[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
London Earls Court
THIS IS NOT A TEST
R&B AND RAP own pop. Lock and stock. Commercially and creatively. Picture today's music scene without Beyoncé, 50 Cent, OutKast or Eminem. Doesn't bear thinking about. Now picture it without Michelle McManus. A bit roomier, maybe, but scarcely impoverished.
Last week, the BBC screened a documentary titled Urban Soul, tracing black music's rise to its current dominance. Very good it was, too. But with one glaring omission: nary a mention of Prince. This is somewhat akin to a history of Irish literature leaving out James Joyce. Prince's own output has long since slumped into lacklustre jam sessions; yet no record exerts a stronger influence today than 1987's Sign ‘O’ The Times.
OutKast's latest, superb album might be considered a sequel to Prince's magnum opus. Without SOTT's title track, there would be no Neptunes. And without the Neptunes, there would be no Justin Timberlake.
Kingmakers in the manner of Dr Dre, the Neptunes are currently the definitive R&B production team. P Diddy may have clout, but the Neptunes have cool. Their achievement in transforming Timberlake from boy-band line-dancer to solo superstar is so unlikely one wonders if they did it for a bet. The nearest career parallel is that of Robbie Williams; alas, the Take That lad, with his music hall tendencies, can only dream of matching Timberlake's global appeal.
Three years ago you'd have backed Usher, whose act is all but identical, to be where Timberlake is now. Both men's moves and vocals are brazenly cribbed from another boy-band escapee, Michael Jackson. There couldn't be a better time to muscle in on Jacko's turf. Timberlake may not possess a tenth of Jackson's talent (in fairness, who does?). But to his advantage, he isn't The Thing from Planet Wackjob either. Although there is something truly creepy about his sibilant, insinuating asides. “Girl,” you can imagine him muttering, “I've been stalkin' you for years. Girl, I'm gonna wrap your organs in a pink ribbon and keep 'em as a trophy.”
Onstage, Timberlake does the basics well, with a dash of flair. A slick entertainment has been constructed around him by someone canny enough to recognise the show must carry Timberlake as much as vice versa. Punters who've parted with upwards of thirty quid to see an arena pop gig may for once feel they're getting their money's worth. The only problem is the paucity of material.
Ballads are typically the weak spot in any R&B repertoire, and Timberlake's do give you the sense of being dropped into Lake Glycerine wearing concrete galoshes. He comes into his own with sleek, mid-tempo tunes and staccato floor-fillers.
After one album, he can call on a handful of cracking Neptunes numbers: Like I Love You, Rock Your Body, Senorita; plus the Timbaland-produced Cry Me A River; while Girlfriend, the *NSync single that marked his elevation from lock-step clone to serious funk prospect, is always welcome.
However, a fifteen-minute human beatbox routine (overplaying the hip hop credentials there, feller), segueing into equally protracted band and dancer introductions, is stretching it atom-thin. And to not only incorporate his fast-food advertising jingle into the set, but get the crowd singing along, while the company logo flashes up almost subliminally on the screens, is downright sinister. This is way beyond the customary corporate sponsorship; it borders on Orwellian imprinting.
Big money tends to homogenize whatever it touches, and R&B hasn't escaped. For every Missy Elliott, there are a dozen Ashantis (if you can't place Ashanti, that's rather the point.) Which makes another Neptunes protégée, the delectably peculiar Kelis, all the more remarkable. By no means is she mere eye candy. Her output until now has been highly distinctive, although disconcertingly erratic - which by some accounts is a fair description of the lady herself.
Tasty represents a step up. It's that rare thing - an eclectic, exhilarating and consistently pleasurable contemporary soul LP, in a genre where singles are often wonderful but albums overlong and filler laden.
Tasty ranges confidently between sly, raunchy, avant-garde and wistful, between knowing retrospection and startling modernity. It's every bit the treat as it should be with a title like that.
As for the cutting-edge queen herself, Missy Elliott's fifth album arrived at the end of last year, in case you missed it. This woman can and frequently does cram into one track more original ideas than many performers come up with in an entire career. She is the most thrillingly ingenious presence in the music mainstream, bringing wit and aplomb to the dirty business of shaking her latterly diminished but still substantial booty.
This Is Not A Test jumps with the unfettered, ganglion-popping joie-de-vivre of Tex Avery's best cartoons. Missy is the nearest thing our era has to a Bob Dylan - a popular artist with a brain full of fireworks, shooting out dazzling innovations too fast for her audience to keep up, let alone her rivals.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission. Damn right - I can let you, but I'll have to charge.