As the major label music industry continues to shoot itself in the foot while also eating itself, shitting itself out and then re-eating its own self-shit (thank you, Jon Stewart), one of the collateral effects is that, amid myriad reorganizations and mergers, talented artists are finding themselves without a label to call home. This is because, for the most part, the majors don’t know what they’re doing (do I really need to cite evidence at this point? Okay, two things: 1) Warner dropped Wilco for making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The band was later signed by Nonesuch, an AOL/Time-Warner subsidiary, meaning that Warner basically agreed to put out an album they refused to put out before and 2) Remember how NPR built all that lovely – and deserved – hype for Dark Night of the Soul way back in 2009? Yeah, EMI pitched a fit, shelved the record, and then quietly snuck it out to the public last year after realizing that they had become the official poster models for the Dick Move). They chase bands that sound like money, leaving the bands that actually sound good to the smaller labels or to find a niche audience on the internet. Of course, I’m generalizing a little bit – indie labels are just as capable of putting out garbage as their larger counterparts. But, over the first ten years of the 21st century, the major labels have almost willfully refused to put out quality music.
Let me tell you about Shareese Renée Ballard. She’s better known as Res (pronounced “Reese.” I don’t know, it’s an artist thing or something) and her 2001 debut album, How I Do should have been the blueprint for great hip-hop and funk-inflected R&B music for the last several years. It was co-written by Santi White, who put out a similarly great debut (called Santogold) in 2008. The radio mostly ignored How I Do and when Res was moved to Geffen (party of a tasty self-shit banquet that resulted in the end of MCA), they shelved her second album. Res, recognizing that Geffen (whose founder, David Geffen, is largely responsible for the tacky, pasty white, Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene and is therefore a cultural criminal of the highest order) was moving in a decidedly shitty direction, cut ties with the label and struck out on her own.
At Cee Lo Green’s behest, Res toured as a backup singer for Gnarls Barkley and began writing some songs. When she got back to the states, she started a hip-hop/R&B group with Talib Kweli and called it Idle Warship. And she recorded Black Girls Rock, which was officially released in 2009. You can order it from her website, if you’re interested. For twenty bucks, you even get an autographed poster. You can also download the Idle Warship mix tape, Party Robot, for free. I’ll be reviewing that sucker a little later on.
So given eight years between releases, can we even compare Black Girls Rock to How I Do? Sure we can. The real question for me is whether or not I can distinguish between how much I really like the new album versus how much I like that Res is recording again. The answer to that question is probably “yeah. Mostly.”
Black Girls Rock is more overtly poppy than How I Do was and, where the latter spent a lot of time being funky, the former spends a lot of time being ballady. Res’s voice is still outstanding; there’s an organic warmth to her singing that I don’t hear nearly enough from today’s more popular R&B singers. While Black Girls Rock has a sort of glossy production value, none of that is spent on the vocals – you’re hearing Res Ballard’s voice the way it is and it’s kind of amazing to me how far that goes toward making this an R&B/pop album that I actually like.
Album opener “On My Way” treads a little close to cliché territory with its syrupy positivity, but if Res can remain upbeat after the beating she’s taken in the music industry, I’ll let it slide. Besides, the song has live drums and some nice electric guitar textures – rock elements that were also present on How I Do (I can’t help but feel that, if How I Do came out in 2008 or 2009, Res would be at least as well-known as Santigold). The melodies on Black Girls Rock are total pop – my head swims with various choruses from this album almost constantly, which is what great pop melodies should do (for instance, let’s try an experiment: I’m going to type the words “Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You'” and my hypothesis is that that song is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome).
As is typical of R&B, a lot of the songs are about relationships, although I’d like to think “By Myself” works as both a breakup song to a dude and to the major label music industry. Maybe it’s the line, “I’m sick of your fucked up behavior.” I also like “By Myself” because Res isn’t self-pitying when she says she’d be better off by herself; rather than fill the chorus with pseudo-poetry about being better off alone, she just throws some “blah blah blah blahs” in there and calls it good. I didn’t think that would work for me when I first heard it, but it does, largely because the chorus melody is so catchy.
It’s hard for me to like any R&B/Pop/Folk/Whatever This Is record as much as I like How I Do (that’s how good that album is. I don’t know what else I have to do to convince you to listen to How I Do. Just fucking listen to it already!) and I still prefer it, just slightly, over Black Girls Rock. While the new album is self-assured and mature, I miss some of the swagger that was present in songs like “How I Do” and “The Hustler.” I guess How I Do is more for the club and Black Girls Rock is more for the café. (Which is weird because I like cafés a whole lot better than I like clubs.) That said, Black Girls Rock is still far better than a lot of pop albums I’m hearing today and it’s worth owning both albums just to experience Res’s musical versatility.
Welcome back, Res. I hope I don’t have to wait eight years for the next album.