Too Close, Too Far

Still better known nationally than locally, Next remain the quintessential Minnesota R&B group

Is racism sometimes just a matter of taste? Sure. Sometimes the most discriminating tastes can, well, discriminate. The logic that what you like has something to do with whom you hate may be the most slippery slope in the study of pop, but we should schuss down that course every now and then anyway. How often, for instance, do white fans of hip-hop characterize all resistance to the genre as a fear of blackness, pure and simple--and then go on to dismiss popular R&B as artless and disposable? Are they any more enlightened than Hendrix fans who hated not just disco, but Funkadelic as well?

True, most white folks in our sticks-on-a-stick hadn't even heard of self-dubbed Minnesota "ghetto celebs" Next until well after their ode to dance-floor penile functionality, "Too Close," had gone up and down the charts for nearly a year. And what if they had? Next epitomizes the sort of R&B so many white folks hate, anyway--at least so many white folks over age 25. Even if Next-deprived KDWB listeners had come across the trio's "Butta Love" on KMOJ in 1997, many would have merely remembered that old Saturday Night Live send-up of bedroom soul where Chris Rock demanded, "Let me suck your big toe!" Memorably, Next's first popular spurt from their debut, Rated Next (Arista), involved blunt praise for one woman's "feet pedicure, no corns."

Such anatomical specificity was something new in radio-ready pop, and it was never an easy sell, even to Prince fans, whatever the press said about the group's inherited dirty mind. Three years later, there's nothing nearly as distinctive about "Wifey," the current hit single from Next's second hit album, Welcome II Nextasy (Arista), which most City Pages readers probably didn't buy, either. There may be some slack poetry in describing a woman as looking "crucial," but that doesn't make the group's list of particulars for an ideal mate any less pat: "Sweet, but you know when to flip it street/Freak, but only when it comes to me." Nothing complex here, unless you count the Madonna/whore one.

But--and this is a big ol' butter-swathed but--somehow, this inauspicious ditty has emerged as the most insinuating pop anthem of our waning wedding season. Unlike Jagged Edge's "Let's Get Married," a Next-like dollop of harmony-funk that has even less to do with Al Green, "Wifey" swings like mad within its tinny, fake-orchestra-in-a-beatbox confines. The silky vocal sheets of singers R.L. (Robert Lavell Huggar), T-Low (Terrance Brown), and Tweety (Raphael Shawan Brown) flap smoothly in the quiet storm. The refrains feel like verses (and vice versa). And what you'll probably remember as the real chorus--Lil' Mo answering, "Yes, I'll be your wifey"--is saved for the coda, the much-needed frottage after some intense footsy. Now that's a Days Inn bed put to good use.

Maybe if Next didn't turn every sleeve photo into a pinup, every song into a wink, every line into a "line," they might make a stronger case for their repeated claim that the Grammys unjustly ignored their artistry, that they're not taken seriously enough. (One would think it would be a compliment to be overlooked by the Grammys, and Next were feted at the Billboard Music Awards.) They might also convince skeptics that the rest of the post-Dru Hill barbershop pop surrounding their ubiquitous hits deserves a closer listen.

Of course, with Next's sales, they hardly need the approval of skeptics--or of critics. But allow me to argue that Next are important, and not just because they happen to be from here. Their importance rests in certain qualities--wholesomeness, humor, hunger--that they possess exactly because they're from here, no happens about it. Their music is as quintessentially Minnesotan as "Closing Time," bad blues, and our great and enduring tradition of Bohemian rock and hip hop.

 

Perhaps every city in America has its Nexts--clever R&B harmony groups reared within a close-knit black community, unknown to most white city folk until they've broken nationally. But the Twin Cities have only one, and ours means that much more to us as a result. Hailing from both Cities and various high schools (Highland Park, St. Paul Central, Washburn), R.L., T-Low, and Tweety symbolize the lucky break local black singers and MCs may never get. As R.L. once lamented to me, "How many record executives go to talent shows?"

Talent shows were where Next cut their teeth--from appearances at the Sabathani Community Center to contests at Arnellia's and concerts at the Juneteenth festival. (For a while, the joke of their name was that they heard "next" a lot at gigs.) Before the singers ran down Naughty by Nature's KayGee in the Mall of America food court in 1995, gaining a longtime producer-mentor, Next sought guidance from family: T-Low's godmother is former Sounds of Blackness singer Ann Nesby, and his uncle is gospel choir director James Grear. They recorded with local producers Lance and Prof T of the group Low-Key. Like Prince coming of age in The Way Community Center of the Seventies, Next were nourished solely by the black community. And like Prince, they kept close ties to that community long after moving on.

With homes in Eden Prairie, they regularly roll through South Beach and the Quest when they're in town between extended recording sessions on the coasts. R.L. told the Star Tribune that "Wifey" was inspired by a comic routine he saw at the Riverview Supper Club in north Minneapolis. Next even wrote and dedicated a song, in private, to the family of late Timberwolves guard Malik Sealy. And they keep up with hometown gossip wherever they go. One day, when KMOJ was fielding calls about a rumor concerning R.L.'s love life, a listener phoned the singer in New York. Soon, R.L. was on the studio line himself to refute some loose talk about whether "the child was his."

So in a way, there was no real need for Nextasy's obvious hometown shout-out, the throwaway interlude "Minnesnowta," on which producer T-Low whispers, "Just had to let y'all know where we from." But Next know that even name-dropping the state can shine some light on those they've left behind, especially given the group's suddenly increased star wattage. This year, R.L. paired with Deborah Cox for the hit ballad "We Can't Be Friends," and appeared on Showtime's Soul Food (in a group called Milestone, with Case, Montell Jordan, and Dru Hill's Jazz). Tweety is pursuing acting parts, T-Low his own label. All three have barely reached their mid-20s. Maybe they'll even nab a Grammy this year.

Still, no one would know Next from Jodeci Clone 4,602 if it weren't for R.L.'s distinct skill as a writer--his ability to capture that combination of giggly humor and unassuming Midwestern mackmanship that makes the crew so approachable in person. In the warm hands of Next, KayGee, and their collaborators, the songs are rife with jokey eroticism that's no less steamy for being funny. Like "Too Close," Nextasy's "Cybersex" is an intentional chuckle played straight enough to make a listener wonder if they mean it: "I want your P.C./Sit on my laptop" soon gives way to "Download all over me." Ever the freaks of all media, Next go on to rhyme "jimmy" with "Emmy" on "Let's Make a Movie" (I guess nothing rhymes with "Oscar").

Perhaps inevitably, accidental self-parody looms large. After explaining to me, and countless others, the difference between "sexual" and "sensual" ("'Sexual' is going up to a girl and saying, 'Hey, I want you to suck my dick'; 'sensual' is, 'I want you to taste me'"), how can R.L. seriously drop a line like "I'm thinking 'bout fellatio," as he does on "Shorty"?

More out of character is "Beauty Queen," which R.L. has claimed is a favorite of now-ousted Arista president Clive Davis. Here Next preach "Wifey" values with humorless spite, spitting swear words for emphasis, presumably to hammer home their warning to girls that so many stuck-up teen hotties are actually "honeys who become hos." It's a tale of a high school beauty who grows up fast, runs with older men, and winds up with "six children, no husband," but it feels like the revenge of the local boy made good against the girl who never gave him the time of day.

Herein lies a neat metaphor for Next's complicated relationship with Minnesota, where their national success similarly represents a rebuke of the hometown that snubbed them. Despite the group's rising fortunes, the singers display a deep-seated insecurity in interviews about being properly recognized--an insecurity rooted, I think, not only in the discrimination of local radio programmers but also in changes in the black community that spawned them. "This generation is different," R.L. told me a few years ago. "Before, it would be, like, anything you wanted to do, people would push you to do it. Now, people are so down that they will tell you it ain't gonna happen. We love Minneapolis, but we had to fight really hard. We get more respect in Germany than we do here."

"People would tell him, 'Dude, you can't sing,'" confirmed R.L.'s older cousin, Walter "Q-Bear" Banks, KMOJ's program director. "He had a lot of 'I can'ts' in his life, and I'm one of those who said, 'You can.'" Of course, Next can and Next will, regardless of what we think. But what about the next Next?

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