Tweet – Southern Hummingbird

I like to talk about album covers, because they’re usually the most succinct statement of artistic or commercial intent in the course of a work. The cover of Tweet’s Southern Hummingbird is no exception. A modernistic abstract font, twerked into further abstraction, a stylized contour of a pop-art logo. All over an orange background, which was the new-R&B color of choice last year from 3LW to Toya and beyond. But this isn’t garish and sharp so much as suffused from behind by some sort of warm light — the source of the light hidden behind the most visually dominant element of the cover, Tweet herself, rendered in perfect black and white. The black and white isn’t some postmodern appropriative nod to classic roots any more than the logo is a bid for modern currency. Somehow, the art rests in a balance of perfect tension — every element a gimmick but no element superfluous.

It should be evident by now that I’m working to develop a metaphor for the album. But to follow through now on that metaphor would be too cheap. Let’s exercise our brains and step back to the whole context of the rap and R&B world right now — my barber told me today that people were sick of Jay-Z and R. Kelly, that Nas would be coming back because he has things to say. The two most exciting MCs of the moment (Mystikal and Ludacris) are rooted in deep funk. The producers of the moment (Neptunes) have a signature trick of sending electronic keyboards into decay, introducing an element of human frailty into their work. And Tweet’s own first single, “Oops (Oh My)” is backed by an electric organ that might well be a vocodered chorus.

And the most striking feature of this turn from techne is in the Nu-Soul crowd whose songs ooze authenticity. India Arie isn’t the girl in your average video and Alicia Keys knows what a woman’s worth and Jill Scott likes long walks in the park. If that doesn’t help distinguish between them, that’s because the ethos is common — a return to the days when women were treated with respect and men were moral. What Jill Scott really wants is A Walk To Remember. A song which claims restorative justice without admitting emotional hurt isn’t about people and their relations, but reinforcement of social strictures; isn’t about living free, but living right. The singer and the message are estranged and the artist is transformed exactly into the dehumanized corporate message delivery device that their most avid critics rail against.

So now I’ve set up the enemy, so it should be evident by now that I’m planning to proclaim Tweet the savior. But that would be too cheap. She’s the latest avatar in the Missy/Timbaland hit-machine and her hit single is a slinky and seductive assertion of self-love and egotism. I bought this album from a display rack in Tower with 10×10 = 100 identical black and white Tweet faces staring from 100 identical jewel cases. Her prior appearance was as a faceless club diva encouraging everyone to party on Timbaland and Magoo’s “All Y’all”. And if she has a strong personality, it sure doesn’t come across in her interviews.

So who is really responsible for this album? Why does the first track after the intro (“My Place”: “I’ve made you wait so patiently/Now’s the time to come share with me/I’ve teased so those days are gone/Come over it’s on”) remind me of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? Screw the theory, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Tweet’s a talented singer, with a warm rich voice that’s stuck in the melismatic territory of high octaves. She can’t do cold or aloof; even her kiss-off songs sound like come-ons. More than anything else she’s got the voice of a woman who’s got to stop kissing you and catch her train, and tells you this as she keeps kissing you. Sometimes the voice of a woman who’s doing more than kissing. The album has three seduction songs, two being-seduced songs, three about being in love, one about regret of lost love, one about not regretting lost love, one about betrayal, one about friendship, and one about self-love. Three Timbaland-produced club bangers (one disco), one disco track not produced by him, one country song, and mainly quiet numbers backed by acoustic instrumentation.

The point is that somewhere in this mess, coming from somewhere or else, there’s a fruitful synthesis of historical and contemporary modes rooted so deep that it’s damn near impossible to extricate the two. “Boogie 2Nite”, produced by Jubu and Nisan, rests on kick-snare in four from 1978 while the guitar knocks out a riff syncopated circa 2001 and the backup singers add gospel flourishes in the background. Two thirds of the way in a computer speaks: “Move your hips side to side.” It says it again, and again, in rhythm. Three tracks later, on “Motel” she’s telling a lover who cheated to go to hell. Occasionally the guitar figure skips a note, reminding us she is actually playing this. What’s an R&B or Soul singer doing with solo acoustic guitar anyway? The lines are more Slick Rick than Ani D: “I’ve voided your excuses you can save your song and dance/And furthermore the proof you dummy was laying in your pants” and suddenly, near the end the backup comes in to recite in unison “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn” just like the Sugarhill Gang did.

Twenty years later and history’s script is flipped around. One of the most liberating, innocent, downright silly stanzas hip-hop ever produced now rendered vicious. Lou Reed once explained the difference between the original and re-recorded versions of “Satellite of Love” — where he once said “I’ve been told baby/you’ve been bold baby/with Harry Dick and Tom/Monday Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday/with Harry Dick and Tom” he substituted “Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod” because the specificity made it too much. Here the Lewis Carroll specificity of nonsense becomes new and ominous, a litany of hurt. She pulls the same trick six tracks earlier on “Smoking Cigarettes” (“Smoking cigarettes at night/Winston, Salem, Marlboro Lights”) and it tells us everything we need about the song while still not telling us a damn thing about Tweet herself. A tinny 808 squelches and rattles below this track, which is too loosely sculpted to subsist on strings alone but too contemplative to rely on synth-texture.

The nearly last track on the album is the second single, “Call Me” with a Timbaland Indian loop and promising to meet her secret lover “at the break of dawn” where she’ll meet him “with no panties on”. If she sees any contradiction here, she doesn’t let it show. And neither would anyone else in the throes of lust. Which brings us to the last track, “Drunk” where she’s either having drunken sex she’ll regret in the morning or simply passing out or perhaps getting in a drunken car accident. Strange howling sounds intrude and build like a haunting by the ghost of Disco Inferno. Her breathing gets heavy. Fear? Arousal? “I shouldn’t have drank a sip” she concludes, but she doesn’t mean it. Her voice still says “yes”. That’s conclusion enough for the questions here.

Sterling Clover