The good news? Move over J. Lo, it looks like Jeannie's on the block. The bad news? The block is hot, percolating, twirking, and full of haters who sport bling.
"Welcome to Brooklyn"
-- Lil' Kim, "Lighters Up"
"Since your name is Jeannie / Can I make a wish?"
-- Papoose, "Crowded"
Jeannie Ortega may be relatively "new" as an artist with a recording deal, but she's been involved with music since she was a kid. At eight years old, she wrote a song called "Shine Like Me" and, later, she became a member of the cutesy kiddie duo "Sugar & Spice". She was performing for local audiences before she'd completed high school. A graduate of Brooklyn's High School of the Arts, Ortega has blossomed into an artist who possesses an array of gifts: she's a singer (note the aforementioned debut), a dancer (check the video for the single "Crowded" on the enhanced CD), a songwriter (she has writing credits for 10 out of 11 tracks), and an actress (she appears in the film "Step Up"). Of course, it's the singing and songwriting -- along with the music and production -- that we care about most when we're listening to an album, so let's dive right into it.
Ortega's debut, No Place Like Brooklyn, is a mixed bag, an 11-song hodgepodge of material that might be labeled "hip-pop". Accordingly, I've got some good news to report and some bad news.
The good news is that Ms. Ortega performs her songs with confidence and plenty of attitude. Despite her lyrical flaws, the young singer's sassy persona makes her sound impassioned and committed. It's not always clear, though, what she's impassioned about or what she's committed to. Nevertheless, she grabbed my attention with "Pay It" when she sang, "Shake them haters off / make them fakers leave / I'm trying to get this cheese". She didn't get my attention because no one else can "shake them haters" like Jeannie Ortega -- she's not the first hater of haters and won't be the last. It wasn't because she promised to "make them fakers leave" (although I wish her much success with that). And it sure wasn't my faith in her ability to get all that "cheese" (besides, E-40 suggests that we upgrade the term to "gouda"). Rather, her commanding, sometimes aggressive vocals make you believe she believes what she's singing. As the title suggests, Jeannie Ortega is a native of Brooklyn, New York and, judging from the album photos of Ms. Ortega hanging out in the 'hood, Ortega and company wanted you feel like you're meeting the real Jeannie Ortega, from the snapshot of her standing in the doorway of an apartment building to the green graffiti-style lettering of her name on the front cover.
Now, look. Ortega may not sell you on the content of her declarations, but she's likely to convince you she's sincere about it. You might not believe she's really the "other woman" fending off a cheating man's advances, but she sure sings, "I'm not gon' be your chick on the side" in the opener and the lead single "Crowded" like she means business. "Crowded" revives the independence of Salt-N-Pepa's "Chick on the Side", the difference being that Salt-N-Pepa's tale was told from the point of view of "the girlfriend who's being lied to" while Ortega changes the camera angle and approaches the cheater as the "would-be mistress". You might not think the tendered-eyed singer on the cover would qualify as a siren or a temptress, but you get the idea she believes she's all that and a truckload of "cheese" on "Green I'ze" as her vocals float harmoniously over a mid-tempo instrumental. When you listen to "What I Need", you might be surprised to know Ortega's ideal partner is "someone who's sensitive but still thug" (you know, a combination of Ralph Tresvant and 50 Cent). Yet, she makes it sound like a sure thing. Her ability to infuse energy into otherwise generic content bodes well for her future. If the substance of her music rises to the challenge, she could very well have the elusive "total package".
On the production end, No Place Like Brooklyn gathers a variety of skilled technicians with different sounds under the album's "hip-pop" umbrella. In fact, there are more producers on this album than there are tracks, yet the effort exudes a singular sense of direction, as if one producer built the ensemble rather than a multitude. In this regard, the album's guest spots contribute to Ortega's goal, from Quan's off-center but effective rhyming on "Can You?" to Papoose and his sharp, witty verse on "Crowded" ("Imagine if you came home to your wife, opened your door and locked it / Then you found R. Kelly hiding in your closet"). The entire direction might seem "generic", like songs you'd expect from The Cheetah Girls or songs for a film soundtrack. Admittedly, "So Done" dallies with a rock-oriented sound, which departs -- in a promising way, because it adds variety -- from the album's hip-hop and dancehall sensibilities. Still, even that bit of spice operates as part of a common recipe.
It's no surprise, then, that Ortega got her break when her song "Got What It Takes" was included on the Love Don't Cost a Thing soundtrack. As you may recall, that particular movie, starring Christina Milian and Nick Cannon, wasn't known for its plot complexities, character nuances, or conceptual dynamics. It was a fun movie about a teenager from one social circle (the high school "nerd") who wants to impress the attractive young lady from a different social circle (the "hot cheerleader"). They strike a deal, pretend to date, and learn a few "after-school special" kind of lessons about how to treat people and what it means to be a true friend. What does a soundtrack for such a movie require? Basically, you need beats that thump and lyrics that lean heavily on the popular vernacular of the day.
No Place Like Brooklyn's main flaw is its inability to stamp Ortega's name onto a space of its own. That's the essence of the bad news: the intensity of Ortega's delivery is equaled by the album's reliance on clichéd lyrics and attempts at portraying a "street" image, mostly through slang. Everyday speech is certainly peppered with slang, colloquialisms, and other deviations from The Grammar Hall of Fame. However, it's a different manner entirely when a singer continually incorporates "cool" terms and phrases from the hip-hop term bank, such as: "They can't fade me", anything that "percolates" or "twirks", songs about needing a sensitive "thug", lyrics about "the block" being "hot", anything about "haters", anything like "you ain't neva gonna change me because I'm going to keep being 'me'", or lyrics that compare "love" or "desire" to a "drug". I'm not saying songs have to be philosophical odes or contemplate a formula to produce cold fusion, but they shouldn't substitute catchphrases for meaningful expression either.
The abundance of "hip" language reminds me of the scene in the movie Airplane in which two black passengers (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) are speaking "jive" to a befuddled flight attendant when an older white female passenger (Barbara Billingsley who played June Cleaver in Leave It To Beaver) offers her powers of translation:
Flight Attendant: All right, would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?
Lady Who Speaks Jive: Just hang loose, blood. She gonna catch you up on the rebound on the medi side.
Black Passenger: What it is, big mama? My mama didn't raise no dummies. I dug her rap.
Lady Who Speaks Jive: Cut me some slack, Jack."
[They all start arguing in jive]
Lady Who Speaks Jive: Chump don't want the help, chump don't get the help. Jive-ass dude don't got no brains, anyhow. Hmph.
One exception is "Bling", a song dedicated to a wanna-be-cool-dude who undermines his hotness by working so hard to act and appear "hot". The slang and vernacular work because they're being thrown back at the faker as examples of what not to do. This ideological reversal makes "Bling" a quick favorite.
The inclusion of "street" lingo is as much an appeal to the young adult market as N.O.R.E.'s guest rap on "It's R Time" (he rhymes, "I'll hold you down and stand by your side / Beef on your block, I got n*ggaz to ride"). Even the parental advisory sticker on the cover belies an attempt to woo older listeners (those who are too old for Nickelodeon but probably shouldn't be watching the TV-MA movies on Cinemax). But the lyrics aren't all that alarming -- the explicit subject matter basically amounts to the aforementioned "n*ggaz" line and a handful of "bullsh*t"s in the tune "Let It Go".
At the same time, there's a line in "Can U?" that undermines the appeal to the older market. The lyrics set the mood for an intimate evening ("Light the candles, relaxing / Smell real good / Ready for maxing / If the cards play right / Never know what could happen"). But, in the chorus, she asks if he can come visit her because "my parents are gone and I'm all alone". Immediately, my response was, "Your parents?!" It comes off like a caper the Camden kids might've tried to pull off way back when on the TV show 7th Heaven. The reference pulls Ortega's image back into the teen demographic and conflicts with the lyrics of other songs. There's no rule that an album must be thematically cohesive -- a singer can be happily married in one song, divorced in another song, and cheating on a spouse in another song -- but when a song like "Bling" dismisses a cocky guy's advances because "you live with your mother", the lyrics in "Can U?" make you think, "Big deal. So do you."
Hope arrives in the form of "Hear Me". On this song, Ortega sidesteps the slang and, in the process, she puts in serious vocal work, singing, "I’m screaming at the top of my lungs", while her voice, as if responding to emotion, only threatens to do so. It's a highlight because it shows the promise of her talent. Who knows -- Jeannie Ortega's No Place Like Brooklyn could be the debut before the blockbuster, much like Alanis Morissette's output before Jagged Little Pill, Pink's Can't Take Me Home before Missundaztood, and Janet's Janet Jackson and Dream Street albums before Control. Knowing bigger successes are possible, as this debut demonstrates, is the best news of all.