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.