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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Original genius of love

The problem with calling Mariah Carey a pioneer isn't that she wasn't the first R&B singer to look to hip hop. It's that doing so guarantees that you'll have a boring article. The Pioneer Narrative tends to limit what you can say about an artist: You name someone a pioneer, select a few events to use as evidence for the claim, make a few nods to alternate pioneer hypotheses, maybe make a few digressions, and come up with a judgment about how the current output is or isn't of the same caliber as the artist's previous work.

But what would you learn about Mariah Carey if you were able to determine definitively (!) that she was responsible "more than any other musician" for the R&B/hip hop coupling? And what would you learn if someone determined definitively that she's derivative?

Instead of tracing the trend back to one person as the would-be authenticator of an admittedly derivative (and fantastic) genre, it might make more sense to look at constellations of artists who were working at the time (as Ben notes, Carey would join Mary J. Blige, TLC, and others). Those artists sometimes shared producers, engineers, record labels, music video directors, and so on. That is, one alternative to the Pioneer Narrative is to trace the circulation and adaptations of the genre. Even if Carey wasn't the first to work with rappers, "Fantasy," and the remixes for "Honey" and "Heartbreaker" are still great examples of what's possible in the genre. Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" (2003) is very similar to "Heartbreaker" (1999) (structure, presence of Jay-Z, remixes), but it's not more or less authentic.

Frere-Jones starts to talk about how melisma became one of the defining conventions of R&B music--and, actually, I probably wouldn't be interested a history of recent abuses of melisma, either--but then he returns to his Pioneer Narrative, which overtakes the piece. How do you review The Emancipation of Mimi and not talk about the genius of "We Belong Together"? You spend most of the article on a selective history and relegate the album under discussion to a few general statements without mentioning any specific songs. Boring.

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Blogger Ben on Fri May 19, 12:38:00 PM:
You said it when you quoted "We Belong Together"--

I can’t sleep at night
When you are on my mind
Bobby Womack's on the radio
Singing to me, 'If You Think You’re Lonely Now...'
Wait a minute this is too deep
I gotta change the station
So I turn the dial tryin' to catch a break
And then I hear Babyface
'I Only Think Of You' and it's breakin' my heart
I'm tryin' to keep it together but I'm falling apart.