Music

We Don't Die, We Multiply: R&B Posse Tracks

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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.

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).

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