Gerald LeVert: Stroke of Genius

Mark Anthony Neal

LeVert has simply put in the work, rarely taking creative or stylistic risks, and easily becoming, if not the greatest, at least the most consistent male R&B artist of his generation.

Gerald Levert

Stroke of Genius

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2003-10-28
UK Release Date: 2003-10-13

Bobby Womack. Bill Withers. Luther Ingram. Joe Simon. All stellar Soul Men indeed, but in a Soul World defined by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Donny Hathaway, and Curtis Mayfield, they were forever consigned to the second tier. Though contemporary R&B holds no claims on anybody of the scope of any of the aforementioned Soul Men (save Mr. Kelly and possibly Mr. Maxwell), Gerald LeVert suffers the fate of remaining in that second tier. With none of the style or glam of figures like Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and Maxwell, or the thuggish-ruggishness (and criminality) of Jaheim, R. Kelly, and Dave Hollister, LeVert has simply put in the work -- seven solo albums in all and four in the last four years -- rarely taking creative or stylistic risks, and easily becoming, if not the greatest, at least the most consistent male R&B artist of his generation. Stroke of Genius is Gerald LeVert's latest.

Virtually all of the songs on Stroke of Genius were written and produced by LeVert and his long-time collaborator Edwin Nichols. Though LeVert gets deserved props for his often over-the-top (and greasy) ballads, his strength has always been the up-tempo numbers like last year's "Funny" or Love and Consequences' "Thinkin' 'Bout It" (1998). In this regard, the lead single, "U Got That Love (Call It a Night)", is classic Gerald LeVert, full of the kind of "crushed" vocal runs (think Beyoncé) that make him, at times, a very special vocalist. Such is the case on one of the song's choruses, where LeVert "crushes" the lyrics "Dim the blue light in the basement love / Ooh girl, I wanna slap your mama kind of love / That funky dope kinda love . . ."

One of the reasons that LeVert has been so consistent is that he borrows a bit from the styles of the moment, without ever letting those styles overwhelm his basic sound. So on a track like "Keep It Warm" he gives a nod to mid-west hip-hop, and on "Didn't We" he gives shout to R. Kelly ("Like Rob said, 'Step in the Name of Love'") with a Cleveland-styled "stepper step" groove. Though the dance step is generally associated with Chicago and Detroit, LeVert's spin on the "stepper step" is a simple reminder that black social dance -- think the "Bus Stop" and the "Electric Slide" -- is still alive and well. If anything, LeVert's "Didn't We" helps alleviate the guilt of those folks who really can't get down with some of Mr. Kelly's gender politics, but have fallen prey to the Piper's song (and damn if that ain't the case for a bunch of us).

Some of LeVert's best material over the last few years has dealt with the funkier side of relationships, and such is the case on tracks like "To My Grave" and "Eyes and Ears". "To My Grave" finds LeVert singing about the serial creeper, who ain't really figured out what he's "doin' in this house…with no clothes on at 6am in the morning" but realizing "I'm in trouble". Referencing the code of the playa and would-be-playas, he's "taking this one to my grave", giving a shout to his fellow travelers ("if you a true playa, you can say me prayer"). What makes the song so compelling is his admission that "the creep" ain't really got much to do with the woman he loves. In the song's breakdown, LeVert sings, "I swear to God, I love my woman / Since she made that hot water cornbread, collard greens, that make you wanna s-c-r-e-a-m . . .", (this is Gerald LeVert we talking about -- president of the "Pretty-Ass Big Man" club) finally issuing a threat to anybody in his business ("and I'll cut 'cha if you tell her now").

Looking at "the creep" from another perspective, LeVert is joined by his father Eddie and his brother Sean on the track "Eyes and Ears". The song is a troubling glimpse (seriously) at the responses of a group of men when one of them suspects that his woman is creeping. The song is straight out of the Mr. Biggs school of relationship management (see "Contagious" and "Busted"). The song begins with homie rolling up to the house, wondering, "What do my father and brother want? You know I'm a grown ass man and they just want to get all up in my business." Daddy and Baby Bruh are there for an intervention, and while Daddy tries to be responsible ("I told you, boy, don't go moving in no chick"), Baby Bruh trying to get gothic ("G, just say the word…just let me whip that ass"). When they find out that G been letting sis drive his car ("Oh you let her drive your car? / You really let her drive your car? / The bitch?") the conversation quickly deteriorates, with Baby Bruh asking if he could "freak her out", G hitting back "She's still my woman and I'll knock your black ass out", and Daddy trying to mediate ("Hold it boys, you're brothers, this ain't what it's all about"). For those who've decried that R&B has been too fixated with "love songs", the sudden turn towards threats of violence against creeping women should seem more than troubling. At the end of the song we're left with the trio bantering back and forth, with Sean singing lines like "we don't love them hoes" and "Let me freak her out, let me freak her out / G, don't knock me out / We gonna freak her out" (what's that? a threat of a gang rape?), and Daddy chiming in, "Ever since you were boys, I told you to pay your taxes and leave them bitches alone".

LeVert is joined by the enigmatic Tamia on a credible remake of the Carpenters' classic, "Close to You". There are echoes of Marvin Gaye and Barry White on the title track, "Stroke of Genius", including a reference to White's "I'm Gonna Love You" on the song's breakdown. "Won't Get Up" features a chopped riff from Gaye's "Gotta Give It Up". Both songs suggest that LeVert sees Stroke of Genius, in part, as a tribute to the "Love Men" who've influenced him. The closing song, "Last Stroke", in fact, serves as a eulogy of sorts for White, who died earlier this year. In the song, LeVert admits, "You taught me the stroke". With Stroke of Genius, Gerald LeVert once again shows that he's learned his lessons well.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

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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