Blackstreet: No Diggity: The Very Best of Blackstreet

J. Victoria Sanders


No Diggity: the Very Best of Blackstreet

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2003-06-10
UK Release Date: 2003-06-30

I have terrible, seething road rage. I'm the jerk who will honk at a moron who takes longer than a nanosecond to push his ride through a green light; I mutter under my breath at people who take four beats to move into another lane. Speed limits are more like friendly suggestions to me than actual law. I'm agitated every time I put my foot on the brake . . . you get the point.

Music is the perfect antidote to this, depending on the genre. Rock tends to agitate my condition, unless it's the Eagles or Foreigner, hip-hop induces speeding tickets (especially Ludacris or Jay-Z), and current R&B annoys me so much that I end up grinding my teeth while cursing on the freeway. This is important for you to know because, surprisingly, the only music that really reminds me to breathe while I'm on the road is Blackstreet.

Stuck in rainy traffic, forty miles from my teeny apartment on a parking lot someone sarcastically named a freeway, I reached back and retrieved my new-but-used Blackstreet tape. I'd inherited the group's first tape from a fellow music writer while I was living in Seattle; CDs had been flooding into her apartment, replacing her need for her massive collection of old R.Kelly, Tevin Campbell, or Aaron Hall tapes from almost a decade ago. All it took to keep me from chewing the top of my steering wheel was the intro to "Before I Let You Go".

The legacy of Blackstreet is not that of a particularly classic group, but one that succeeded in its mission to become an updated version of the Temptations (even down to the ever-changing line-up) -- sans fancy footwork. Not every love song is meant to induce a slow-dance-to-baby-making session, but after Teddy Riley's success with Guy and New Jack Swing, its no surprise that much of his best work with Blackstreet yielded some great hits.

Even the corniest songs represent an era between our parent's hip-swaying and kissing (think Barry White or Teddy Pendergrass) and the booty-shaking, penis-rubbing of right now; they were a much needed way station for black romance. Regretfully, there have been no runners up -- not Jagged Edge (dammit, take off those stupid matching jumpsuits), Boys II Men were always way over the top in the preppy department (the harmonies were so lovely though), definitely not Public Announcement (who are you people without R.Kelly?), and, god help us, wasn't Playa in the running for a little while?

No Diggity: The Very Best of Blackstreet, possibly the group's last compilation, reminded me that Blackstreet was good for what it was -- a group of very good voices with very good production and not so great lyrics. When they emerged in 1994, after Riley had delivered his New Jack Swing-style production to the SWV and Bobby Brown camps (among dozens of others), they came out in their black jumpsuits ready to replace the raunchy wake of Jodeci with a little old-fashioned mushy stuff. It worked: their first album achieved platinum status -- and even when Dave Hollister left to pursue a solo career, they followed up with hits like "No Diggity", a song I never liked with a borrowed bass line I couldn't deny. The same was true with "Booti Call" -- the fast-paced New Jack Swing thing is great for nostalgia purposes: it reminds me of the good old days, before I knew too much to be moved by a trite song.

No matter what I did, I could never resist the charm of Blackstreet in the long run. I stopped honking at people who were moving in front of my Corolla without signaling, or lurching toward my steering wheel, gritting my teeth at people for a second, when I listened to "Joy", an ode to some very lucky, lovely lady. Sure, the music seems archaic compared to the glossed-out, Neptune-dominated sound R&B takes on these days. "Fix", featuring the insanely bananas Ol Dirty Bastard, seems stuck in that era, as does "Girlfriend/Boyfriend", featuring Janet Jackson. Sometimes the sap is way too much on the ballad version of the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love".

While we're on the subject of excess, remaking "Billie Jean" was a horrible mistake for inclusion here; their rendition doesn't fall under the umbrella of Very Best anything. That said, aside from the glaring omission of Blackstreet's rendition of Stevie Wonder's classic, "Love's in Need of Love Today", the songs that really make Blackstreet a fixture in R&B history are in this collection: all the ones that just so happen to be songs they made a decade ago on that first tape.

Even the sappy stuff from Blackstreet -- like "Falling in Love Again" -- distracted me from ramming my 1998 fender into someone's brand new whip. It wasn't just temporary euphoria that calmed my spirits, but the nostalgia-inducing formula that made Blackstreet famous -- sweet words, tacky-now-but-slammin'-then music, and real, down-on-my-knees-girl sincerity.

If they never make another album, I'm fine with the one I've got: and with No Diggity in my possession, I can practice patience in the privacy of my own home instead of behind the steering wheel.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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