provided by lyrics about growing “from boys to men” and also through the contrasting voices of the participants. Young Tevin Campbell shared vocal duties with the likes of El DeBarge, Gerald Levert, Boy II Men, D’Angelo, and many others.
“U Will Know” is an intergenerational declaration, which of course depends upon widespread dissemination and execution for its effectiveness, and ultimately ensures that the preachers and choirs are interchangeable. Brothas speaking to brothas over a strumming groove and gospel-style arrangements? Corny, but kind of cool.