Jul 14


Popular38 comments • 3,257 views

#802, 26th September 1998

melb iwyb This ought to be something special: the most outspoken member of the biggest group in pop teams up with the most exciting new female MC for years. Instead, the first solo Spice No.1 finds Missy Elliott barely in attendance and Mel B flailing as she tries to carry a song that plays entirely to her weaknesses.

One issue – and it’s the one that seems to sum “I Want You Back”’s puffing mediocrity up – is that Mel B is a fairly woeful rapper. The opening minute is like an excruciating pro-celebrity golf match, with Mel and Missy trading rhymes and Mel struggling to find any variety or charisma against even the most softball lines from her bored-sounding co-star. “How can you ‘beep beep’ with no keys?” indeed.

The recorded evidence for Mel B as an MC at this point was half of the rap break on “Wannabe” – and in a mic duel with Geri Halliwell she just about made it through. But it’s hard for me not to feel that this single is evidence of a wider problem which affects all the Spice Girls in the abstract and Mel B very specifically: you have a group whose appeal is all about a bond between strong, individual characters. The individuals are readymade for solo success, but what replaces the bond? It’s telling that while we directly meet all but one Spice on Popular – an unheard-of spread of solo success for any band since the Beatles – they have a real struggle sustaining solo careers. The goodwill was there, but was the material?

In the specific case of Mel B, there’s another wrinkle. It is unusual for black women to be marketed as straightforward pop acts, particularly in the US. I have no inside knowledge of how Mel B’s debut was planned or of Mel’s own ideas about it. But she had the opportunity to launch her solo career with a collaboration with Missy Elliott on an American film soundtrack – an exciting idea and ideal exposure. It seems plausible that her label wanted her to stress her R&B and hip-hop side for that American audience – despite there being nothing to ever hint she could make that kind of music well. And so we have a song where pretty much any kids’ TV presenter in Britain could have made “I know it might sound wack” sound realer.

Almost nothing about this song meshes well. Vocally, Missy Elliott limits herself to the odd “Yowww!” after the intro, but she’s also behind the mixing desk, and gives “I Want You Back” the kind of tense, spartan production she’d been putting together with musical partner Timbaland. It’s not a brilliant example of the style by any means – it lacks the found sounds and micro-hooks that were making Timbaland’s R&B productions stand out so far in 1998, and it’s missing the thick, bubbling low end detail that made Missy Elliott’s own tracks so tactile. But it’s atmospheric, the kind of backing you might build a song about nagging internal tension around. Except Mel B poleaxes any idea of it being that song with the blunt, hurried, “in fact I want you back” at the end of her first verse. Ambiguity over.

And that’s the other baffling thing about this single. Of all the records to showcase Mel B – the wild one, remember, the Spice Girl most likely to terrify interviewers, jump on tables, raise girl power hell – this is a song about being rendered powerless by a good shag. Only once in the track do we get a hint of the Mel B we might have paid to see – the “drinkin’ all night at the barrrrrrr” break, where she sounds angry, and lairy, and – yes – maybe a bit scary. It’s also the point where the song best syncs with the mood of its own taut backing, and, no coindidence, it’s the moment she gets to sing.



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  1. 26
    Tom on 16 Jul 2014 #

    I’d still defend a low mark here. I think the feebleness of the performance spoils the backing way more than the backing rescues the performance. And even as backing, while I think it’s fine, it’s not top-tier Timbaland or Missy – by this point Timbaland alone, not even counting his imitators, had put out “Pony”, “Hot Like Fire”, “Up Jumps The Boogie”, “Love 2 Love U”, “The Rain” and all the rest of Supa Dupa Fly, “One In A Million”, “Can We”, “Are You That Somebody?”, and on the very soundtrack this is from we have Bunnied Bootylicious Band’s “Get On The Bus”. The time for free passes just for the sound is over, I think – with a competent lead and this backing I’d have gone higher on this, definitely. But not sky-high.

  2. 27
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jul 2014 #

    Hmm… Fair point, I guess that a) the low mark and terrible intro lowered my expectations for the rest of the song and b)as a very fairweather RnB listener, I’m less hip to the history of the sound and the gap between the good stuff and the merely decent.

    A 6 is clearly too high, I can’t actually imagine replaying this much.

  3. 28
    Tommy Mack on 17 Jul 2014 #

    Also, I think as a musician (and I use the word loosely) I’m more likely to lose myself in the backing if the vocal isn’t holding my attention (or maybe it’s that those who are intrigued by instrumental sounds are more likely to become musicians) – this, I guess is why lots of musicians like music unpopular with non-musicians (in the same way hairdressers often have terrible haircuts and fashion designers often wear terrible clothes) – they’re absorbed in the detail of it and not paying as much attention to the overall aesthetic: the wood vs. the trees etc. I don’t like much muso music but then I’d say I’m pretty popist for a guitar player – perhaps because I also sing (and I use the word extremely loosely here!) so I’m more concious than my band mates of trying to make concise song shapes rather than a big nebulous jam.

  4. 29
    Steve Williams on 18 Jul 2014 #

    I actually bought this single, but that doesn’t mean a great deal as I used to buy loads of singles in those days. It sounded quite exciting at the time, I think, and indeed I’m more familiar with the CD version with the “punchline” but it’s probably right to say it sounds pretty wimpy these days.

    One theory I always had about solo Spice songs, which is perhaps more pertinent to Geri’s stuff but I’ll mention it here, is that one of the problems is that they’re on them too much. It certainly applies to Geri and Victoria, probably Mel as well, in that the songs always have to be about them, and they totally live or die based on their own popularity. They could never do something like Can’t Get You Out Of My Head because they could never be so anonymous on their own record. It reminds me of when Another Point Of View by DB Boulevard first appeared on the radio and everyone went “Oh, is that Geri Halliwell singing?”. It wasn’t, but it was the kind of thing Geri perhaps should have been doing to enjoy a bit more crossover success, rather than songs about being Geri or cover versions of songs that Geri could totally smother and which appeal to Geri’s fans and absolutely nobody else.

    I did like Feels So Good, mind.

  5. 30
    JLucas on 18 Jul 2014 #

    #29 I think that’s a very good point. I also think that’s why Emma Bunton and Mel C had the most lengthy solo careers (Mel C had a major drop-off after Northern Star but found success in Europe and has carved out a loyal fanbase almost removed from nostalgic Spice fans, where Emma is the only Spice Girl whose second solo album outsold the first). They were both quieter personalities within the group than Mel B and Geri, so they came with less baggage.

    We’ll discuss them both in due time, but the way they both dealt with shedding their Sporty & Baby personas is quite interesting I think. Mel C went too far in the other direction at first and came across as a try-hard, but ultimately won people over with her talent. Emma was more moderate, she never tried to do a very conscious ‘Baby grows up’ record, but she definitely projected a more mature image. Hooking up with Tin Tin Out (then best known for their work with The Corrs), covering hippy-pop classics by Edie Brickell and Zoe etc felt much more organic than Mel C getting a buzzcut and covering Anarchy in the UK, let alone Geri actively ‘killing’ Ginger in her first solo video…

  6. 31
    Tommy Mack on 19 Jul 2014 #

    An aside: was she ever again referred to as Melanie B? Mel B or Melanie Brown, yes but I don’t recall Melanie B.

  7. 32
    chelovek na lune on 19 Jul 2014 #

    @32 Don’t think so, but “Word Up” was credited to Melanie G, so she didn’t switch back to full-on informality immediately…

  8. 33
    Ed on 23 Jul 2014 #

    I wish I could disagree with all the negative reactions here: Missy Elliott is one of my great musical heroes, for reasons Punctum sets out brilliantly @6. I was at the Latitude festival at the weekend, and as I was walking past one of the artisanal burger vans, the crew’s sound system started playing ‘Get UR Freak On’. It had a thousand times more excitement than anything I had seen on stage.

    Everyone has off days, though, even heroes, and this is one of Elliott’s.

    The video is directed by Hype Williams, the only pop promo director who could reasonably be described as a genius, but it is a very disappointing effort from him, too. All that green makes it look as though they had some ambitious chromakeying planned, and then ran out of money, or interest.


  9. 34
    Ed on 23 Jul 2014 #

    @4, @10 Following up on the question of “how big was Elliott in the UK in 1998?”, the answer is commercially not very: the previous year ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ only made it to #124 in the UK, Wikipedia says, when it reached #3 in the US.

    She was uber-hip, though. Simon Reynolds, who I would take as a good indicator, picked Timbaland, Missy and their set as his top favourite things of 1997.

  10. 35
    Ed on 23 Jul 2014 #

    A rather sad piece here on what Elliott has been doing for the past nine years: http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/history-missy-elliott-9-years-away.html

  11. 36
    Tom on 23 Jul 2014 #

    Yeah, I definitely was aware of the fact that this stuff constituted a “scene” of sorts, names to watch for, etc. thanks to the Reynolds write-ups in eg The Wire – but before that her early videos with Hype Williams were so distinctive though that I think they cut through to a greater degree than the chart placings might suggest. My first memory of her is being in a pub in Notting Hill which had MTV on, looking up from the comic I was reading and seeing the extraordinary “Supa Dupa Fly” video – even with the sound down it was like something from another planet. The fact that it stayed that way when I heard the song was, of course, extra magnificent.

  12. 37
    ciaran on 24 Jul 2014 #

    In Baby Jump territory here. This was never even hip at the time and unlike virtually every other Number 1 back then this never came up in any discussion.

    Despite being hip hop royalty I’m not really familiar with much of Missy Elliott’ work and this is not a good place to start.

    Mel B is out of her depth here. Not in the slightest bit convincing and then to release the horror of What’s up a year later.Next!


  13. 38
    Rory on 31 Jul 2014 #

    After enjoying the Spiceworld singles more than I’d expected, I had high hopes for this, but Mel B’s vocals sound underdone, and there isn’t enough in the backing to save the song for me – though to be fair, it has grown on me a little with repeated listens. 4.

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