Thursday, November 16, 2000
Mya & Sisqo - It's All About Me

Mya - Case Of The Ex (Whatcha Gonna Do?)

Mya & Jadakiss - Best Of Me

One great advantage that (cough) "lesser talents" have is that they can shamelessly act as barometers for the styles of the time. While yer big innovators are consciously under pressure to either be ahead of the pack, or going against the grain, these also-rans only have the pressure of coming up with something worthwhile, and so the arsenal of contemporary tricks and gimmicks is fully available to them. Of course this is going to work more often in the world of pop and its associated satellites (R&B, street hip hop, UK Garage - chartin' stuff, basically) where populism is an obvious plus, than in a genre like rock, where it often seems self-contradictory or hypocritical (did anyone say Coldplay just now?).

The misleading perception held by many is that this "lesser talent" is necessarily directly related to the quality of the artist's work. Pink is clearly a follower, stealing all her tricks from Destiny's Child, and yet her Can't Take Me Home album is in my opinion the R&B album of the year, beating out even Kelis, whose Kaleidoscope clearly shows both a more striking and individual performer and a more innovative songwriting/production team in The Neptunes.

What's the secret to Pink's success? A combination of outstanding consistency (each track on the album is at least moderately good - a near impossible feat on an R&B album) and a willingness to co-opt and imitate any trick or style if it increases the quality of the songs. As a result, Can't Take Me Home sounds like an finely-crafted masterpiece of post-Timbaland R&B, while it's blueprint The Writing's On The Wall struck me as a tossed-off effort with a smattering of brilliant singles.

Mya is perhaps a rung below Pink on the increasingly bustling ladder of secondary talent - she's yet to synthesise her good moments into a cohesive whole, and both her self-titled debut and her new one Fear Of Flying have a couple of unnecessary ballads - but considering the short shrift she gets from most I find her quietly impressive. Certainly Fear Of Flying has a much higher hit-to-miss ratio than Kandi's album, which in terms of unfulfilled potential should have been the R&B album of the year; and Mya is occasionally capable of flashes of brilliance that utterly redeem any shortcomings.

"It's All About Me", her big single from '98, is one of them. I think I love this mostly because it came out of a very shortlived period in R&B - specifically, in the wake of Timbaland revolutionary slow-motion stutter-ballad production on Aaliyah's "One In A Million", but before producers like She'kspere, David Austin and Timbaland himself started taking that sound down a harder, faster road. Even at the time most Timbaland-style tracks seemed to concentrate on his more funk-derived sound - see Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew", Ginuwine's "Pony", Missy Elliot's first album and Timbaland and Magoo's "Up Jumps Da Boogie".

"It's All About Me" is the glorious exception, taking its cues from "One In A Million" to make something possibly even more ravishing. I always thought that the secret to "One In A Million" was not just its brain-confounding kickdrum-snare convolutions, but also its ear-tickling loops of multi-tracked vocals, soothing keyboards, birdsong and refracted, echoey guitar lines - as unconsciously indebted to Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound" as the beats were to jungle. "It's All About Me" correspondingly downplays the beat arrangement - a fairly simple (by current standards) loping drum loop, albeit with perhaps the most curiously textured, gorgeously crunchy snare sound you'll ever hear - and instead concentrates on the atmospherics: warm, ghostly synths that glide in and out of the mix, some lazy, funky guitar work, and a creeping disembodied cry or sigh in the distance.

Mya's multitracked vocals are understated and luscious, perfectly complementing the impossibly luxurious musical setting, before Sisqo takes over for the bridge, a rousing moment that builds wonderfully into a heart-stopping breakdown - the beats suddenly break out of pattern and stutter slightly before dropping away, as if uncertain where to go next. The keyboards seem arrested by a similar sense of uncertainty, and the whole thing feels like the musical equivalent of driving off a cliff over a canyon and momentarily floating in mid-air, unsure whether you'll make it to the other side or begin to fall. And then, obviously, we do get to the other side, because the original beat comes crashing back and the song proper resumes. It's this that propels the song from merely "very good" to classic status.

Of course Mya, being an official lesser talent, had to move with the times, and the first single from Fear Of Flying, "Case Of The Ex" features all the requisite components of R&B 2000: driving rave-style synth riffs, She'kspere-style beats, swishing hi-hats and a suspicious "don't be cheatin' me" narrative. Of course it's thoroughly formulaic and a bit slight, but excellently so, largely because of the techno influence and the bristling, itchy percussion, making it a nice companion piece to Pink's flawless "Private Show. But we shouldn't underestimate the difference that Mya's restrained but crystal clear delivery makes - a flat rendition would have ruined stronger songs.

New single "Best Of Me" with Jadakiss has the exact same formula; this time it's shimmering, frantic guitar strums rather than synth riffs, and a loping beat courtesy of Swizz Beats, but the basic template is identical. I reckon though that this is if anything even better than "Case Of The Ex". Simultaneously slow and urgent, Swizz's on-form production here sounds like a non-pop Jay-Z backing track (and with Jadakiss starts rapping the comparison is unavoidable), but Mya effortlessly makes it her own, with a great chorus, stellar harmonies and nicely nuanced vocals. What I like about Mya's voice is that it's less strident than Beyonce of Destiny's Child, or Kelis or Pink or nearly any of the other male-bashing divas. There's a certain fragility (though not weakness) to her singing that makes the resolution "I can't let you get the best of me" seem touchingly brave and resilient.

I know that part of my appreciation of Mya is a reaction to the tendency of many to choose one R&B performer or act and talk them up ceaselessly while at the same time dissing everything else as chart fodder. I just feel that focusing on Kelis' weird lyrics or some similar quirk or "edginess" in whoever is held up as superior is generally a way of getting around the fact that the point of all this music is to make lusciously produced and expertly performed chart fodder. And even if Mya is second-rate, I'll still happily give her the pride of place in my CD player ahead of countless "innovators" and "individuals".


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