Prince & The New Power Generation – Diamonds and Pearls Paisley Park 9 25379-2 (1991)
While Prince had already demonstrated in the 1980s that his music could be self-indulgent, in the 1990s he also demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to pander. Diamonds and Pearls is one of the biggest duds in Prince’s catalog. It opens with a few faux-street-tough songs in the same mold as Michael Jackson‘s Dangerous (released a couple months later). While not particularly memorable, they are at least listenable. Then there is the hit title track, a sappy ballad that is quite mediocre. But then, a bright spot. “Cream” is Prince in his prime, a sleek: funky R&B song with all the ribald themes listeners expect from the man. But from there the album drops off considerably. The rest ranges from the bad to the cringe-worthy. Prince is trying to fit himself (and his band) into some kind of mold of appearing tough yet vulnerable, seemingly aiming for praise for “triangulating” what the public wants. In hindsight, it comes across as an unconvincing and contrived act. In the late 1990s Prince famously said in an interview (in which he talked about jumping off pianos) that his career was about the music not about money or the trappings of fame. Listeners might well question whether that statement held true around 1991 though — or at other times in his career too. For instance, Prince’s first producer Chris Moon later claimed that Prince was mostly interested in fame when he first entered the music business.
Listeners can safely pass on Diamonds and Pearls and merely pick up “Cream” on a compilation.
FKA twigs – LP1 Young Turks YTCD118 (2014)
LP1 is basically music in the style of new electro R&B, like The Weeknd, which makes some overtures to various electronic pop genres mostly originating from the UK. But there is something else going on here. Experiments and outsider music are being co-opted in pursuit of conformist commercial success in the usual channels. The lyrics of this album evidence a sort of low self-esteem protagonist degrading herself for external validation. That at least is what it tries to be. There is a strong sense that this is very contrived music. It resembles the sort of “feminism” that — idiotically — declares adherence to stereotypical gender roles to be revolutionary, like “shopping as identity”. This is immanently self-defeating more than anything. Although perhaps this appropriates some interesting bits from other sources, the conclusion remains: fail.
Pharrell Williams – G I R L Columbia 88843 05507 2 (2014)
Renowned music producer Pharrell Williams has been one of the most identifiable voices of American pop music in the preceding decade or so. Recording as a solo artist, though, something is lacking most of the time. The hit single “Happy” is here, and it is about 100 times better than anything else on G I R L. It takes the positive energy of OutKast‘s “Hey Ya!” and applies a more laid-back vibe. The thing is that happiness is for idiots. The way Pharrell sings about it, the concept is nothing more than jouissance, that is, a death drive for excess enjoyment beyond simple plaisir (pleasure), which in the end leads to pain. Or at least, so says psychoanalysis. The rest of the songs have lame lyrics, and a tentative delivery that lacks music commitment from Pharrell. The backing music is fine. It isn’t innovative. This guy has been doing this stuff for a decade. But most feel like only sketches of songs not fully developed. All together, it hardly gets beyond the hit single. Pass on this, and stick just with “Happy.”
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) Universal Motown B0010800-02 (2008)
I don’t listen to much R&B these days. And why should I? Most of it is that bad…you know, rank, superficial posturing on nothing more than ridiculous and unending “American/Pop Idol” melisma. I won’t even get into the Amy Winehouse types. It’s been years since anything close to as good as Voodoo, or even The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has crossed my path. This New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is something though. Erykah Badu has an unusual voice. Her lyrical subject matter is, on the one hand, nothing new, but, on the other hand, there is nothing in her songs that is anything less than supremely relevant. The music leans on hip hop and darker Seventies soul without sounding like it’s trying too hard to sound like either. If you want soul/R&B that makes an effort to be meaningful, then you’ve come to the right spot. She released a Part Two that felt considerably more limp and less engaged.