British R&B – like UK hip-hop – has tended to suffer credibility issues*. Back in the 50s and 60s, British groups lifted American sounds, but the American originals weren’t easy to find, and the signal could be scrambled in transmission. Productive mishearings ensued: the result, to a great extent, was the story we’ve been telling on this blog. By the mid-90s, things were different. News travelled faster, and production techniques were more transferable – the globalisation of pop apparent in the 21st century was well under way.
But they were also not so different – the British response to modern American music was still, typically, a slightly lead-footed imitation of it, just as it had been 40 years before. It’s the curse of the borrowing culture: you accept conventions as limits. When Britain did manage something more creative or divergent, the hybrid quickly got packaged up into its own genre – trip-hop, or later grime – and the more standard local product lapsed into general adequacy.
So one extraordinary thing about “Return Of The Mack” is that it seemed to have none of this cultural cringe. It was very good, and very good in exactly the way American R&B could be. There was nothing even slightly apologetic about its utter self-possession: the kind of absolute, to-the-manner-born confidence that stars exude. Which makes the other extraordinary thing about it – how comprehensively Mark Morrison fucked his opportunity up – even odder and sadder. On the strength of this song, we expected a superstar: we got a trivia answer, a panel show joke.
But in the context of the song, all that confidence might be a front – this guy’s been wounded, publically, by his ex, and he’s putting on a comeback show for himself, for his buddies, but especially for her. “All this pain you said I’d never feel – but I do, but I do do do”. And the more you listen the smaller he sounds – “hold on, be strong” Morrison mutters to himself on the outro.
The music certainly has his back – the rubbery basslines cocooning the song, the satisfying crunch of the drums, the light keyboard touches helping Morrison glide along his comeback trail. “Return Of The Mack” is a pleasure to listen to, a well-tailored suit of sound. But what’s it covering up? This is the final, hardest part of a break-up – the point where you have to turn “over it” from private claim to public practise – and it’s no wonder Morrison starts bolshy and ends up brittle. His smooth, high voice trails away at the end of every line, a vulnerable touch to counter the swagger. Perhaps this song is more British than it sounds.
*(in the case of UK hip-hop this was somewhat unfair: Britain produced a lot of enjoyable local hip-hop, which Freaky Trigger pal Tim Hopkins used to turn into excellent compilations. But it was a tight scene, deep-buried and little-respected, with no chance of national success let alone ever travelling.)