Teedra Moses – Complex Simplicity
The ever-great Matt Cibula brought up on ILX how odd and cool it was that Teedra’s album had not one but two
songs which swiped the theme from Prince’s 1999; odd and cool because celebrating the end of the world is not one of current R&B’s thematic specialties, except perhaps in the most metaphorical sense (and even songs which deny the capacity of existence to continue after relationship breakdown a la
“I Have Nothing” or “Without You” are thinner on the ground than they used to be), so Teedra writing two songs on the topic seems significant, like she’s been thinking about this a lot.
You should read Matt on Teedra here
because he’s totally spot on. Otherwise, the two main things you need to know about Teedra by way of introduction are that Complex Simplicity
is my second favourite album of the year (if you trust my taste) and that she co-wrote Christina Milian’s “Dip It Low” (if you don’t). Had Teedra saved “Dip It Low” for herself she might be huge by now, but surprisingly Complex Simplicity
almost entirely avoids that brand of post-Baby Boy
blood rush lasciviousness; instead the album mostly harks back to various moments in the past – the frosty funk of late eighties & early nineties R&B, the sweet soul of Mary J Blige-style swingbeat, the luminescent sparkles of Aaliyah’s “One In A Million”.
If there’s a strategy at work here it’s hard to pin down: as per Tweet, I suspect that the general avoidance of booty won’t translate into acceptance within the sniffy, narrowly defined nu-soul cliques, and her evocation of the past is too erratic and subtle to pick up much of a nostalgia-based following. Those looking for dancefloor grooves (or fidgety sci-fi production that sits well next to their indietronica records) will pass on quickly, confused or underwhelmed. Whether this is a tactical error on the part of Teedra and her people remains to be seen; if Complex Simplicity
turns out to be a success I might try to retrospectively sneak some line into this piece about how she was carving out some new target market. But you will remember that at the time I genuinely had no clue.
And while I’m puzzling it out, I cue up the title track for the n
th time. Not content with mirroring Prince’s subject matter, Teedra and producer Pouli Poul see fit to throw in a resonant echoey snare hit at the end of each bar, just to drive home the point that, yes, this is “1999” redux. That’s about the only fancy production trick here, though: Poul provides a bittersweet arrangement of shimmering chords straight from the early nineties, but you can tell that no-one involved wants to get in the way of Teedra’s vocals. “Everybody’s worried ‘bout tomorrow, will they see tomorrow, I’m just trying to get mine off today. Mama said tomorrow ain’t promised, so I’m trying to live like it’s my very last day.”
It’s difficult to adequately stress just how perfectly Teedra delivers these lines. Her vocals, and those that follow it – like a less ragged, Southern-tinged Amerie – effortlessly convey multiple emotions and evocations at once: confidence, but experience that shadows and endangers it; disappointment, but a slight tinge of self-deprecating, no-nonsense realism that incongruously ends up conveying a sort of joy. “You can’t spend your life being in fear of all that may be. You gotta pass on, you gotta be free, you gotta breathe
. Inhale, exhale, c’mon!” And then the most glorious chorus in an age: “Bounce, oh, with me tonight. Get low
with me tonight.” The backing music – fanfare midi strings and horns, fireworks of electronic sparkles, wistful synthesisers, rippling glockenspiels somewhere at the back – brutally tearjerking like nothing since Basement Jaxx’s “All I Know”, Teedra the core of solidity that refuses to break down with it, preferring to dance to Lil Jon and neck a glass of champagne.
The creative challenge for any female commercial R&B artist is to carve out a sense of distinctive identity in the arguably anorexic space left once all the formal dictates of the genre have been satisfied. I think most of them succeed with startling ease – I tried to draw up a list of truly generic female R&B vocalists on ILM recently and could only a manage a bare handful – which is testament either to their talent, the deceptively roomy confines of commercial R&B or my own tolerance for endless variations on the template. Some deviate more radically or obviously than others: Fantasia from American Idol 3
tactically deploys a seemingly uncontrolled Macy Gray-style rasp to inject a semblance of hidden meaning and personal resonance into her songs (my love of “I Believe” corresponded exactly to the sense of expansion
which Fantasia’s performance achieved relative to the decidedly lesser execution by rival finalist Diana).
Teedra’s vocal tactics are subtler and harder to follow, slipping through the cracks between formula and idiosyncracy, but the end result of her broad-but-delicate, unpretentious-but-poetic Southern singing is a sense of profound generosity
. At its best, Complex Simplicity
is enveloping and nurturing, a seduction born not of exhibitionism but of an irresistible openness, with songs like heat-seeking missiles lodging themselves in my head as a protective barrier from a life considerably more exciting and emotionally fraught than the one I actually lead. So many songs here provoke with consummate ease this desire to hide from the imagined slings and arrows of the world – the weak-kneed reverie of “Backstroke”, the quiet crystalline strength of “For A Lifetime”; the calm acceptance of “Last Day” (“1999” part three). I chose to talk about the title track in particular because I’ve returned to it so frequently, so needily in the last few weeks. I’m hoping to share its restorative power.