November 6, 2009
The Definitive Soul Collection
Ruth Brown might be known to some younger audiences from her role in John Waters’s 1988 cult film Hairspray. This R&B legend and 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s career had been largely obscured until she fought for recognition. Her campaign resulted in the creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which brought renewed attention to her plight and that of other 1950s era artists whose careers were stifled or stalled by shoddy business practices of the period.
The then-independent Atlantic Records’ early success was so dependent on Brown’s chart-topping music that the label was later referred to as “The House That Ruth Built.” Brown’s grounding in blues tradition combined with her idiosyncratic interpretations of pop compositions and their larger influence are on display in this two CD set, which includes all 24 of Brown’s Billboard- charting singles from 1949 to 1960.
The CD’s chronology provides a glimpse of Brown’s versatility and the stylistic changes and commercial concessions that were being made in the music industry as well. Gritty honking blues stompers and ballads like “Have A Good Time” and the classic “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” give way to the scrubbed, up-tempo, Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller-penned “Lucky Lips.” Though the number of singers clearly influenced by Brown’s stylings is too numerous to list here, the collection of songs on Definitive is certainly a worthy and important document of the scope of her talents and career.
Given the hand-wringing and abundant cynicism among those parroting the “hip hop is dead” cliché over the last few years, any new project by former A Tribe Called Quest lead emcee Q-Tip was bound to be met with skepticism. He was derided as a symbol of the destruction of all that was good and pure in the culture’s music following the 1999 release of the unabashedly dance-pop flavored Amplified, followed by two unreleased jazz-focused projects. Q-Tip subsequently made a bit of retreat from the public save for a cameo appearance here and there.
But Renaissance proves the time off and away from the studio were a good thing. The resulting project is his most inspired and invigorated work since ATCQ disbanded in 1995.
Thankfully, Tip spent little time in the studio contemplating I-am-hip-hop-legend-returned-to-save-you ditties and decided to make a really, really good record.
Opening with the dissonant, thumping, tongue-in-cheek prodigal-son missive “Johnny Is Dead,” Renaissance has typical hip hop swagger around its edges (the cleverly arranged and sampled braggadocio of “Won’t Trade”) but is also impossibly infectious and pretty in other moments (“Gettin’ Up”, “We Fight/We Love”). Grown and sexy yet still nerdy enough to bring his sampling drum machine on a date, Renaissance clearly states who the aesthetic and emotional center of ATCQ was, and that Q-Tip knows at least where he—if not hip hop—is going.
Juba Kalamka is a founding member of the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective and creator of the label Sugartruck Recordings.
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