It’s Friday night and nothing’s going on, so you’re sitting around an apartment casting phony films — like, say, Welcome Back Again, Kotter or The New A-Team, that sort of thing. Motown ’99, somebody calls out. No problem: Maxwell is Marvin Gaye; Hanson are the Jackson 5; and T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli — you know, TLC — are the Supremes. ”Hold on,” someone responds. ”What about Kima, Keisha, and Pam [Total] or Coko, Lelee, and Taj [SWV]? Or Kameelah, LeMisha, and Irish ? They’re actually on Motown.”
Good point. There are so many samey female R&B vocal groups out there these days that even Berry Gordy couldn’t sort them out. Girl groups have thrived in the ’90s (remember En Vogue?), but it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of them. Blame it on TLC: Their kind of spectacular success always invites watered-down imitators, but TLC are so ambitiously pop themselves that any attempt to further commercialize their sound usually comes off as a cynical cash-in.
Take Blaque (Shamari, Natina, and Brandi), the most fearlessly generic group of singers to hit the radio since All Saints’ day. On their debut album, Blaque, the Atlanta-based Left Eye protegees slide from genre to genre with all the care and discrimination of a bar mitzvah band. On ”I Do,” they sound like Timbaland taking on the Spice Girls (although you get the sense they think they’re updating, yes, the Supremes). Next, they’re biting moves from Mariah Carey (”Don’t Go Looking for Love,” which, not coincidentally, Carey cowrote), Cyndi Lauper (a karaokesque version of ”Time After Time”), Whitney Houston (”When the Last Teardrop Falls”), and TLC (just about everything else). Lacking the strong personalities of TLC, however, Blaque fall back on cameos from R. Kelly, who produced the album’s lone highlight, the smooth single ”808,” and ‘N Sync, who warble weakly on ”Bring It All to Me.” Even worse, they throw in a couple of hip-hoppish tracks intended to evoke the style of grittier gals like Aaliyah or Missy Elliott. But Blaque are mistaken if they think chanting ”What what what” and hiring ”No Scrubs” producer Kevin ”She’kspere” Briggs make them the sound of the moment; such transparent mimicry merely reinforces the album’s near-total absence of substance.
Judging from The Writing’s on the Wall, the second album from Destiny’s Child, it’s not Briggs’ fault. With his help, the Houston quartet (Beyonce, LaTavia, LeToya, and the unimaginatively monikered Kelly) prove themselves to be more capable of confident, inventive R&B than many of their contemporaries. Though Briggs is joined by a slew of trendy producers (including Elliott and Rodney Jerkins), Wall still manages to avoid sounding like a mere rehash of other people’s hits. With a snaky lead vocal that slithers around staccato harmony parts, the aptly titled album opener ”So Good” coolly mixes restrained production and playful melody. ”Bills, Bills, Bills,” the first single, is a sort of companion piece to ”No Scrubs,” taking on guys who seem perfect but turn into jerks once they get comfortable in a relationship. And ”If You Leave,” a duet with male vocal trio Next, is an ambitious collaboration that delivers despite its potentially lethal abundance of voices.
Wall gets bogged down by too much banal balladry (”Stay,” ”Sweet Sixteen”), proving Destiny’s Child to be capable of sounding exactly like any other group of snooze-inducing slow-jammers. But more often they recognize the difference between extremes of pitch and extremes of passion, a distinction lost on many R&B balladeers (Blaque frequently fall for this trap, and they’d probably spend even more time screaming and yelling if they were a little better at it). Destiny’s Child have learned a thing or two from the Supremes, singers who knew how to use a well-placed pause or a quietly sung harmony to maximum effect. No, they haven’t managed to reach that lofty level on Wall, but if you’re casting Motown ’99, the album’s worth a listen. Its best stuff is close enough to the spirit of the Supremes to at least win them a callback.
The Writing’s on the Wall: B