Music

Avant: Director

This R&B singer's out to prove he's not a clone. He's not that other guy. He's his own man.


Avant

Director

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
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The man on the cover of Director, pulling up the collar on his coat -- that's not the same man who sang "Your Body's Calling", "Ignition", and "Step in the Name of Love", and gave us the cliffhanging dope opera "Trapped in the Closet". The man on the cover of Director is named Avant. I promise. I won't even mention that other guy (or I'll at least keep it to a minimum).

That's how it's been for Avant since he first signed with Magic Johnson's record label (By the way, is there anything Magic isn't into? He's the real life Wizard Kelly from the Proud Family cartoon). Avant's debut, My Thoughts, eventually went platinum, as did his second album, Ecstasy. Yet, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- keeps comparing him to the Chocolate Factory crooner from Chicago, Illinois in the great U.S. of A.

Let's settle this once and for all.

Are they both R&B singers?

If you have to ask, you shouldn't be reading this. But yeah, they are, and both singers have their R&B patterns down pat, from the verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-vamp to the verse-hook-verse-hook-guest rap-vamp, not to mention their skills on the remix tip (you'll like Avant's remix of Stickwitu with the Pussycat Dolls, but don't forget the Chicago guy's remix to "Ignition" that was "hot and fresh out the kitchen").

Do they look alike?

Yes, and if all you get is a quick glance then they are identical.

Do they sing alike?

Yes.

Do their songs cover similar lyrical ground?

Not really, unless you think two guys singing about romance, heartbreak, sex, and dancing counts as "similar".

All right, so they're similar. So what? Avant's his own man, the director of his own destiny, if you will. On his fourth album, he aims to prove it. That's all you need to know.

Ladies, look out. The Director's in the house with 15 new scenes. Wait, make that 14 new scenes and one remix, clocking in at a healthy 57 minutes and some change. He's back and, as he sings on the opening track, he's got "So Many Ways" to let the ladies know what's on his mind. "So Many Ways" is a strong start, with the eyebrow raising opening lines: "I'm your director / It's getting deep / we don't need a camera or a videotape / to make this ghetto love scene". Now I know he didn't mean that the way it sounded -- in reference to you-know-who -- so let's not go there. The beat's thumping and there's a synth groove quivering in the background like a rubber band. Just go with the flow.

But, ladies, when Avant gets you going with the flow, he doesn't mean for you to put up with just anything. He ain't playin' around. That's why the second track, "This Is Your Night", gets the romance groove in gear, with lines like:

Let me take this time and tell you how special you are

Called everything under the sun but "a shining star"

We forgot how to love you (but you do too much, Boo)

And ain't no amount of apologies gon' ever make up for it

In the wrong hands, those lines could've been a disaster. Avant works it well. Then he goes on to ruin us guys by disavowing our "tired" lines:

And I know you're tired of "I'm on my way"

And uh…"She's just a friend"

And them damn videogames

He was on a roll with the first two, but come on, man, not the videogames! He really didn't have to call me out like that just because I love me some Final Fantasy.

Seriously, there's not going to be much fuss about the first two songs. They're solid jams. The problems start at track three, because that's where listeners and reviewers will part company and disagree over which songs are strong and which are weak. Accordingly, my top picks for the album are: "So Many Ways", "This Is Your Night", "4 Minutes", "Stickwitu (Urban Remix)", "With You", "Exclusive", "Mr. Dream", "G.P.S.A.(Ghetto Public Service Announcement)".

Picking up with "4 Minutes", we find Avant in the Cliffs Notes version of "Trapped in the Closet", true, but it's catchy and it's the perfect choice for attracting attention for the album. It's clever that the song length is exactly four minutes and the tick-tock of the clock adds a suspenseful touch in the background. As previously mentioned, The Pussycat Dolls offer a nice cameo in the Peter Mokran's remix of "Stickwitu", which should bring back memories of Avant's remake of "My First Love" with Keke Wyatt from his first album.

In fact, the cameos are well done here, with one possible exception (more about that a little later). Lloyd Banks provides the guest rap on "Exclusive", a high energy number with a distinctive chime in the background like Def Jef (the producer) is playing a set of wine glasses. It's creative departure from the norm as is Jermaine Dupri's appearance on the last song, "G.P.S.A. (Ghetto Public Service Announcement)". Here, the collaboration gives us a So-So-Interesting dialogue between Avant (in the role of concerned citizen and all around "grown ass man") and Jermaine Durpi (in the role of unconcerned citizen and all round hustler). It's faintly reminiscent of other dialogue-laden songs like the beefs between Mr. Bigg and that other singer from Chicago, or like MTV's Hip-Hopera Carmen, starring Mekhi Phifer, Beyonce, and Mos Def.

All in all, it's an entertaining public service announcement, with Jermaine Dupri's counterarguments steering the song away from becoming overly preachy. Some may say his concern for the world has no place on an album packed with romance. I, however, like the fact that he's more than a bump-and-grinder, plus the fact that he acknowledges the odd placement of the song at the outset, singing:

Now I know some people might not understand me

It might not go number one or win a Grammy

Two songs are marvelous simply because they break away from the album's more routine R&B staples. "With You" features longtime Avant collaborator Steve Huff on all instruments (especially those deliciously weird synth and tribal drum noises!) and additional vocals by Willie Taylor. Near the end of the set, "Mr. Dream" comes out of nowhere with its minimalist sound. It's built out of little more than a drum track, some strings, and Avant's ability to harmonize, as if McGyver produced it. It's one of the hottest songs in the collection because displays a skill every director must have -- knowing how and when to use silence.

It's not that the rest of the songs are bad; actually, they're not. However, they do tend to sound alike. "Right Place, Wrong Time", "Grown Ass Man", "Director", and "Imagination" take a few listens before they can be easily identified from one another. The other possible standout, "Lie About Us", is the one exception to the cameo success I mentioned earlier. Featuring fine vocals by Nicole Scherzinger, the song tells the story of a man and his mistress, with the man of course promising to treat his mistress right and vowing to come clean to the world about their affair. The surprise element here is that the woman isn't going into this blindly. She has doubts. But the song itself stands in such strong contrast to the message in "This Is Your Night" and other songs on the album that you wonder how it snuck onto the track list. Yet, even this slight misstep can be explained by one simple fact: Avant didn't write it. Another good fact: it does make for a nice duet.

Behind the music, the album lives up to its "Director" title. Thumb through the liner notes and you'll find a smorgasbord of creative elements. There are various writers and producers (Rodney Jerkins, The Underdogs & Antonio Dixon, Jermaine Dupri, Def Jef, Steve Stone, and Avant himself, among others). There are various mixers (Peter Mokran, Jean Marie Horvat, Dexter Simmons, to name a few). Pro Tools specialists include Tal Herzberg and Colin Miller. To set the mood, Ron Fair plays keyboards, The Pussycat Dolls orchestra plays strings, and Julio Miranda, Tim Stewart and Grecco Buratto were called in for guitar work. Geographically, the recording, mixing, and engineering took place in locales such as: Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and New York. Sometimes, a song receives a patchwork of attention, like the mixing for "With You" taking place in California, while the Pro Tools work happened in Illinois.

The diversity on this album is as much a product of technology as eclectic workmanship. These days, artists lay vocals and mix their songs on their tour buses. As always, the challenge is to stem the learning curve that accompanies new tools. Here, what holds the project together is the vision behind it, integrating the patchwork into a seamless final product. For that, Avant's effort stands alone, without comparison.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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