“i’ve gotta be young, fresh and new,” kelis sings in her upcoming single, knowing full well that, along with producers du jour the neptunes, she is all three. what she can’t say she is, however, is superstar — in an alternate universe, she has macy gray’s success, kelis being the macy gray for people with taste. unfortunately for her, i can’t see “young, fresh and new” troubling the charts anytime soon; fortunately for us, i say that because the single is unlike anything else you’d hear on the radio. what it sounds like is video game music, for one of those scenes where the hero has pressed the self-destruct button in the enemy’s lair and has thirty seconds to get out: kelis navigates a deluge of whirring noises, harsh synthesizers and fuzzed-out bass, tempering it all with a heavily-harmonized, heaven-sent chorus. if it doesn’t make trl, it’ll, at the very least, increase her standing amongst alternative soul fans and production geeks like myself, almost as valuable to the record company as actual sales.

at the other end of the spectrum exists mary. mary is probably now bigger than she ever dreamed she’d be when she was young (fresh, and new), staring out the window of her family apartment in the bronx. she sells out concerts the world over; racks up platinum album after platinum album; she’s sung with elton john! it’s gotten to the point where the “j. blige” is superfluous, like aretha, she is now just “mary.” she is the standard bearer, the queen of hip-hop soul, the one kids (kids! mary’s now 30 don’tcha know) like kelis are trying to chase down. on “family affair,” she’s joined by another individual at the head of their field, the one and only d-r-e, dr. dre, a dream pairing if i’ve heard one.

so it comes as a disappointment that “family affair” even pales in comparison to share my world‘s lead single, “love is all you need,” which despite its faults was anthemic at least, and this isn’t to say that “family affair” is a bad track. dre comes with top-shelf production — when you hear the snap of the drum machine, and the crispness of the synth strings, you just know it’s a dre production. his machines sound like the best money can buy, so good that they don’t mind being synthetic. like breast implants, who cares if they’re real or not when this is the end result. mary is in fine form, and it’s about time she did a record for the cars and clubs. the song goes on like this for three minutes and you’re nodding your head…and then it all goes wrong. nothing changes at that moment, and that’s the problem: you come to the realization that there’ll be no strong bridge or a change in the beat. like a number of dre’s recent productions — xzibit’s “x” — comes to mind, the best moment is the opening, when the beat is still fresh; when you discover that you’re going to hear it all song long, the thrill wears off. “family affair” is, ultimately, a record made by two people who know that their names will sell it, that as long as they make merely good records, no one’s going to knock them off their thrones.

it’s 1974. aretha franklin releases let me in your life. it’s staid, it’s a let down; it’s still good as most 70s aretha albums are, but it’s know what you were hoping for: you want “rock steady” and you instead get “i’m in love.” that same year, betty davis — funk goddess and wife of miles — releases they say i’m different; one listens to the record and can’t help but feel that the title is an understatement. now, on the whole, betty davis is neither better nor more important than aretha franklin, but for one year, for one album, the queen was dead, love live the queen. it’s now 2001, and the queen’s vital signs are looking bad, and hospital workers say they saw a shady-looking orange-haired woman hanging around her room…