6
Sep 20

#11: Leave your situations at the door

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This bracket shares very porous boundaries with Bracket 5 – the pop/R&B one – since R&B was a driving creative force in 2001 and we easily had enough nominations to spill over brackets. In this group the emphasis is a little more on the singers: Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, and India.Arie get two songs each, there’s neo-soul from Sunshine Anderson and Angie Stone, veteran soul from Sade, and sitting atop it all, in popularity terms at least, Alicia Keys megaballad “Fallin’”.

At the time – as a British guy coming to all this stuff via the Internet – my reaction to it was grossly ahistorical. In my mind, 90s R&B had been Boring, but 00s R&B was now Exciting, because of a surge of Innovation. This is how I’d been taught – by long years reading the UK music press – that music scenes and music progress worked, and with the blithe idiocy of the late-20something know-it-all I decided my experience of R&B was an acceptable stand-in for the whole.

Not so. Yes, there was a grain of truth – something like Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” from ‘98 really does have the shock of the new to it – but I was missing a hell of a lot. For a start, the story of R&B in the 90s was one of continuous innovation, as the music was in constant dialogue with hip-hop, feeding from and back into it – the fact that all this flowered into extraordinary pop on the UK charts from ‘99 on was one chapter in a longer and deeper story.

But also, the application of rock’s “How innovative is this music?” framework – a question with its own very specific historic roots – misses the extent to which 00s R&B is building, not breaking. It’s putting its own spin on a century-long history of black popular vocal music, one I really wasn’t an expert in and one where performance and interpretation and technique shared focus with innovation.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that at the time I only really liked the bangers in this group. I loved the sharp-edged putdowns of Mya’s “Case Of The Ex” but the wounded disappointment in Angie Stone’s “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” passed me by. I loved Aaliyah, but the acid-flecked bounce of 2000’s “Try Again”, not her tender sex jam “Rock The Boat”. I enjoyed the vengeful spending spree of Blu Cantrell but found India.Arie’s “Video” rather didactic (still do, probably)

And I guess the stuff I love most in this very strong bracket is still the parts where the futurist R&B aesthetic and powerhouse soul performances blend most easily, like Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman” and Mary J Blige’s anthemic “Family Affair”, whose martial stomp and call for unity feel like one of the tracks where everything 2001 got right comes together.

POTENTIAL WINNER: Assuming voters can get the Mary J Blige tracks with the choruses about “no more drama” straight, “Family Affair” could and should go very deep into this. I’ll be disappointed if something from this bracket doesn’t reach the last eight, and this might be the one.

BEST TRACK: “More Than A Woman” gets a little overlooked compared to Timbaland’s other work for Aaliyah, because it’s so joyfully maximal it can be overwhelming. But the combination of Tim going all-out for a wall of sound and Aaliyah in total smooth control over the top is unbeatable.

DARK HORSE: Mya’s “Case Of The Ex” feels a little like a holdover from the angry-R&B wave of ‘99 – it could have fit on Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s On The Wall. But that’s not at all a bad thing, and Mya’s track is hard and catchy enough to pick up support.

DISCOVERY: Angie Stone’s “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” flew by me at the time but has sunk its hooks in now – a great use of an O’Jay’s sample, naggingly never resolving, giving Stone the canvas for her regret and longing.

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