Music

Christina Milian: So Amazin

Supposedly, image is everything. What happens when your movie image clashes with your music image? Milian's latest gives us an exact estimation: it depends on how many people bought into those images.


Christina Milian

So Amazin'

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2006-05-16
UK Release Date: 2006-05-08
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This is part of the chorus of Christina Milian's single, "Say I":

I'ma keep it gangsta

I'ma make it hot

If you feelin' like I do

Then people throw ya hands up and say "I".

Whenever I hear that "keep it gangsta" line, I can't help but giggle. It's as if somebody walked over and said, "Yo, Rudy Huxtable's album is the bomb." Then, while I'm standing there scratching my head, the person continues, "That's right, the little girl on The Cosby Show whose goldfish died -- Rudy Huxtable! She's keepin' it gangsta!" Hilarious.

Maybe that's a little much. Plus, we've been using the term "gangsta" in a wide variety of ways lately. It's like that scene in the movie Donnie Brasco where agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), known undercover as the movie title, tries to explain Mafia lingo to his FBI homies. When asked the meaning of the ubiquitous phrase "fugeddaboudit", Pistone explains that you say "Forget about it" when: you agree, when you disagree, when you see something cool, when you want to tell somebody off, and of course when you just want to say "Forget about it". Likewise, I recently heard a kid say, "That's gangsta," about a bike he got for his birthday. Pretty soon, the voice-overs in commercials for prescription pills and medical supplies will be using the word too: "Best of all, Medicare pays for it. Isn't that gangsta?"

But it still sounds funny when Milian sings it. It's even more weird when, on her latest release So Amazin', she says, "F**k you" and "I still loved you / when yo a*s got laid off" in "Who's Gonna Ride", or when she begins the song "Foolin'" with, "You supposed to be that ni**a."

"That ni**a"? It's so bizarre to hear that on this album, particularly when these same songs generally keep the lyrics a notch below PG. Then, ka-blow, out of the blue, there's a randomly placed "a*s", "sh*t", "f**k" or "ni**a". Especially that last word.

Now, I wasn't trying to get all Al Sharpton about this, but let's address this before someone says, "Hey, you all review albums with the n-word all the time and nobody says anything" and "How come it's okay for the male rappers to say the n-word, but not Christina Milian?" I'm not too fond of the "Why not everyone" implication in that second question but, in any event, it shouldn't be about any of that. I'm intimately familiar with the n-word. Heck, I've been called it a few times, in the "What's up, Buddy" way and the "Why don't y'all go back to Africa" way.

Rather, it's supposed to be about diction, word choice, and crafting lyrics that enhance a track rather than distract from it. This ought to be important since Milian has done a large share of the writing on this disc. Yet, there isn't an "a*s", sh*t, "f**k" or "ni**a" on this album that couldn't have been avoided, with the possible exception of the "Don't let the door hit yo a*s when you leave boy" line in "Who's Gonna Ride", and even that one is an eyebrow raiser. If it helps at all, that "Who's Gonna Ride" song features Three 6 Mafia, and I think it was a mistake not to edit this line from their rap: "I got twelve inches long of ding dong I'm layin'." That's not exactly Langston Hughes, but hey, what can you do? They're Oscar winners.

At the same time, there are plenty of albums (like, almost all of them) that could probably be more effective if they omitted a few of the expletives. I remember the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" from way back when -- the ear-friendly radio version was, in my opinion, far superior to the explicit album version, in terms of diction and imagery. Same thing goes for movies -- how many "f**k"s do you really need to get that R rating? So what's really going on here?

As I examined my response, I realized my reaction to "Gangsta" Milian was at least partially due to perception. See, when I think of Christina Milian, I see "Paris Morgan", the character she played in the film Love Don't Cost a Thing opposite Nick Cannon's Alvin, the usual Steve Urkel-like outcast. As Paris, Milian was the sweet and popular high school girl who looked nice, lived a well-cushioned life, and sang poems from her diary. No matter how many times she could "pop - pop - pop that thing" in her hit song "Dip It Low", I've been stuck thinking of her as sweet and popular, which leaves no room for gangsta. Since her appearances on MTV's TRL and Regis and Kelly haven't persuaded me otherwise, it's almost like she's the Anti-Gangsta.

Accordingly, your perception of Milian -- of her image and of who she seems to be -- will affect your overall view of So Amazin'. If you accept her in the role of streetwise ride-or-die-chick, the album comes closer to an 8 out of 10 rating. On the other hand, if the lyrical slip-ups have you vigorously shaking your head to counteract the image of Rudy Huxtable keeping it gangsta, you have to shave off a point or two. That's lesson one. The other lesson is to be aware (and wary) of your influences. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." What he didn't say was that if you can't hide your sources, then you might be able to call them "tributes" if you're bold about them and mimic them well enough.

For Christina Milian, the influences on So Amazin' are bold, abundant, and (mostly) well done. Let's count them.

There's her Jennifer Lopez look on the album cover and the back picture of the CD case.

There's the black-and-white photo among the liner notes that mimics Michael Jackson's photo in his Thriller album booklet, the one where he's stretched out, with one leg bent skyward, while leaning on one elbow and stroking a baby cat with his free hand. The only difference, other than the absence of color, is that Milian's pose shows her with a large dog.

"Say I" borrows a few bars from the Beyonce songbook, particularly in terms of Milian's delivery. On the multimedia tip, Milian's video for "Say I", imbedded with the CD, reinforces how important the Jackson family's (that is, Michael's and Janet's) choreography has been to the MTV generation.

Like Mariah Carey's forays into hip-hop alongside the late Old Dirty Bastard and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Milian recruits Young Jeezy for "Say I" and the aforementioned Three 6 Mafia for "Who's Gonna Ride". She even indulges herself in a cutesy Bone-Thugs moment at the beginning of "Gonna Tell Everybody". Bone was famous for their sing-songy mantra "Gonna miss everybody" from the song "Tha Crossroads" and Milian sings her "Gonna tell everybody" line with the same cadence and in almost the same key.

Meanwhile, "Y'all Ain't Nuthin'" might remind you a bit of Destiny's Child in "Where'd You Go", albeit at a slower pace, from their The Writing's On the Wall album. It's a nice song -- not great, though -- with an equally nice melody.

On "So Amazing", Milian's verses sound similar to Ciara's "1, 2 Step" or Ciara's cameo in Missy Elliott's "Lose Control". Musically, the song sounds a lot like Kelis' "Milkshake"; in fact, you can actually sing "Milkshake" to it (not that I'm admitting that I tried it or anything). The tune's downside is its weak chorus in which Milian and guest star Dre take turns chanting, "This is amazin', 'mazin' / That is amazin', 'mazin'". A wiser choice, aside from writing a better hook, might have been to use an echo to get that mazin' effect. Or the vocalists could have taken turns acting as each other's echoes. Actually, anything would've worked, including no hook at all.

Speaking of Missy Elliott, the song "Hot Boy" wears a similar title to Missy's hit "Hot Boyz" and Milian croons her way through it like one of my all-time favorite R&B stars, Aaliyah. "Hot Boy" thumps, as does the beware-of-playas anthem "Foolin'". Of course, "Foolin'" will make you say, "Is this about the breakup with Nick (Cannon)?" with lines like:

Now the media's gossipin'

Pinnin' me in magazines

Sayin' I was the one (no)

Comparin' us to that Brad, Jen and Angelina affair

Look baby I ain't the one

Regardless of the song's inspiration, it's one of the album's best tunes, right down to the bouncy tempo, Milian's superbly arranged vocals, and a coy sample of the Average White Band's "If I Ever Lose This Heaven".

In addition to the influences above, the production work on this release informs and often guides the direction of the record. Cool & Dre, the Miami kings of crunk, keep Milian's party from cooling off, and they do it with style. As already noted, the songs are enhanced by well-chosen samples, such as "Give Me Just Another Day" by the Miracles in "Say I" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Joan Crawford" on "Who's Gonna Ride". Probably the biggest applause goes to "Gonna Miss Everybody", which manages to meld R. Kelly's "Half On a Baby", Bone Thugs' "Tha Crossroads", and the Notorious B.I.G.'s duet with Bone called "Notorious Thugs".

Other highlights include the hard drum track "Twisted" and the Spanish-flavored "She Don't Know". The latter actually opens up the possibility of Milian recording more songs like this, perhaps even a song completely in Spanish. As long as the "keep it gangsta" idiom resists easy translation into Spanish, I'm all for it. It would accentuate another facet of Milian's abilities and would allow her to distinguish herself from the highly competitive field of young R&B singers, which includes: Ciara, Rihanna, Teairra Mari, Keyshia Cole, Brooke Valentine, and Amerie. Plus, Beyonce and Alicia Keys are never far away.

All in all, Milian's got a good thing going, despite a few lyrical hiccups, a couple of lackluster hooks, and some obvious influences. I don't mean to get all Paula Abdul from American Idolbut, you know what? Christina Milian sounds good and she looks great. Whether she can keep it gangsta or not is immaterial. Forget about it.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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