Music » Music Features

Let Them Sing If They Want To

Taking stock of boho soul: Lauryn Hill's botched breakthrough and other new releases.



The boho/alt/neo/whatever soul movement has arguably provoked and provided more compelling pop music over the last half decade than any other genre, but it's hard to pin down exactly when it began. Was it D'Angelo's 1995 debut Brown Sugar, which provided the style and attitude? Was it Tony Toni Toné's 1996 swan song, the deservingly titled House of Music, a breathtakingly accomplished modern embrace of organic soul music? Or was it the Fugees' 1996 sophomore masterpiece The Score, which established the philosophy of freedom at the (sub)genre's core?

I actually vote none of the above and instead point to an interview that took place a couple of years before those releases with R&B überproducer Dallas Austin. In the waning days of new-jack soul, with its shiny suits, sound-alike beats, and some admittedly fine records, Austin expressed admiration for Nirvana -- the way they took the stage in their street clothes and played music as an extension of who they were, devoid of any commercial calculation. Austin wished that the artists he worked with could be so free.

And it's precisely that interview that I've been thinking of lately while trying to listen to ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill's new record, MTV Unplugged 2.0. Hill opens the two-hour, two-disc, solo acoustic set with a spoken introduction that affirms the honesty Austin once pleaded for: "I used to get dressed for y'all," Hill says to the studio audience. "I don't do that now. It's a new day." "I used to be a performer," she continues, "and I don't really consider myself a performer anymore. I'm [just] sharing."

Of course, Hill's declaration of independence might be more meaningful if the record were better. I'd like to tell you about the music -- all brand-new songs, outside of a couple of covers -- but I'm not sure I remember it. I mean, I've tried to listen to it. But with Hill's unaccompanied and monotonously rudimentary acoustic guitar and hyperserious lyrics devoid of wit or the rhythm of good hip hop, it's been a chore. Invariably, though I try to pay attention, my mind drifts off at about the one-and-a-half-minute mark of epic tunes that sometimes run past eight minutes. Preelectric Dylan, this acoustic troubadour is not (though the Diallo-inspired "I Find It Hard To Say" almost registers as a powerful protest song in the folk-revival mode). Without the benefit of the compelling visuals of the television special (Hill breaking down in tears on "I Gotta Find a Piece of Mind"), it's nearly impossible to follow.

Hill's unplugged set reminds us that the greatness of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wasn't in Hill's lyrics or (God knows, heh heh) her persona (Hill tends toward self-righteousness, pretentiousness, judgmentalism, and quasi-religious martyr complexes when unfettered) but in its music: her beautifully organic production and ingenious rap/soul arrangements (especially the vocal arrangements, where Hill's gifts may be unrivaled).

If we consider this an "official" album (and since it's almost all new, original music, I can't see how anyone could consider it otherwise), then it has to mark one of the most precipitous album-to-album dropoffs ever for a major artist -- more of a letdown even than Prince following up Purple Rain with Around the World In a Day. "I'm a mess," Hill says, and there's no arguing with that.

The between-song monologues, which are frequent and lengthy (one goes on for more than 12 minutes!), are more interesting than the music, but Hill's failure is symbolic of a new (or, rather, reborn) freedom for R&B performers -- it's deeply flawed but still a breakthrough of sorts. Her voice cracks, lyrics are flubbed, and there's no radio single in sight. In a mainstream, relatively conservative genre heretofore intent on putting on a show and projecting an image, Hill sits onstage alone and weeps. "I'm emotionally unstable," she confesses. "I'm tired of frontin'," she complains. "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need, and I've just retired from the fantasy part," she explains.

Outside of a rock-associated wacko like Prince, a major black pop-music artist hasn't had the freedom to foist something this perverse on the buying public since Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. But there are other current artists who take boho soul's sense of freedom to more musically fruitful places, especially a couple of previously marginal culture heroes (well, they've been that for me over the last few years) striking out on their own for the first time.

The key figure in Tony Toni Toné, Raphael Saadiq's mission to preserve the best of '70s soul (Al Green, the Spinners, etc.) was apparent from the group's knowingly titled early records (The Revival, Sons of Soul), but after perfecting this goal with House of Music, he's been pretty low-profile, appearing a couple of years ago as part of the fine R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl, who managed to go gold without leaving much of a lasting cultural impression. But now Saadiq, the most unjustly underrecognized soul man in America, is finally going solo with his forthcoming debut, Instant Vintage.

In an era dominated by the sexual pathology and conspicuous consumption of an R. Kelly and the up-front sexuality of pec-baring D'Angelo, it's no wonder Saadiq hasn't become a major star. Saadiq may pose on the cover in a flower-print dashiki with one eye circled in black paint, meaninglessly label his music "gospeldelic soul," and even propose a little light bondage on track two, but he still seems almost too decent, too normal, to really blow up. But with his supple, beautiful tenor and light, sure musical touch, he remains the music's greatest groove man. Instant Vintage is so subtle that you may love it while listening to it but not really remember a single song afterward.

Similarly, Thomas "Cee-Lo" Callaway has been one of pop's singular voices over the last few years without really being a star. A hip-hop Reverend Ike, Cee-Lo's whiny, gritty, sing-songy pulpit-style delivery stood out among the three sound-alike MCs he traded verses with in Atlanta's Goodie Mob. With that group unable to break out of the shadow of comrades OutKast and unable to make the move from gold to platinum, Cee-Lo has gone solo with Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections. Plenty of music on the album repeats earlier charms without others getting in the way: He gets electroboogie on the ecstatic single "Closet Freak"; he drops science with a down-home delivery on "Big Ole Words (Damn)"; and he confirms his unlikely love for acid-rock on the anthemic "Live (Right Now)." But the real bravery on the record is found in the way he explores his previous penchant to break into song -- the comical title of one song intro is "Let Him Sing if He Wants To." "Country Love," despite the heavy bass line and hip-hop drum lick (which are pretty understated anyway), actually sounds like something Charley Pride might cover. And on "Young Man," he croons a loving warning to younger rappers more intent on "keeping it real" than just being honest with themselves. Cee-Lo's obviously no Saadiq in the vocal department, but it turns out that he's a much better singer than Biz Markie.

But it also turns out that the best of the recent boho soul releases comes from an even more obscure artist connected to both Saadiq and Cee-Lo. Freak-funk diva Joi is married to Big Gipp, Cee-Lo's partner in Goodie Mob, and is part of the same Dungeon Family crew. She toured with Lucy Pearl and counts Saadiq as a frequent collaborator on her new album, Star Kitty's Revenge. And that record just happens to be the closest anyone has ever come to a female Prince, and the little Purple One hasn't made a record this good in nearly a decade.

Whether quoting Sly Stone on the bridge of "It's Your Life" or going rock on the epic revenge song "Get On," Joi seems in total control here. The subtly sinister, pulsing "Crave" and the slow, sticky "Lick" may be the year's best sex songs, though neither is quite as sexy as the Saadiq-produced winner "What If I Kissed You Right Now?" Freakier than Macy Gray (or at least freaky in a compelling way rather than a "get that crazy bitch away from me" way) and with a sharper song sense than Erykah Badu, Joi deserves to be a star but will settle for just being herself.

Showbiz isn't always a bad thing, of course. After all, there may not be a single piece of music on any of the albums discussed in this piece as pleasurable or as durable as Ja Rule and Ashanti's formulaic "Always on Time." But the personal and artistic freedom -- the disregard for self-censorship and commercial calculation -- that Hill strives for and Saadiq, Cee-Lo, and Joi have fun with is the core of this great new era in R&B, and it's why the pop future looks so good right now.

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It took almost four hours to get there, but the finale of the 23rd Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards, held Thursday, May 23rd, at The Orpheum, was worth every minute of waiting. In a tribute to Sun Records (founder Sam Phillips is receiving the Blues Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award this year) and its underrecognized blues heritage, the Handys brought together the four most prominent living alumni of Sun's blues years -- Roscoe Gordon, Little Milton, Ike Turner, and, of course, B.B. King -- for a relaxed, engaging 20-minute jam session. King was in powerful voice, presiding over his cohorts with palpable chemistry, and he also delivered the night's most touching moment, saying, "Mr. Handy is looking down on us. And my good friend Rufus Thomas. I can't kiss him on the top of his head tonight." The whole thing felt too magical and too right to be just a one-off -- quick, somebody put these guys on tour together.

But despite entertaining sets from Marcia Ball and Chef Chris & His Nairobi Trio, the other live performances this year were a little less engaging than last year. The highlights, rather, were the small moments of personality or visual incongruity that occurred between musical sets. There was grandson Cedric Burnside and bandmate Kenny Brown adding some needed earthiness to the proceedings when accepting awards on behalf of R.L. Burnside. There was a rambling, funny, and moving tribute to Rufus Thomas from Clarence Moore. There was the bizarre sight of blues mama Tracy Nelson presenting an award alongside action-movie tough guy Steven Segal, who has an album (?!) coming out. There was the glorious sight of Ruth Brown and Sam Phillips making a charming mockery of the artificiality of the medium (television, not blues). And there was the mind-boggling thrill of David Johansen and Ike Turner standing together to present an award. But did Turner have any idea who he was standing next to? Did he "get" the New York Dolls joke scriptwriter Robert Gordon wrote for him? And oddest of all was the presence of some Burger King executive talking about how people were introduced to John Lee Hooker through commercials, then showing a video tribute that seemed to have about as much to do with Carlos Santana (did he die too?) as Hooker.

"The Blues: Did It Die and You Didn't Notice?" was the title of one Handy event last week. But, judging from this night, "the biggest night in blues" according to the Blues Foundation, it seems to be doing just fine. Sure, it's a niche genre now, but one that still seems to have plenty of life left.

The 23rd Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards winners: Entertainer of the Year: B.B. King; Band of the Year: Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers; Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year: Buddy Guy; Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year: Shemekia Copeland; Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year: Little Milton Campbell; Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year: Etta James; Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year: R.L. Burnside; Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year: Koko Taylor; Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year: Keb' Mo'; Best New Artist Debut: Otis Taylor --White African; Instrumentalist/Guitar: Buddy Guy; Instrumentalist/Harmonica: Charlie Musselwhite; Instrumentalist/Keyboards: Pinetop Perkins; Instrumentalist/Bass: Willie Kent; Instrumentalist/Drums: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith; Instrumentalist/Horns: Roomful of Blues Horn Section; Instrumentalist/Other: Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (fiddle); Acoustic Blues Album of the Year: John Hammond -- Wicked Grin; Comeback Blues Album of the Year: Ike Turner --Here and Now; Contemporary Blues Album of the Year: Buddy Guy -- Sweet Tea; Soul Blues Album of the Year: Little Milton -- Feel It; Traditional Blues Album of the Year: R.L. Burnside -- Burnside on Burnside; Blues Album of the Year: Marcia Ball -- Presumed Innocent; Historical Album of the Year: Muddy Waters --Fathers and Sons; Blues Song of the Year: Charlie Musselwhite -- "Charlie's Old Highway 51 Blues."

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