Monday, July 21, 2008

Ashanti Declares Longevity on "The Declaration"

Consider, in about 15 years time The Declaration along with Ashanti's previous albums, will be deemed "old school." Either an intriguing or disturbing possibility depending on the individual music preference. Regardless, like Chante Moore, Monica, Aaliyah, and Brandy before her, Ashanti occupies that slippery slope of modern R&B. A field that can be kind or cruel to its inhabitants.

Ashanti is no longer the "hottest" young lady on the block, but what someone deems as "hot or not" will not make a difference as long as they put out quality product. The Declaration, Ashanti's fourth long player, presents growth, a staple for longevity in any genre of music.

Likely her last album on Murder Inc., the label that made her their female figurehead, Ashanti has gotten her artistic wind as it were. Barring a few dalliances with longtime creative partner Channel 7 (formerly Aurelius 7), Ashanti ventured out to secure other producers for this record. She brought back with her Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and L.T. Hutton. Ashanti herself also stepped up to the production, writing, arranging processes on the album, demonstrating her control extends beyond what knob twirlers she could gather.

Leading off with the barefaced ache of "The Way That I Love," the chafe of unfaithfulness is apparent in an astonishing vocal given by Ashanti. Before, her candy spun voice was pleasant, now it  has become much more full and rounded. Prepare for your sugar high to be extended on this album.

The double slap of feminine empowerment shown in the bursts of "You're Gonna Miss" and "So Over You." The songs have Ashanti borrowing notes from Cherrelle's Affair (1988) as she takes her best late '80's R&B stance on wayward men. The powdery "Good Good" sounds like it would've been at home on any of Mariah Carey's last three LPs, the difference is that Ashanti is able to carry the flirty silliness a bit better. The late night ambiance of "Things You Make Me Do," featuring blue-eyed crooner Robin Thicke, is doe-eyed sensuality done well.

"Good Good"
Directed By: Melina Matsoukas

The Declaration is succinct coming in at 13 tracks, by the time you reach the end, you may find yourself wondering where the filler was? There are a two duds in "Mother" and the title track, but they don't distract enough to remove the girlish aftertaste of the previous songs. Shaping up to be a modest hit in terms of sales, it has given Ashanti the much coveted prize of longevity. Even if she never records another album after this, she can be proud that The Declaration beckons with  progression before anything else. Four stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more current information on Ashanti, visit]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chic Decides to "Take It Off" in the '80's

Before the "demise" of disco, Chic was one of the most popular acts of the movement. Their mannered soul had become a new brand of cool. Thick slabs of bass, juicy guitar riffs, dense string sections, and stately vocalizing defined the Chic sound.

Chic members, the late Bernard Edwards (bass) and Nile Rodgers (guitar), wrote and produced for others to ensure their sound existed beyond Chic.

Sadly, once the deposed white-rock power usurped the R&B/disco hold on the mainstream charts and radio Chic, like other black acts at the time, were instantly contained within the R&B sphere only. That audience continued to show affection and attention to their last four albums: Real People (1980), Take It Off (1981), Tongue in Chic (1982), and Believer (1983). Released 11/16/81, Take It Off remains the watermark of Chic's '80's output.

Leading the production and writing duties as before, Rodgers and Edwards constructed a lean album with emphasis placed on live instrumentation with a few electronic ruffles. This contemporary glazing of their trademark coiffed sound revealed Chic could adapt to the changing R&B soundscape.  To this end, Chic member and drummer (the late) Tony Thompson (along with additional percussionists Sammy Figueroa, Roy Maldonado, Roger Squitero) laid down a strong beat foundation for Rodgers and Edwards' elastic wickedness to get evil on. Most importantly, it framed the sublime songstresses Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin.

Take It Off blasted off with the stop-start strut "Stage Fright," also the only single from the long player. The heat stayed up on the fussy funk tantrum of "Burn Hard." A fiery dance tune with searing tenor sax, trumpet, and flugel horn busted loose, Anderson and Martin skated on the cut with the hook: "Slap your face, burn hard, burn hard! Work out!"

The warmth of "So Fine" had all of Chic's members doing a collected, silky harmony on the chorus. Later on, "So Fine" became a sample staple for British soul vocalist Beverley Knight in her hit "Made It Back" from her '98 effort Prodigal Sista. The somber shuffler "Just Out of Reach," a duet between Edwards and Martin, is a forgotten Chic hit that never was. "Your Love Is Cancelled," a playful fusion of synth-pop and funk, jumped around next to the dependable kick-push urban dance of "Would You Be My Baby."

In all, Take It Off marked a continual commercial plight for Chic as sales continued to diminish. The album charted at #124 (U.S. Pop) and #35 (U.S. R&B), the latter betrayed a dent to their popularity at urban radio. While decidedly friendly to Chic, the black music began moving toward the up-and-coming sounds of black music on the horizon. The single "Stage Fright" was a small U.S. R&B hit, it slinked in at #35.

Chic's next two records followed a similar commercial fate before the original line-up disbanded in 1983. Both Rodgers and Edwards transitioned into crafting hits for Deborah Harry, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and Madonna.  Take It Off was remastered in 2006 through Wounded Bird Records, a testament to the cult following the record garnered. Take It Off demonstrated that even when the chips were down, that Chic posture was unstoppable. Also, who doesn't love Tony Wright's illustration of Chic's members on the album cover? Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: This album, as mentioned, is readily in print and can be found in most independent retailers or online.-QH]

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Have You Met Miss Sophie Ellis-Bextor?

Initially walking into music as the lead singer of theaudience, Bextor's glassy vocals added a sense of model poise to their Brit-rock formula. Disappointingly, theaudience dissolved and Bextor later found her footing by providing vocals to DJ Spiller's "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)" in the summer of 2000. The song is now a modern U.K. pop classic. Read My Lips (2002), Shoot From the Hip (2003), and Trip the Light Fantastic (2007) have done well in Bextor's native United Kingdom. The point of this piece is to share with you what it is about Sophie Ellis-Bextor's pop that makes it addictive.

The Blend's Favorite SEB single
"Me & My Imagination" (from Trip the Light Fantastic, 2007)

Both patience and excitement are conveyed on "Me & My Imagination." A sing-song melodic line bubbled to the top of the song before it spilled into Bextor's lyric of love for romantic mystery. Amid rushing strings and synths, Bextor guided her cool vocal with care. Catchy, bright, and pretty, it was Bextor at her best.

The Blend's Favorite SEB Album
"Shoot From the Hip," 2003
Of the three albums, her second is my personal favorite. Shoot From the Hip captured the perfection of pop experimentation. No musical wall kept her from trying different sounds: neo-disco, acoustic, electro, etc. Bextor's cerebral reading shone on the hidden track, a cover of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." Not disposing of its sexual disposition, Bextor worked it from a different perspective.
If her vocal approach was high concept, her words grounded it in clever anecdotes.

The Blend's Favorite SEB Music Video
"Mixed Up World" (from Shoot From the Hip, 2003)
Directed By: Rupert Jones

The Jones directed video captured the retro '80's vibe of the music. An interesting amalgam of visuals and scene splicing, it featured a (then) blond Bextor. I liked the video due to its fashionable, but slightly weird, and simplistic stance. Plus, while Bextor was always better with her raven tresses, she rocked the blond hair hard at this time.

I knew Sophie Ellis-Bextor by her reputation as a fan of upscale British pop, but heard/saw her two summer's ago via Youtube. I quickly ordered both Read My Lips and Shoot From the Hip and fell madly in love with her. Last year, she released her third album Trip the Light Fantastic and is currently working on her fourth LP due out later this year. Unlike the overrated Amy Winehouse and Duffy, Bextor is something worth exporting to the States from England. Either way, you've all just met Mademoiselle Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Make the most of it.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit:]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

En Vogue: Dawn or Rhona?

On June 24th, 2008, the BET Awards were abuzz when a reformed En Vogue took the stage with their fellow 1990's female R&B compatriots SWV and TLC. Cindy Herron-Braggs, Maxine Jones, Terry Ellis, and Dawn Robinson sashayed into their classic "Hold On" without a hiccup. Unlike many of the people watching that evening, my thoughts immediately drifted to a woman named Rhona Bennett, who has been a working member of En Vogue since 2004.

I thought: "What about the sixth record they've been working on with Bennett?," "What about the July 18th, 2008 show in Detroit I'm going to? Will it be Rhona on that stage, or Dawn?" For the majority, these thoughts didn't enter into the equation. Even those that celebrated Bennett's added chemistry to En Vogue probably preferred Robinson's second return to the fold. Bennett again stepped aside graciously to allow for the original line-up to pique the imagination of 1990's soul fans everywhere. However, as the saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

In this instance En Vogue recorded with Bennett (Soul Flower, 2004), toured with Bennett, and despite the first Robinson reunion in 2005 for the VH-1 Hip Hop Honors Award ceremony, Bennett remained a dedicated member. Bennett can't keep getting shuffled around when a "nostalgia moment" is aroused. More importantly, how can the group restructure itself seriously when the group continues to not take a position on who is in or out? What are the variables in having Robinson return or Bennett remain?

Dawn Robinson is a founding member of this group, that alone means there is a chemistry she has with the other members that no one else can. If Robinson, Herron-Braggs, Ellis, and Jones can iron out their financial and creative differences, which typically stalled reunion talks, it'd prove fruitful.

Capturing their particular magic and contemporizing it without losing themselves to overt modernization would show staying power.

However, Robinson is known for her ego making her the musical equivalent of Shannon Doherty. Departures from En Vogue and Lucy Pearl respectively to embark upon half-baked attempts at solo stardom have failed miserably in creative, commercial, and critical quarters. It makes me wonder about Robinson's angle to rejoin En Vogue. Is it out of actual aspiration to be with the group again or a final chance at limelight that being with En Vogue will bring?

Bennett's experienced presence on En Vogue's last LP Soul Flower (2004) was welcome. Initially taking Maxine Jones place Bennett's  vocal  added a different nuance to En Vogue, but  fit into their style equally. When Jones did return Bennett stayed on, bringing En Vogue to quartet status. En Vogue who had spent most of their time as a trio seemed energized as a four-piece again. Their live shows the past three years are known for fans walking away appreciating how Bennett's look and sound factor into En Vogue perfectly.

Bennett also wants to be in En Vogue, not because it serves as a particular platform for her solo advancement, but because she genuinely enjoys being a member. Sadly, Rhona Bennett isn't Dawn Robinson and theirin lies the conflict. Due to this, most will prefer an original line-up to the new and improved one.

I've enjoyed En Vogue's trajectory, despite any commercial setbacks, they've continued to stay creative in their music and reinvent their approach. It's akin to 1970's era Supremes.

I hope that people can see beyond their nostalgia and acknowledge that latter day En Vogue has their own power. One could always hope that they could become a quintet. I can dream can't I?.-QH