The Craig Report: 3.24.17

Hey, everybody! I know y’all reading this like

Well, let’s just say that 2016 was my year of going through some thangs, all of which I’m sure I will overshare in the future. But for now, I have some new stuff happening that I thought you guys would like to know about:

I. A lot of folks know me because of my interviews with Janet & Mariah. And some people have sent me messages asking about other celebrities that I covered during my career as a music journalist. The challenge with letting people know about my past work was that it was so dispersed throughout so many different publications, from The Washington Post to Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice to Vibe, Spin to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and so on… (I once even interviewed Lil’ Bow Wow at his home for Teen People; he was kind of a jerk though and wouldn’t let me have a Snapple from the fridge.)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of cut-and-pasting, I have complied many of the articles from my music biz tour of duty on my new site R&Being.com. The articles on the site are organized by the dates that they were originally published, so it sorta forms a reverse timeline of late ’90s/early ’00s R&B.You can read everything from my original review of Bey’s Dangerously in Love to my “Artist of the Year” interview with a Miseducation-era Lauryn Hill. It’s a lot, a lot. So here’s a quick guide to 10 of my favorites:

1) My review of Aalyah’s self-titled final album

2) Pretty much anything I’ve ever written about Monica, including her legendary standoff with Brandy, the time I interviewed her for the All Eyez on Me album that never came out, and the time we ate diner at Benihana to talk about the After the Storm album that finally came out. (#SoGoneChallenge, anyone?)

3) My Left Eye tribute & my interview with T-Boz & Chilli about life without their song-sister.

4) My interview with the funkiest of En Vogue’s foursome of funky divas, Dawn Robinson as she was preparing to launch her solo career. (Sadly, it never took off.)

5) My interview with Rick James about the 20th anniversary of his classic Street Songs album. Rick was talking all kinds of ish, most of which couldn’t make it into the family newspaper I was writing for. I’m definitely gonna find that interview tape so y’all can hear the uncut version.

6) Pretty much anything I’ve written about the Queen, Mary J. Blige, but particularly my piece about her epic My Life album which I had to fight to get Spin to include in its “Best of the ’90s” issue & my review of her soul opus, Mary.

7) My review of Usher’s Confessions tour, because he got on my gotdamn nerves at the time.

8) My Bad Boy mega-review of sophomore albums by Total, Faith Evans, and 112.

9) My very special interview with Jody Watley, who had one of the longest career runs in pop & R&B, as she started with the ’70s disco trio Shalamar and then, against almost anyone’s expectations, went on to score solo hits throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. I interviewed her prior to a D.C. Gay Pride appearance in ’99, and it was special because not only did she opine about her trials and triumphs in work, life, and love, she also opened up about the important role that gay men had played in her life, from childhood friends to the sometimes “bitchy” Soul Train dancers that she bumped alongside to her troubled friendship with Jermaine “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” Stewart, who died of AIDS-related complications–this month actually–in ’97.

10) Yo, me and Lil’ Mo go back like

I remember seeing the visuals for her first single, “5 Minutes,” on BET’s Video Vibrations and thinking, “there’s not a single thing that I don’t love about this woman.” I went on to review the Why Do Fools Fall in Love soundtrack, which included “5 Minutes,” for the Village Voice, then I profiled Mo as a “New Artist to Watch” for Spin. But things really got fun when I interviewed her for Vibe around the time of her debut album, Based On A True Story. Chile, she had me all over the tri-state, going from the W Hotel in Union Square to the Paramus Park mall and Fairleigh-Dickinson University in Jersey to some knucklehead-ass club in Queens where I almost got kill’t. Good times, and we’ve even reminisced about this day on the twitter.

Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy the vintage Craig experience. Lemme know if you have any questions and/or favorites.

II. So, this next bit of news is related to the previous stuff. One night, about a month ago, I was minding my own damn business on twitter. And by “minding my own damn business,” I literally mean “minding my own damn business,” because I was searching my own damn name. (It’s the way I preemptively prepare for future twitter beefs.)

Anyway, I stumbled upon this great podcast called “The Mariah Report,” which did an entire episode dedicated to the unedited audio of my 1999 interview with Mimi for The Washington Post.

I was super flattered.

I reached out to Martin Burgess and Dan Enriquez, the guys behind the show. They said that they wanted to interview me for a future episode, and now here it is. I answer questions from the hosts and podcast listeners about all the behind-the-scenes stuff surrounding the interview. Check it out. (The interview starts around 1:14:00.)

III. Lastly, I wanted you to know about something that’s been a long time coming and is a really big deal for me. My third book–and first novel–is finally out.

It’s the story of a nearly 40-year-old Providence, RI-based photographer, Michael Allen, who thinks he’s found love with a 19-year-old, mohawk-sporting artist named Ziggy. But soon he discovers that the two of them may already share a bond that neither can imagine. This plays out as Michael’s best friends-Sidney, a 50-ish art dealer and Bruce, a cop in his 30s-deal with their own sexual trysts and romantic travails with dramatically younger guys. The result is a novel that explores the fragile yet enduring ties of sex, love, and friendship.

If you dug my memoir, All I Could Bare and/or you enjoy the way I write in these letters, then I think you’ll really like it.

There are three super-easy ways to get it:

1) Get the kindle version. You can read it on your phone and/or tablet with Amazon’s free kindle app, and at $2.99, it’s mad cheap. 

2) If you’re all like, “fuck trees; I like the feel of paper in my hands,” then you can cop the paperback.

3) If your money happens to be low rn because you’re going through that coin hiatus that can sometimes occur between the 15th and the 1st, then I got you; you can read the entire book for free on wattpad.

Thanks in advance for the support!

Now, as Kanye once said, “like we always do at this time…”

CRAIG’S FAVE FIVE

1) I‘m Judging You: The Do Better Manual (Audiobook) – Luvvie Ajayi

I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by blogger extraordinaire–and new citizen of Shondaland–Luvvie Ajayi is a straight-up textual act of seduction. She starts her essay collection with lite, funny rants about toddlers, bad brunch buddies, and funky folks with horrible hygiene. But she soon–and seamlessly–moves on to heftier topics like feminism, rape culture, homophobia, and racism (from subtle, micro-aggressions to “KKK-style Original Recipe”). The most notable artistic achievement of it is that she never stops making you laugh. This is especially true when she takes on religion. Luvvie is the too-rare Jesus praiser who is sex and sex-worker-positive and who no doubt believes that God can take a joke. For instance, Luvvie hypothesizes that the Bible’s chapter on “Adam and Steve” got lost on Noah’s Ark. (“They didn’t get a chance to laminate things before the flood.”) And she goes all in on Christians who insist that Jesus was a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. (“Didn’t the Bible say he had hair of wool?…How did y’all come up with this Jesus who has hair that has been flat-ironed so straight, I’m left wondering what anti-frizz spray he used? Was that how he used the myrrh oil the wise men brought him on his birthday?) What all this amounts to is nothing short of a socio-cultural manifesto grounded in humor and Luvvie’s own good sense.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook so that you can hear Luvvie’s pointed commentary in her own powerful–and hilarious–voice. (And y’all know you can get a 30-day trial Audible subscription for free, right? You can even check out my self-read memoir while you’re there.)

2) Formosa Jalapeño Hot Sauce
Anyone who has read my letters or blog posts–or has shared any meal with me–knows that my hot sauce opinions are as heated as the sauce itself.

Since my hot sauce ideas were formed in childhood by the bottles that one of my grandmothers kept in her pocketbook and in the glove compartment of her car, I’m generally gonna need my fiery condiment of choice to be on the red-orange color continuum and to be the consistency of eye drops.

There are exceptions, sriracha being one of them. (Perhaps you recall the soul-rattling decision that I once had to make between two competing brands.) And now I’d like to add another sauce-with-the-thickness to the exceptions list: Formosa Jalapeño Hot Sauce.

I first saw this sauce at a gourmet spot around the holidays, and honestly, I think I only bought it because I was feeling the Christmas spirit and it was green. (I have enough red sauces.) I took it home, doused it on an egg sandwich, and instantly fell in love. The sauce somehow manages to be both creamy and light, and the jalapeño flavor delivers a kick that is also deeply savory. An unexpected delight.

3) No Sleep: NYC Nightlife Flyers 1988 – 1999 – DJ Stretch Armstrong and Evan Auerbach

Back in the day, before irritating-ass Facebook invites, club promoters had to rely on paper flyers to get the word out about their parties. They would pass them out at barber shops and hair salons, fly clothing spots, and the dopest local record store.

Often these flyers could be as uninspired as the umpteenth ad you’ve seen for “Bad & Boujee” night. But sometimes, in the hands of the right designers and artists (like the legendary Keith Haring), they could be elevated to a portable form of street art. No Sleep compiles flyers from the late ’80s and ’90s, when NY club culture surged with the energy of the burgeoning–and sometimes overlapping–hip-hop and house scenes. Here are some of my favorites from the book:

(one of the Haring flyers; ya boy was actually at this party.)

(If you’d like a soundtrack to go with the flyer, you can check out my Ten City Top 10 playlist.)

(For more Miss Grace, check out my review of her memoir, which is now in paperback.)

4) Lékué Omelette Maker

I love omelettes, but they can be a pain in the ass for me to make. First, I have to sauté the vegetables to go in the omelette, because I’m not trying to bite into a hard-ass piece of raw onion first thing in the morning.

Then, I have to cook the eggs, which often entails doing the absolute utmost with a spatula.

All in all, the omelette turns out well. But afterward I have two dirty pans and I’m left thinking

Enter the cool af Lékué omelette maker, which I stumbled upon one day on Amazon. It looks like this

And here’s the life changing part of it. You put your veggies in one side of the omelette maker, close it up, and put in the microwave for 3 minutes. The veggies come out nicely steamed. Then all you have to do next is pour the egg in.

(random white lady’s hands, not mine)
You don’t have to mix the eggs with the veggies or risk any flipping mishaps.

You just put the omelette maker back in the microwave for 2 more minutes, and the omelette comes out perf.

O.K., maybe not that perf, but close. This is one of my IRL-lettes with shiitake mushrooms and jalapeños.

This video goes through the whole process. (And the reason I’m including it is that I was trying to explain the concept to my mother and she didn’t really get it until she watched the video.)But trust, if you love omelettes, this will have you calling people to your kitchen like

5. 2017 Tunes
Lastly, since I haven’t been around in a while, I wanted to catch you up on all the stuff I’ve been listening to lately. This playlist has 25 of my faves from the year. I was trying to keep it to 20, but then Drizzy dropped and “Passionfruit” had me standing in front of the mirror getting my life.

(s/o to Seth for this gif)

Anyway, the playlist also includes such folks as:

a) Future, whose HNDRXX album, in the twitterverse, is often called the male Lemonade

b) Snø, who sounds like my boy Justin Bieber singing songs by The Weeknd, which is interesting considering that they both are allegedly beefing over Selena.

c) Kehlani, whose excellent SweetSexySavage album plays like a crazyseycool ’90s throwback

d) F.O.S. (Friend of Solange) I:  Sampha, who has made one of this year’s most vulnerable and soulful albums and blessed Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” last year.

e) F.O.S. II: David Longstreth, who worked on Solo’s A Seat At The Table and is back making music. He’s now solo but still recording under the group name the Dirty Projectors. “Little Bubble” is the saddest breakup ballad of the year, and “Cool Your Heart,” a duet with former Danity Kane-r DAWN that was co-written by Solange, is an undeniably sexy bop.

f) Khalid, who is easily this year’s biggest breakout music star with his catchy tunes about the joys and pains of simply being a teen.

I hope you enjoy!

O.K. y’all, until next time…

Be cool, be kind, be creative, be yourself. Love, Craig

CLOSING THOUGHT

P.S. If you know someone who might like this letter, please do me a favor by forwarding it to them and asking them to subscribe. Thanks!

CRAIG 101

Who I Am:

I’m a writer whose work has been featured in The Washington Post, the Chicago TribuneEntertainment Weekly, Vibe, Spin, and other publications. I have a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.

My Books:

Who’s Your Daddy

Providence-based photographer Michael Allen, a gay man on the cusp of 40, thinks he’s found love with a 19-year-old, mohawk-sporting artist named Ziggy, only to discover that the two may already share a bond that neither can imagine. This plays out as Michael’s best friends-Sidney, a 50-ish art dealer and Bruce, a cop in his 30s-deal with their own sexual trysts and romantic travails with dramatically younger guys. The result is a novel that explores the fragile yet enduring ties of sex, love, and friendship.

All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C.

“Unafraid to bare it all…readers will feel they’re in the hands of an expert.” – Publisher’s Weekly

“…a bare-assed, neon-lit tour de force…” –The Bay Area Reporter

“Raunchy splendor…somehow both bawdy and sweetly nostalgic at the same time.” – Dallas Voice

FREE: Download the All I Could Bare audiobook read by me.

Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross

“Seymour’s brilliant book is like a great Luther song: elegantly written, effortlessly executed and eloquently delivered. A majestic tribute.” – Michael Eric Dyson

“Full of juicy anecdotes, fast-paced writing and interesting analysis, the book paints an intimate portrait of the beloved balladeer.” – E. Lynn Harris

From The Vault: Kelly Price

hqdefault

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-5-32-01-am

May 09, 1999, Sunday, Final Edition

A Singer Whose Size Fits Just Fine; Kelly Price, Beating Stereotypes

Craig Seymour

There was a time when large women dominated the black music scene. From blues singers Big Maybelle and Bessie Smith to such rhythm-and-blues queens as Dinah Washington and Etta James, these women could belt out a song and exude sexuality with every powerful note. But as black music was increasingly marketed to pop audiences, black female artists were expected to conform to mainstream ideals of feminine beauty. Big soul belters were replaced by skinny soul waifs, starting with Diana Ross and continuing in the video age with an assortment of hitmakers that include Toni Braxton, Mya and Monica.

The ascendancy of Kelly Price, a plus-size singer-songwriter-producer who appears tonight at MCI Center with R. Kelly, marks the triumphant return of what she calls “the big sultry sister.”

“The consumer just wants good music,” says Price, 25. “It doesn’t matter if it comes in a size 8 or a size 18 or a size 28.”

Calling from the basement studio of the Long Island home she shares with her husband and manager, Jeffrey Rolle, and their two children, Price is talking about her successes over the past year, which include selling more than 1 million copies of her debut album, “Soul of a Woman,” winning numerous Soul Train Music Awards and collaborating with such pop superstars as Whitney Houston and Elton John, who calls Price “the best young black singer in America.”

But these accomplishments are not the rewards of an overnight success, but rather the spoils of a long and hard-fought war. Price, who wears a size 22, says she needed to accept herself as a large woman before she could demand similar acceptance within the image-obsessed music industry. “I’ve always been big,” she says. “I’ve been the little fat girl in the classroom. And it’s been a very painful process to learn how to love myself. It took a lot of tears and a lot of praying. I can’t even say I did it. It really took some divine intervention to become okay with who I am.”

Price, who started performing in her grandfather’s Pentecostal church as a child, got her big music industry break when she and her sister Shanrae landed a gig touring as background singers for pop star Mariah Carey. But despite that tour and some background recording work the sisters did for Carey, they found their weight to be an obstacle when they looked for other jobs. Eventually, Shanrae gave up and left the industry altogether. “The music business was hard on both of us,” Price says. “But it got to a point where she was tired of the struggle. She was tired of fighting. She was tired of competing against skinny women who couldn’t sing half as well as she could.”

For a time, Price sidelined her solo ambitions and focused on working behind the scenes, writing, arranging and singing background for various artists. A chance studio encounter with artist-producer-mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs led to her becoming the lone hit woman among Puffy’s writing and producing arsenal of hit men; Price wrote and arranged such hits as SWV’s “Someone” and Brian McKnight’s “You Should Be Mine,” and sang the hooks to several smashes, including “Mo Money, Mo Problems” by the late Notorious B.I.G.

Price has also collaborated with B.I.G.’s protegee Lil’ Kim, with whom she recorded “I Want Diamonds” from Kim’s forthcoming sophomore album, and Mase, who recently shocked the hip-hop world by announcing he was retiring from rap to devote his life to God. Even Price was “really surprised to hear it.” But she adds, “The Christian experience is a very overwhelming thing when you first experience it.”

Working with these and other artists proved lucrative for Price, but she says that even in the studio, she encountered barriers to success–not because she was a large woman but simply because she was a woman. “It’s a fight,” Price explains, describing what women face when trying to become record producers. Although producers such as Valerie Simpson, Angela Winbush, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill have made great strides within the industry, Price claims that becoming a producer is still “like trying to join an all-boys club.” Women producers cannot demand the same pay as men, she says, and often do not get proper credit for their work.

For Price, the studio is just another place where women experience such barriers. Growing up in the conservative Church of God in Christ, Price knew of no female pastors, even though her grandmother, mother and aunt were all evangelists. “In church, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they could never sit up underneath a woman pastor,” she says, “but I feel that if God is gonna speak through somebody, he can speak through a woman just like he can speak through a man.”

As Price continued to write and produce songs for other artists, she increasingly found that she wanted to sing those songs herself. Puff Daddy offered her a deal with his Bad Boy label, but she says now that she felt “insecure” about it. “The man wooed me and wooed me from Day One,” she says. Still, she was scared that one day he would ask her to lose weight.

In the end, she walked away from Combs’s offer just as she had walked away from an earlier one from Carey’s now-defunct label Crave. “I told myself that if I could walk away from Mariah Carey and Crave Records, then I could do the same with Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, and if it’s meant for me, it will happen,” she says.

Price finally got a record deal through R&B legends the Isley Brothers, whom she met while working with Puff Daddy on a remix of their single “Floatin’ on Your Love.” They kept in contact with Price and asked her to go on tour with them. “Before we came off the tour, there was a contract on my attorney’s desk,” she says. So she signed with the Isleys’ T-Neck label, which is distributed by Island Records.

Initially her career flourished from the relationship with the Isleys. The remix of her debut single, “Friend of Mine,” featuring Ronald Isley, helped the song go No. 1 on the R&B charts. But toward the end of last year her business relationship with the Isleys soured. According to a lawsuit filed last February in Los Angeles Superior Court against T-Neck Records, Island Records, Ron Isley and the Isley Brothers Music Corp., Price alleges, among other claims, that T-Neck inappropriately used her name to promote concert dates with the Isleys, and that T-Neck tried to interfere with her participation on a Whitney Houston record, as well as other planned collaborations. While none of the parties involved will comment on the suit, Price says she still loves the Isleys “very much. But it’s like trying to work with family. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

What has worked for Price is her collaborations with other artists. In recent months she’s been seen alongside superstars Houston and Faith Evans, performing their pop and R&B hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” Price calls this soulful trinity “Supremes 2000.” “We have a chemistry that worked very well together. We got along very well,” she says.

During the video shoot, she says, the working moms “talked about everything from carpooling to wiping snotty noses.” They even had nicknames for each other: “Faith calls me Kelly ‘Proper’ Price. She tells me, ‘Everything you say is so proper. I hear all your s’s and your t’s.’ ”

“I grew up in a house with a mother who was a reading teacher,” Price says. “I had to be that way when I was at home because my mother wasn’t having it.”

In fact, there were many things that Price’s mom wasn’t having, such as secular music in the house. One year for Christmas, Price got a little red AM/FM cassette radio. She says, “It was the year ‘Centipede’ was a big hit for Rebbie Jackson,” she says. “That was my favorite song. I locked myself in my bedroom and I had the radio plugged up with headphones. And I’m in the bed just twisting and turning, and shaking my booty, singing ‘Centipede,’ so I didn’t hear my mother walk in the room.”

Her mother was livid. “She looked at me and said: ‘I am not playing with you. You know I don’t allow this music in the house, and if I catch you listening to it again, I will personally take this radio and throw it down the incinerator.’

“Of course it didn’t stop me,” Price says. “But I was a lot more careful.”

Price’s mother, who was the musical director of Price’s grandfather’s church, took music “as seriously as she took schoolwork,” says Price, especially when teaching her young daughters how to sing. “When it was time to rehearse, if I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, she would throw a shoe. Sometimes she’d throw her house keys. She’d let me have it.”

Such discipline may help explain Price’s rich alto vocals, which ebb and crest in deep emotive waves, rather than exploding in uncontrolled shrieks. Through her vocals, Price has also turned her mother’s enunciation demands into a powerful and somewhat uncommon technique. Where many soul singers slur their words to convey emotion, Price issues each word with punctuated force, making her performances inescapably believable. On “Soul of a Woman,” which exemplifies R&B at its cathartic best, Price speaks to women who have been wronged.

Betrayal is “something that everybody can relate to,” says Stephen Hill, MTV’s former director of music programming and the new vice president of music programming at BET. “Whether you’re fat or whether you’re skinny . . . you can relate to it,” Hill says. “That’s her hook.”

How can she sing such sad songs effectively when she’s happily married? “I wasn’t born with the perfect relationship,” says Price. She met Jeffrey Rolle when she was 13 and they started “talking on the phone” when she was 16. “Even though we’re still together now,” she says, “I can’t tell you that he’s been faithful every single day since I was 16 years old. We were very, very young.”

Price brings these experiences to songs like her latest single, “It’s Gonna Rain” from the “Life” soundtrack, in which a woman feels that her man is starting to stray: “Something in my soul ain’t right/ I can’t sleep at night/ Wondering when the change gon’ come/ Feeling that I’m not the only one.” But the ultimate message of the song is one that Price and Rolle have learned together–that there are “some relationships worth fighting for.” Still, Price believes, “part of being a strong black woman is knowing when it’s worth saving and when it’s not worth saving.”

The video for “It’s Gonna Rain” is based on a concept by Price, who has taken control of her video image from the very beginning, since videos are notorious for derailing the career goals of heavyset artists. D.C. favorite Phyllis Hyman, who struggled with her weight throughout her career and committed suicide in 1995, often complained that as videos became more prevalent, she saw less talented singers zip past her on the charts.

Unlike Hyman, Price never hides her size in videos, reflecting hip-hop’s brash take-me-as-I-am attitude. Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe magazine, calls Price a “light of hope” for “healthy” women.

Many large female performers wear dark clothes and hire models to dance or act in their videos. But in her “Secret Love” clip, Price wears a hot pink leather pantsuit and dances along with her background dancers.

“I credit God for getting me to a place in my life where I can actually look at myself and feel like I’m good enough to stand next to anybody,” she says, “whether it’s on television, onstage or in a magazine. The consumer just wants good music–no matter the size.”

From The Vault: Brandy vs. Monica

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-4-14-12-amscreen-shot-2017-01-08-at-4-41-56-amBrandyandMonica.gif

Cain vs. Abel. Foreman vs. Ali. And now, Brandy vs. Monica. Well, “The Boy Is Mine” is the most successful single of the year–indeed, the most successful female duet of what chart geeks like to call “the rock era.” And if the matchup doesn’t quite qualify as historic myth, it certainly works as music-biz metaphor.

The duet was conceived for 19-year-old Brandy Norwood’s second album, Never Say Never–a Bondlike title that aptly evokes the secrecy, intrigue, and multinational interests now underlying all such pop power plays. As the widely reported story goes, Brandy first extends the duet invite to 17-year-old Monica Arnold to quash rumors of their rivalry. Monica accepts, but only if they split the take 50-50.

In May, the song drops and blows radio, video, and retail the fuck up. But the rumors quickly start again, and how could they not? Did Monica and Brandy really expect a song about a fictional rivalry to hush talk of an actual one? Brandy’s pissed because Monica put too many vocal runs in the song. The braided one then performs the song by herself on The Tonight Show. Monica fires off a statement to MTV that Brandy’s solo performance “hurt our song.” Meanwhile, Brandy’s off on the sneak tip recording a solo remix that is leaked to radio, only to be pulled because, according to a label source, contracts forbade altering the song in any way. At this point, Monica has “had about enough” and decides to name her whole damn album The Boy Is Mine.

The actual tune in the middle of all this drama creeps up on you with a harp sound that’s like light twinkling on a reflective pool. You don’t groove to it so much as you vibe in it, as Brandy and Monica kick a rather standard script about some tired two-timin’ man (only in the video do they join forces and trap his no-account butt) in their surprisingly complementary styles. Brandy is to groove what Monica is to rhythm. Where Brandy rides the contour of a melody like a wave, Monica advances and recedes, spontaneously creating then dismissing parallel rhythms. She sings like her fellow ATLiens dance, bouncin’ to everything from a Lil’ Jon bass mix to a quiet-storm slow jam.

To slam the song’s lack of passion is to miss the point. Brandy and Monica aren’t spilling their guts to each other–they’re staring each other down. They’ve been relative equals as recording artists. What Brandy has gained in mainstream clout through good-girl roles like Moesha and Cinderella, she’s lost in keep-it-real credibility. While Brandy and Monica have both enjoyed multiplatinum debuts, hit soundtrack songs, and r&b No. 1’s, neither has ever had a pop No. 1. So their collaboration only heats up their battle over who can parlay “Boy” into the most successful sophomore project.

Brandy struck first with a spotty collection that was entrusted to Rodney Jerkins, the r&b prodigy behind the enduring title track to Mary J. Blige’s Share My World, only after giant lizards, buppie flicks, and Lilith ladies kept Puffy, Babyface, and Missy off the project. Like Brandy, Jerkins–a likable kid who’s even mounted his own kinda charming Web site, though (for the record) he doesn’t return e-mail–isn’t yet 20, making Never Say Never almost an r&b youthquake. Tracks like the electrohop “U Don’t Know Me (Like U Used To)” and the Timba-esque title tune are a pleasing marriage of Jerkins’s buoyant beats and the dreamy croons of a singer who has already broken with teen convention by mastering a sort of dusky melancholy–a mood that marks the standout “Almost Doesn’t Count.” The sole misstep in this teen tango is the new single, “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a “woe is me, I’m successful” duet with Mase that screams–or moans– sophomore slump.

Without Jerkins at the helm, though, Brandy drowns in her own ennui, as is obvious after the album is turned over to Hacks R Us like David Foster, who produced the leaden cover of Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” and the saccharine Dianne Warren ballad “Have You Ever.” A Warren ballad is like an insurance bond in country and r&b these days–Trisha got one, LeAnn got one, X-Scape got one, Brian McKnight got one, and Monica even got two. But where Brandy drowns in Warren’s sap, Monica keeps her head up–just as Dionne Warwick did with Bacharach-David, and just as she herself did with Warren’s “For You I Will” on Space Jam. When Monica sings “I will go and bring you the moon,” she takes off; when Brandy sings “I will pull a star out of the sky for you,” she’s lost in space.

As Monica’s sophomore set makes clear, this advantage in emotional maturity is her reward for not being scared of her sexuality. We know exactly what she means by “his love is all in me,” and she doesn’t obsess about letting her “secret” go like Aaliyah on her slightly paranoid new smash “Are You That Somebody.” She romances soldiers like her 4-ever Tru boo C-Murder. And her Jermaine Dupri­-produced single “The First Night” is a lesson from the field. When she growls “I wanna get down but not the first night,” she’s not being coy or precious, just wise to the game. And in the midst of the Brandy thing, she’s startin’ mo’ shit by covering Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue,” which Mary J. Blige rips on her revelatory new The Tour.

Like “Misty Blue,” the bulk of the album is produced by Dallas Austin, who Monica calls her “play-father.” Austin builds a song by adding sudden hornblasts, scratches, and other bursts of sound to a simple rhythm track. From Deborah Cox’s “Sentimental” to Aretha Franklin’s “I’ll Dip,” he’s called attention to himself by calling attention to the artist, making every vocal seem subtle, reflective, and inspired. Austin and Monica have already created two masterworks: her debut single “Don’t Take It Personal” and (lost on Austin’s flop Fled soundtrack) “Missing You.” Here they rack up two more with the scratchy-funk “Ring Da Bell” and the plaintive “Take Him Back.” (Though if Austin is really Monica’s daddy, he should respect her concepts at the bank by cutting her a slice of that lucrative publishing cheese.) Some credit should also go to co­executive producer Clive Davis, who does know how to mastermind a hit album. Front-loaded with “The Boy Is Mine,” “The First Night,” and the aforementioned Space Jam jam, the album has legs as fine as the ones Monica shows off in that slit-to-the-crotch black skirt she wears in the “Boy” video.

There’s still a part of me that’s gotta love Brandy–the Brandy who appeared on a recent TV Guide cover, sans makeup, braids pulled back, smiling shyly for fear of acting “too fast” or “too grown.” But the ass-splittin’ truth is that Brandy’s a star because she was made one, while Monica would be a star wherever she was. If she was a grocery check-out girl, you’d stand in her line.

Ultimately, Brandy vs. Monica breaks down to our times-defining r&b vs. hip hop debate. Brandy is straight-up r&b teen dream–too peaches-and-cream to be Next’s butta love, but just right for Usher’s nice-and-slow. Monica, on the other hand, is hip hop all the way. Where Brandy thinks she’s being cool with her “slow down Mase you’re killing ’em,” Monica riffs off on “Charge It 2 Da Game,” the latest from her No Limit soldier-in-law Silkk the Shocker. She’s the independent yet “down for her nigga” girl that hip hop has taught us to love. If I was 17, I’d want her as the Mary to my Meth. This boy is hers.

From The Vault: Bad Boy’s Class of ’98

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-4-14-12-amscreen-shot-2017-01-08-at-4-13-57-am

Bad Boy Greatest Hits Volume 1 takes you back to when the label’s records were more than something radio forced you to endure. I mean, who can forget Puffy’s sublime ’93 remix of Caron Wheeler’s “Soul Street?” O.K., but trust me, it’s fierce. People were feenin’ when they first heard Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” posse-remix w/ B.I.G., Busta, and LL. A friend called me right after they played it on a mix show in D.C.: “Yo, did you hear Biggie say ‘I gets more butt than ashtrays’?”

 
Appearing on half of Hits, B.I.G. is Puff’s prototypical “Bad Boy,” capable of being fearsome on “Warning” and flossin’ on “Big Poppa.” And, though much less gifted or compelling, so is Mase, who’s equally convincing busting out of jail in the “24 Hours To Live” video and driving the Reptar wagon for Blackstreet’s Rugrats theme video. As an artist, Puffy plays the “Bad Boy” as ever-desiring, all-consuming id, insatiable and unstoppable. Even when he’s mourning, it’s all about him.

Musically, it’s long been acknowledged that Puff’s chart-topping hip hop/r&b hybrid is just a stripped, slowed-down take on Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing. But five minutes dancing to one of Riley’s fevered tracks and you’ve sweated out your perm and silk shirt. Sean Combs gave us music we could step, strut, and pose to, like the languid atmospheric bump of Faith’s “You Used To Love Me” and the sexy throb of 112’s “Only You (Bad Boy Remix).” When Puff later decided to kick the beat up, he turned to those fellow believers in uplift through style, Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards, most recently using “Chic Cheer” for Faith’s new skate-jam “Love Like This.”

Of course, the most popular way to slam Puffy is through his use of samples. Admittedly, and because of my age perhaps, all the ’70s shit Puff sampled on Mary J. Blige’s classic My Life struck me like hearing from a childhood friend, while his “hits from the ’80s” often gag me with a spoon. Still, this whole sampling debate is getting slept-through-class stupid. Is it really a surprise that people with a stolen past would create and embrace a form of music built from fragments of the past, or have less distinctly Western notions of creativity and originality? A fairer criticism to aim at Sean Combs is that he takes the spotlight away from his artists. For well over a year every Bad Boy resource seemed devoted to Puffy’s multiplatinum No Way Out.

 
Now, almost as a penance, Bad Boy releases sophomore albums by Faith Evans, 112, and Total all in the same month. While the albums differ in quality and theme, the covers all mark a notable image change, toned-down and designed to help them avoid the sophomore slump syndrome where newly blown-up artists lose touch with the daily realities of their core audience. The marked exception is on Faith’s Keep the Faith when she sings, “I got three children to think about first/I’ve got so much to do/Little time to work.” For most of us stiffs, taking care of our brood means going to work.

No traditional male fantasy sexpot, Faith has always seemed an unlikely product of the Bad Boy dream factory. But as her late husband Biggie’s voice spoke to our playa fancies, Faith’s airy yet strong soprano sounds like the dreams you believe in standing at the altar, committing yourself before God. That’s why she’s most fully in her element singing “I wanna give my heart, my soul, my love to you, oh baby” on Keep the Faith‘s Babyface cut “Never Gonna Let You Go.” And whether you want to believe “My First Love” is about Biggie or not, Faith brings a knowing power to lines like “We never had the chance to make it get better/We never said goodbye.”

But though there’s much great singing on Keep the Faith, there are too few great or even good songs. While the mostly self-penned tunes on her debut at least had a fluid quality befitting her dewy vocals, on Keep the Faith they just seem aimless. If you’re not paying attention to every twist and turn of her spiraling melismas, the album passes by like a summer breeze, pleasant but neither distinctive nor memorable.

112’s Room 112 is too often similarly unremarkable, with the Atlanta-based male quartet over-relying on their trademark milquetoast harmonies and lead vocalist Slim Scandrick’s boyish whine. Oxymoronically dubbed “the Gentlemen of Bad Boy,” 112 play like the love interest of a Terry McMillian novel: the sweet, sensitive Southern boy who softens the hardened heart of the urban ’round-the-way girl. But their homogenized drone can’t sustain the fantasy: urban honey will soon get bored with 112 and be on Jerry Springer confessing her affair with DMX.

That said, Room 112 does hold a few interesting surprises. “Stay With Me” reveals Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” to be as ripe a sampling source as Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.” Mike Keith’s grainy vocal on “Whatcha Gonna Do” shows that he should sing lead a hell of a lot more often. And any song produced by group member Daron Jones proves that he is well on the road to becoming the next Babyface (who started in his own mediocre group, the Deele). Jones, who also produced B.I.G.’s sexy lampoon “#!*@ You Tonight” and the slow-burning crush of Kelly Price’s new “Secret Love,” helms peak album cuts like the funk-bounce ballad “Anywhere” and the earnest devotion ode “Love You Like I Did.”

 
But hands down, the best new Bad Boy release is Total’s Kima, Keisha, and Pam, though maybe because the bulk of it is conceived by r&b’s other big dreamer, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. (And a genuine big-up to Missy for doing so many sides for a group outside of her camp.) Like fashion magazines where scantily clad women traipse alone and unscathed through exotic locales, Kima, Keisha, and Pam paints a mouth-watering, female-centered fantasy world of sexual indulgence and erotic possibility. It’s the kind of world where you can fuck your best friend’s man and justify it with “I know I’m wrong but I can’t help it.” And it’s the kind of world where you can boldly say to someone else’s man, if your girlfriend don’t like it, “tell her she can come participate.”

Overt homoeroticism has always been part of Total’s appeal, with their videos often featuring Pam, the deep-voiced dark chocolate butch, slapping the ass of Keisha, the big-legged, honey-dipped femme. Total speak to a sexual fluidity that exists even within hip hop—like how all those brothas get down-low booty when they’re locked down and how Queen Pen rhymes about ballin’ girls on her album, then the next thing you hear she’s fuckin’ one of them fine Next niggas. Total also add a refreshing perspective to hip hop’s seminal gender battle. When they sing “There Will Be No #!@ Tonight,” it’s not like Foxy Brown rapping “If we skip Prada/You get nada,” a power play that still places the woman as the object of a game. Total hold out to heat you up, not cut you off.

Though producer Heavy D. crafts an infectious Prince-like funk thump on “The Most Beautiful,” most of the album’s musical kudos go to Missy, whose tracks are as sex-drenched as Total’s vocals. On “Do Something,” the start and stop, sputter, and steady drums trace the course of desire from slow pursuit to fervid sex to afterglow, while “Trippin’,” the Missy-produced first single, teasingly pulls you crossways with frantic mad scientist trills against the slow descent of a synth bass. But since Puff is not about to gamble the success of this whole project on these radio-risky jams, the album is literally anchored for success by the last cut, “I Don’t Wanna Smile,” a Diane Warren–penned, MTV Jams Countdown ready-made that’s bearable mostly because it allows—as Missy raps—”those Total bitches” to be such bad asses on the rest of the album.

 
Whether any of these new releases will finally give Puffy the dream weaver respect he deserves is doubtful. Nor is he likely to get a respectability payoff with new artists like Jerome, whose youthful charms fail to impress me any more than that older honey he’s jockin’ on Hits‘s “Too Old for Me,” or Shyne, whose sounds-like-Biggie prerelease hype is dangerously reaching Canibus-like proportions. Since, like pornography, Puff plays to our most crass, materialistic, and selfish desires, he’ll probably never get his due. But at least he’ll be the most paid martyr in hip hop.