Craig in XY Magazine

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Elegy of Clubland by Craig Seymour

Once Upon A Time. It’s a phrase we’re all used to from children’s stories. Words meant to conjure a past so distant that it’s imbued with mystery, myth, and magic. It’s a phrase that I never thought would apply to my own work. But as I sit looking at old photos, remember the young, shining faces coming alive in long-gone, twilight-lit spaces, I can’t help repeating that phrase in my mind: One Upon A Time.

The feelings I experience while looking at these pictures are wildly mixed. There is joy from the memory of all the wild, ecstatic fun. But there’s also melancholy from the realization that what once was will never be again.

See, I started seriously taking pictures in nightclubs around 2006. But my relationship with nightclubs, particularly strip clubs, goes back much farther. The first gay club that I ever went to was a strip club, La Cage Aux Follies, in my hometown of Washington, D.C. As soon as I stepped in the door and entered the dark club where godly hunks danced under warm, red lights, I experienced a feeling of safety that came over me like a wave. It was the first time in my life that I felt fully secure in publically exhibiting my desire for other men without fear of reprisal, whether verbal or violent.

Throughout the ‘90s, I worked in many of the D.C. clubs as a stripper in order to help pay my way through grad school. This gave me another perspective on the strip club experience. I learned through my friendships with other strippers that behind every gyrating, g-stringed body was a unique story, a journeyman’s tale about what led them to the club and a hopeful vision about where life might one day take them.

By the time I started taking pictures, my relationship to the strip clubs had changed once again. This change reflected a phenomenon once described by author Andrew Holleran: “And the only way you know you’re growing older is that you (once loved by older men) now find yourself loving boys younger than you…” Looking back, I think what I sought to capture in those pictures was the youthful freedom that marked my experience and the experience of many of the strippers that I worked with in the clubs. I wanted to capture that time before life choices hardened into identity, and when sex—and public sex performances—could still be considered play. I wanted to capture the innocence that wasn’t about naiveté or moralistic notions of chastity, but rather the situational suspension of guilt and shame.

Often, people think it’s ridiculous when I talk about innocence with respect to strippers. But that has more to do with our societal hypocrisy about sex than it does with what goes on at the even the most permissive strip club. As Pat (now Patrick) Califia once asked: “Why is sex supposed to be invisible? Other pleasurable acts or acts of communication are routinely performed in public—eating, drinking, talking, watching movies, writing letters, studying or teaching, telling jokes and laughing, appreciating fine art. Is sex so deadly, hateful, and horrific that we can’t permit it to be seen?”

My photographic work, from its inception, has been committed to the idea that sex can be public and should be seen. But more and more, there are obstacles to this idea that don’t simply hinge on hypocrisy and moralism. Increasingly, spaces where gay men could engage in public sex—which runs the continuum from voyeuristically ogling a go-go boy to getting full-on biblical in a back room—are disappearing. Some of this is due to factors that have long impinged upon nightlife: sententious zoning laws; rising rents due to gentrification; homophobic alcohol board practices, etc. But some of this we are doing to ourselves.

There has been article after article about how apps like Grindr are killing gay nightlife because people no longer have to go out to hookup. And this idea has always bothered me because it reduces the raison d’être of nightlife to simply hooking up. But back in the day, in the “Once Upon A Time” of many of my photos, “hooking up” wasn’t the only point of going to a gay club. Rather, it was the gratifying endnote of a sexual public experience, a mise en scène of gay desire that was like nothing else in the known, straight world.

Losing these physical spaces has led to another loss, one that is more metaphysical, that cuts to the core of the modern gay experience. “Gay life is about being open, being unlimited…Why would anyone—bisexual, gay, whatever—want to be trapped as a photo, as an internet profile in an app? That’s a different kind of closet, a box.” This was said to a New York Times reporter by a gay man in Cuba, where spotty internet service has made Grindr slow to catch on.

I think what I mourn most about the death of gay nightlife is the idea of innocence that I talked about with respect to the dancers. It’s because, when nightlife was at its best, this feeling of innocence, of freedom from judgment and expectations could be accessed by almost anyone. The same way that churchgoers have Sunday mornings to congregate and collectively grow closer to God, we—as gay men—had Friday night, and Saturday night, and just about any other night to come together and rejoice in the desire that set so many of us free. Once Upon A Time.

 

The Craig Report: 5.12.17

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Hey everybody. I’m back!

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I want to first wish a Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. None of us would be here without you. Thanks for all you do, especially offering life lessons…

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…posing rhetorical questions…

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…and stating simple truths:

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I hope everybody had a good week. Mine was made a little more interesting because they were filming The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story outside the former Versace mansion in my neighborhood on South Beach. The show, which will be shown on FX in 2018, is being done by Ryan Murphy and his cohorts, who are also behind The People vs. OJ Simpson, American Horror Story, Feud, Glee, and so on and so on…

I didn’t see any of the stars like Edgar Ramirez, who plays Versace, Ricky Martin, who plays Versace’s boyfriend, or Darren Criss, who plays murderer Andrew Cunanan and was spotted on the beach in a Speedo.

I mostly just took pictures of production stuff as I passed by on my daily beach run and my subsequent walk to the office, where I sit writing this.

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Some of my shots were jacked, because I was passing by in a rush.

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And one day, I was taking a photo of the fake Darren Criss/Andrew Cunanan “Wanted” poster, and a prop supervisor raced over to me and yelled, “Don’t take a picture of that!”

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I clapped back: “It’s a public street!” Then I stood there like…

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Anyway, here are my fave behind-the-scenes shots:

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CRAIG’S WEEKLY FAVES

1)  National Mama’s Bailout Day

A group of social justice organizations, including Black Lives Matter, are joining together to bail out mothers who are in jail but have not been convicted of a crime; they simply can’t afford to make bail. The bail-out campaign is inclusive of mothers who–as the following video explains–are “queer, trans immigrant, young, elder, and disabled.”

And because I don’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself:

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2) Yujia Hu‘s insane sushi creations (s/o @sethclark for the tip)

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3) Model Carson Aldridge apes a lot of ’80s leading man tropes in this short video. More important, he does most of it in short-shorts and tighty whities.

O.K. y’all, until next time…

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

And Happy Mother’s Day again!!!!

Love, Craig

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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P.S. If you know someone who might like this report, 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:

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Craig’s Art Corner: Fred Martins

Solange’s website Saint Heron recently turned me on to this Nigerian artist, Fred Martins. His work tackles social themes with a dramatic graphic style. One of his high profile projects depicts afro picks stylized as the profiles of great Civil Rights activists set against an orange background. He explains these choices in an interview:

What do you think is so strong about the comb as a symbol?

Afro combs were worn in the 70’s by fluffy-afroed youths in America as a protest against repression and it goes beyond style and adornment, a comb has a strong historical play for Africans. Combs were connected to both cultural and religious beliefs, even though they were fashionable and also used for combating lice, ticks and fleas. The over 5500-year-old Afro-combs discovered in Kemet (Egypt) disproves the present theories that denies Egypt its blackness. It connects Africans to their ancestors.

Why the bold orange background?

The orange colour is associated to prison. I realised that most of these legendary activists – from Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Fela Kuti to Angela Davis – were at some point jailed for enforcing the African consciousness.

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Another of his projects tackles climate change.

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