Sweet Nothings

Sade and Erykah Badu return to slow the pulse rate of contemporary R&B

First let me admit I've got a slight grudge against Sade. It's not her fault, this grudge, not her fault that my roommate Eric lorded the stately Afro-Nigerian thrush over me as the quintessence of womanly allure, even as he disparaged the pert-voiced hoochies I preferred to have whisper naughty lies from the radio into my ear. A full 31 years old, Eric was given to handing down such aesthetic pronouncements as if they were direct judgments upon my callow, 25-year-old self. Then he split town for Massachusetts owing two months' back utilities, and I never heard from the bastard again.

Well, now I'm 31, and Sade's got a new record--Lovers Rock (Epic), if you must know--and she's still boring, leading me to think that maybe this grudge is as much her fault as Eric's after all. Or it may just be that I slightly resent that, in the eight-year interim since she last recorded, Sade seems to have secured a place in the soul pantheon, according to music journalists who really should know better. Well, nobody asked me, and in any case her new taste in soporific backup is worse than her previous style. Granted, I'm not much for slow jams, and the cocktail jazz of old wasn't my idea of make-out music even in theory. But on Lovers Rock, Sade's buppie helpmeets Sweetback teeter on the verge of soft-porn cliché, tippy-tapping their elegantly phased drums and squeaking their fingers across guitar strings so gently they seem afraid to wake the singer.

Being in the pop-appreciation biz, I've got a healthy tolerance for lyrical clichés. If Sade really does want to "flow/Like the river to the sea," as she languidly attests on "Flow," that's her business. But if she wants me to care, the singer has got to invest a little something of herself into that cliché, to demonstrate the ways in which even the most tired commonplaces can reveal how messy, confused, and real our emotional landscapes are. Instead Sade winnows away the distractions we call life to reveal naked, decontextualized, and unreal emotions. The songs on Lovers Rock march past us like stray characters from A Pilgrim's Progress--lo! Here comes Loss, followed close upon by Sorrow and Fidelity.

Mama get your gun: Erykah Badu
Mama get your gun: Erykah Badu

Call Lovers Rock R&B if you insist, but, to be more precise, this is blues without rhythm. Call Lovers Rock mood music, but the mood is rarefied, its resignation only bolstered by the effete, upper-class luxuriance of the music. Maybe that enervated elegance isn't reactionary in itself. But the notion of beauty as a black woman softly murmuring in eternal mourning--that is a bit troubling, no?

 

It sometimes seems as if Erykah Badu wishes she could achieve such heights of dullness, but fortunately she's got a nagging case of pretension that makes her too irritating to ignore. Yes, that is a compliment. When this head-wrapped retro-soul singer surfaced with the album Baduizm in 1997, her mumbo jumbo--the woozy earth mother doo-doo and hackneyed theosophy--was no dumber than Wu-Tang's arcane gibberish. In fact, I found it easier to forgive Badu her incense-drenched musings than her taste for vibes and flutes.

Most of Badu's admirers thrilled to her softened mélange of Seventies soul and mushy fusion, which is why I'm surprised that, despite decent sales, no one seems to be particularly excited about Mama's Gun (Kedar/Universal). In a way, that makes sense: Like Baduizm, Mama's Gun is the antithesis of exciting. That's not to say it's dull. It simply eschews the flashy and the visceral in favor of an understated lull. And that lull not only explains why Badu has scored with quiet storm devotees, but also why so many indie rockers love her. She's like Low, or Ida, you see, except more, you know, cultural, her being black and all.

Mama's Gun is less overreaching than Badu's debut, often settling for a satisfying mix of funny and honest. "Your booty might be bigga/But I still can pull your nigga," Badu quips on "Booty," which leads to a succession of similar boasts: "Ya got sugar on your pita/But your nigga thinks I'm sweeter." But the last punch line is the best of all: "But I don't want him." And on "Cleva," she disarmingly confesses, "This is how I look without makeup/And with no bra my ninnys sag down lo." Of course, she's still so wonderfully full of herself that "Bag Lady" can employ a hapless homeless woman who just wants to catch a bus as a metaphor for a megastar's own emotional baggage.

The music is still scattershot and rambling, but rarely hookless. After all, she's got the best fake-jazz players in the business--not just Soulquarians Amil "?uestlove" Thompson and James Posner, but even the godfather of goop, Roy Ayers himself, who cannily softens the punch of "Cleva" with his gauzy vibes. But even when her consorts drift off into noodly fusion, the inherent musicality of Badu's delivery keeps things interesting. Her Billie Holiday-as-Betty Boop murmur is capable of transforming a simple "Don't cha know," into a complex rhythmic pattern--sounds that she massages against her palate as if rethinking the shape of the words she sings and their tenuous relationship to the way she feels.

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