Stevie Woods and ‘Heaven’ remembered at Blogcritics

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When reports began circulating that Stevie Woods died on January 28 at 62, it marked the transition of another gifted, black male musical talent. After the recent losses of Al Johnson and George Duke, it was a reminder that too many of our own are leaving far too soon.

Woods, who only enjoyed brief stardom, certainly never got his due. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, the singer left home at 17 to join a touring band and pursue his musical ambitions. Gigging by night and writing songs by day, he decided that he needed greater exposure and decided to step outside of the box for a shot at the big time. “I figured if I wanted to get somewhere I had to place myself in a spot where people could hear me – and I packed up my Subaru station wagon and my guitar and drove out to Los Angeles,” he told Dick Clark during an appearance on American Bandstand in 1981.

Read the rest of my tribute article here.

Find Your Strength in Love: Revisiting Whitney’s Debut


In the days since Whitney Houston passed away, I have struggled to gather my thoughts about the situation. When the news hit us, I was angry. I was sad. Quite frankly, I was nearly speechless. We grew up with Whitney, and for all of the times we shook our heads at the tumult that marked much of her life, we never stopped rooting for her. At least I know I didn’t. While her tragic end wasn’t totally surprising it was still shocking, the kind of twisted finale reserved for the celluloid universe – or, on a more realistic level, fallen screen sirens and belters of a bygone era.

We didn’t want this kind of ending for Whitney. It just doesn’t seem right.

Amid all of the tears, tributes and speculation from talking heads, I decided to do the one thing that would bring me a bit of comfort: I turned my attention to the music. Between 1985 and 2009, Whitney issued just seven full-length studio albums – a relatively small canon when you consider the strength of her decades-long chart history and overall impact. More often than not she is filtered through popular culture in a statistical vacuum, and given her status as the most awarded female artist in history that makes sense. However, in my mind the numbers are secondary to the organic connection the Whitney phenomenon made with those of us raised during the earliest, pre-Bodyguard years of her heyday. In the moments after my mother called my sister Stephanie and I to tell us Whitney had left us, I was immediately taken back to that space in my life. I think my heart has been floating there ever since.

While America pushed Whitney’s towering rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the blockbuster The Bodyguard back into Billboard’s top 10, I pulled out what for me remains her most joyous, unfettered musical document: Whitney Houston. Much like Michael Jackson’s epic masterpiece Thriller, this long-player was equal parts song cycle and cultural statement. Remember, this was the post-disco era of Reagan and the Huxtables. Artists like Michael, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross had polished black pop to an almost blinding sheen and redefined modern-day blackness in the process. Whitney, with her model good looks and well-documented musical pedigree, fit right into the mold. Looking back on it, the Seventeen-meets-Essence album cover packaging and 45 picture sleeves say it all.  At once regal and youthful, Whitney looked like that older, fashion-forward cousin who stepped out of the box and made good. She was elegant but totally likable, a girl you wanted to see make it. She was a snapshot of the dream – OUR dream.

On the musical front, soul purists hammer the album as pap that squandered a beautiful instrument, but to dismiss it as such is shortsighted. This wasn’t an album that was intended to be Caught Up or Young, Gifted and Black, and anyone expecting the down-to-the-bone soul of Millie Jackson or Whitney’s godmother Aretha Franklin was sure to be disappointed. As far as debuts go very few are better, as it is one of the best examples of melodic versatility caught on record. A master interpreter, Whitney could do it all – and with Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser, Jermaine Jackson and Kashif at the helm, the album collated her pop, soul and gospel sensibilities better than much of what would emerge in later years.

People praise “I Will Always Love You” endlessly, but “You Give Good Love” will forever and always – at least in my opinion – be the definitive Whitney love song. There was innocence to it, a sexiness and vulnerability that rarely came across in the bombast of the big ballads that eventually became her calling card.  Produced by label mate Kashif, the single flirted with hints of the chic New York-based Hush Productions sound immortalized by Melba Moore, Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson and Kashif himself. As journalist Steven Ivory noted in the Unsung installment on Freddie, it was an approach that wasn’t concerned with crossing over – it crossed over because it was good. It’s one of the few purely urban contemporary moments from the early days, a song elevated by Whitney’s knack for sensitive, emotive phrasing. Other slow cuts moved us: “Saving All My Love for You,” a song recorded years earlier by one-time Fifth Dimension leaders Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, earned Whitney her first Grammy and remains an adult contemporary staple (buoyed by a lovely saxophone solo by Tom Scott), while the showy “All At Once” surely did diva Diana proud. The charming “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” and “Take Good Care of My Heart” paired the singer with Jermaine – another Arista signee – and it’s somewhat clear that our Nippy was holding back a little bit in an effort to compliment her duet partner. Teddy Pendergrass proved a more suitable vocal foil on “Hold Me,” a tender duet that appeared earlier on the crooner’s 1984 comeback LP Love Language.

Given her persona as a purveyor of dramatic showstoppers, it’s funny to think of Whitney as a dance diva.  But to this day, club kids are as loyal to her as pop and R&B fans. “How Will I Know,” a dance floor burner on par with anything issued at the time by the likes of Madonna or Shannon, was the beginning of this clubland love affair and the children STILL go wild if a jock dusts it off. The video remains one of the most enduring images of the songbird, an explosion of teased hair, body paint, bright makeup and those comical off-kilter dance moves we often mocked but also loved and appreciated. The isolated vocal track that surfaced in the wake of her death only highlighted the performance’s power, proving that even the most fluffy, feel-good up-tempo cut can be moving when it lands in capable hands. Other synth-heavy ditties like “Someone for Me” and the R&B hit “Thinking About You” feel like filler next to “How Will I Know,” but they still shine as bright, if dated, toe-tappers.

Still, it was “Greatest Love of All” – popularized by George Benson – that truly endeared Whitney to millions across the board and set the blueprint for the slow-building power ballads that would lift her to one-name status. Whitney did with it what Aretha did with Otis Redding’s “Respect,” transforming the song from a solid R&B outing to an American standard and reference point for female vocal performance. Its simple sentiments seem bittersweet in light of what is unraveling before our eyes, and it is hard to not feel a bit sad when you think of the beautiful girl in the white gown who urged us all to find our strength in love.  We could speculate for days about whether or not that Whitney was the real Whitney. None of that really matters, as it’s the Whitney we came to adore, the Whitney we fiercely defend, and ultimately the Whitney we carry in our hearts.

At the end of the day, Whitney Houston may not be the great soul album of the twentieth century, but it was never supposed to be. The sum of its parts marked a new beginning in many ways, not only for a young artist but for a burgeoning generation of black kids like me who were growing up in an era marked by a series of social and political changes. As was the case with Michael, Whitney’s wide success was and is something of an inspiration to many of us, a moment in time that let us know there really were no limits to what we as blacks could accomplish. With that in mind, Whitney’s debut is just as relevant in the lexicon of black music as anything by her contemporaries and is deserving of the praise and commercial success that fans hold dear 27 years later. Maybe it was not “soul” in the textbook sense, but it touched people in a way that transcends some of the genre’s more lauded albums of years past.

As I said on my Facebook page, Whitney was not just a singer. She was an icon. She was a cultural signpost. Above all else, she was human. Embrace the legacy and the music.

We love you, and we miss you.

Michael Joseph Jackson: The Black Gold of My Sun

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Cats sit on the windowsill
Children sit in the show
Why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?
From “Corner of the Sky” by The Jackson 5

Some words, phrases and sentences simply make you bristle. When I think of that concept I chuckle a little bit, because I flash back to Dorothy telling fellow “Golden Girl” Rose that while intrauterine is a word, it shouldn’t be used in any old context.

I just wish the situation on my mind and heart at the moment was close to being that funny.

I am less than two months shy of turning 30. When I saw the words Michael, Jackson and dead woven together on Thursday, my universe turned upside down. My thoughts were racing at an uncontrollable pace. Could this be? Certainly not, right? It is 2009 – and Michael is still a young man. If I’m seeing a headline that says we lost him, have I blinked and missed the last 20 years of my life? I couldn’t be the 29-year-old Steve who, more than 20 years ago, saved his coins in his Smurf bank to buy a copy of Bad. I must be 50 and settled into my life as a happy, well-adjusted adult – and moving into the season where the icons of my youth are in a logical space to make their transition. I wanted to believe I wasn’t seeing an American tragedy unfold in the present.

When the dust of my devastation settled around my spirit, I had to own what happened: Michael Joseph Jackson, my childhood hero, was dead at 50. Ironically, it was a happy day for my family and I, as my witty maternal grandmother celebrated her 90th year of life. Speaking to her reminded me of how rewarding a long life filled with love and positive energy can be. In Brother Michael’s passing, however, I saw a grainy image of what can happen when a person never fully experiences those gifts, and that saddened me. It still does.

But I won’t go there just yet.

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The eighties were a magical time for those of us who lived it, and Michael worked his sonic sorcery like no other. In him and his illustrious canon were infinite possibilities, Technicolor testaments to the fact that little black boys like me could dream big and see those visions come to fruition. His music is a key part of the soundtrack of my early years, but it was the way it built cultural bridges that was so special. Growing up in the suburbs of southeastern Virginia, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me when I entered the homes of my friends – but there was always Michael. Whether it was a poster, a pillow or a copy of Thriller, it wouldn’t be long before that inimitable, badass white suit would fill my gaze. I always found comfort in that because just for a moment, I had another brother in my midst. In my little world, Michael became a de facto symbol of universal love and acceptance.

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When it comes to the music itself, I don’t know what I could say that has not already been stated. The classics he created with his talented siblings and on his own still burst with shimmery innocence, capturing the evolution of both R&B and an icon. The wise-beyond-his-years readings of “Who’s Loving You” and “Got to Be There.” The adolescent angst of “Dancing Machine” and “All I Do is Think of You.” The elegant, understated and underrated Philadelphia International productions The Jacksons and Goin’ Places. The high steppin’, hip dressin’ disco of Off the Wall. The shear pop mastery of Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and even Invincible. It just goes on and on. It cuts me to my core to know that the beautiful voice at the center of such greatness, an instrument that brought so many so much joy, has left this Earth.

I just wish Michael himself had been able to have a bit of that joy in his own life. Ravaged by constant media scrutiny and a fickle public, Michael was never afforded the chance to be happy. Save for a few close bonds, genuine friendship and support seemed to elude him. On more than one occasion I’ve been offended as a black man and a fan by things that have been said and written about this man. It continues to make me ache, because it almost seems like people want to believe the worst about Michael, no matter the circumstance. I simply don’t understand it.

However, this is not a time to dwell on the negativity of some segments of society. This is a time about Michael. The tears of pain I cried Thursday birthed a celebration in me of the man and his music. I celebrate the beauty of his soul. I celebrate what he gave me. I celebrate what he gave the black community. I celebrate what he gave the world.

Most importantly, I celebrate the peace that now cradles this beautiful brother. It is a peace he was never given in life, and it can’t be taken from him in death. That puts my mind and heart at ease.

Here’s to the black gold of my sun, Michael Joseph Jackson. May he rest peacefully in his corner of the sky.

My night on ‘The Block’

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Let me tell y’all: In 1988, it was hard out there for a black boy who liked New Kids on the Block.

It may have been pure bubble gum, but the music the New Kids put out was a lot of fun and had its fair share of soul to it. Early cuts like their cover of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “Please Don’t Go Girl” were enjoyable soul-shaded teen pop that reminded me of the kind of music that always filled our household, which is why I enjoyed them. At the end of the day, however, these were five white boys who had their faces plastered on everything from tote bags to Saturday morning television – and to be black, male and a fan was an open invitation to a verbal beat down from your peers. The criticism was harsh and often hurtful, as I remember an especially severe tongue lashing from one of my older sister’s ignorant-ass classmates. It didn’t matter to me though – I was a scrawny bookworm with no athletic ability, so I was used to it. I played my tapes and sported my buttons (which I still have, by the way) proudly and let the haters keep right on hating. “Just another day at the races,“ I thought.

Fast-forward 20 years to D.C.’s Verizon Center on October 2. There I was, amidst a sea of people in their late twenties and early thirties, about to live a childhood dream of mine. Like a lot of the folks there I was too young to go see them live at their peak and found the news of their reunion tour to be a thrilling prospect – but initially I wasn’t quite sure if I would be in attendance. I’d be lying if I said part of my reluctance didn’t have to do with those old memories and the idea of folks snickering at me for wanting to go. After the prodding of several friends of mine (“Boy you used to love them – you better go!” was the common refrain) I realized how silly I was being, grabbed a ticket and happily carried my ass to the show. With my shiny new tour book in hand, I took my seat and waited for the spectacle to begin. As I looked around, what amazed me most was the diversity of the crowd. Pretty much every group you could think of was represented: Whites, blacks, girls, gays and married couples with children all came out to hang tough for a night, and it gave the venue a care-free, electric energy. I was all ready to go.

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Once the New Kids took to the stage, the place fell into frenzy. Donnie, Jordan, Jon, Joey (Is it Joe now that he’s grown?) and Danny powered through all of the ditties they are known for. Favorites like “(You Got It) The Right Stuff,” “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “Tonight,” “Cover Girl,” “I’ll Be Loving Your (Forever)” and “Valentine Girl” were all there, and the group had the vocal support of thousands to help them through them. I was particularly thrilled to hear the “Step By Step” b-side “Valentine Girl” because that remains my favorite New Kids song. On it and several other selections, Jordan proved his falsetto is as sharp now as it was two decades ago – I think Stylistic Russell Thompkins Jr. and Delfonic William Hart would be proud. In fact, the group’s vocals were strong all the way around, as were the fancy footwork and flashy set and costume changes. Danny got his break dance on like he was straight out of “Beat Street,” and Joey and Jordan even offered up “Stay the Same” and “Give it to You,” their respective solo hits. By the time they closed with “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough,” the crowd was hoarse, worn out, and downright ecstatic.

Though the show was heavy on nostalgia, the group managed to work several songs from their latest effort “The Block” into the set. I have to admit I was surprised by how strong the record is, as these reunion albums that have been popping up in recent years have been beyond shaky. While it’s not “Innervisions” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” it’s a solid, well-crafted pop album that can appeal to both old fans and new ones. Many of the album’s strongest tracks were included in the show: “Single,” “Summertime,” and “Grown Man” (which featured an appearance by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger via video screen) all translated well on stage and didn’t clash with the old stuff. The group’s live take on “Click Click Click” (my personal favorite from the album) sealed the deal, proving that these Kids-turned-men have a lot of music left in them to make.

It’s been damn near a week since I saw the show, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I had a blast, and it was worth every penny. Regardless of what the haters say, I’ll always love those New Kids. Their music is part of the soundtrack to a happy, simple time in my life, and I’ll never forget that. More importantly, liking their music taught me to like what I like and be unapologetic about it. Good music is good music, good times are good times, and all that really matters is what it all means to you. Nobody should ever rob you of that.

So you’re damn straight – if they come to my town when I am 39 in 10 years, I’m still gonna party with them on the block.

Happy 50th Birthday, Your Highness!

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Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, hit the big 5-0 today.

Words can’t express how much I love this man’s music. Controversy and tough times aside, this man is the blueprint. From Usher to Chris Brown, you see the influence of those fluid moves and inimitable vocal inflections in all of today’s up and coming black talent. The world will never see another star of his magnitude, plain and simple. I loved him over two decades ago when I was trying to learn his every dance move and make the sidewalk light up a la “Billie Jean,” and I love him now.

He’s still the man.

Happy Birthday, MJ!

Aural ‘Sex': Carrie and company’s ‘City’ paved with glittery grooves

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Outside of the context of the drop-dead-gorgeous “Sex and the City” film, the soundtrack would be little more than a collection of pink disco thumpers and understated ballads – another run-of-the-mill compilation album assembled to make a few quick bucks. When paired with the film, however, the songs emerge as a 55-minute party of joy and pain that’s as guilty a pleasure as the iconic franchise. Like the film – which, as a testament to the power of the girls and the gays, whooped Indiana Jones’ ass with a whopping $55.7 million at the box office this weekend – the tunes are as colorful as the designer dresses donned by the glamourzons who filled theater seats across the country to spend an evening with TV’s favorite urban socialites.

A big-city-cool jaunt of an album, the soundtrack is liveliest and most interesting as the dance material takes hold. I’m not the biggest fan of electronic music, but the best two cuts on the album fall into that mold: “I Like the Way” is a detached, ultra-hip jam from the creative mind of Chicago-born DJ and producer Kaskade, one of those club cuts that is atmospheric in its minimalist glory. In a similar mold is Nina Simone’s “The Look of Love,” which is served up here in the “Madison Park vs. Lenny B Remix.” The classy house groove props itself up nicely against the wall of sound that is Simone’s voice, making for an interesting spin on an oft-covered standard. The songs are sinewy blends of piano, vibes, synths and icy vocals that manage to evoke warmth absent from a great deal of the electronic music that propels dance floors into the stratosphere. Elsewhere, Morningwood and The Weepies rock a little on “New York Girls” and “All This Beauty” respectively, bringing an earthy foil to the urban slant of the up-temp material.

No well-oiled chick flick can function without some good love songs, and the ones here will surely please the amorous. Bliss’ lovely “Kissing” and The Bird and the Bee’s cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” are pure delights, while the always captivating India.Arie is at her best on “The Heart of the Matter.” The greatest one in the bunch, however, is a faithful interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne,” offered up by Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say it punctuates the lonely New Year’s Eve of two of the movie’s principal characters amazingly. The beautifully rendered song elevates the scene to a level of poignancy that would surprise those who think the movie possesses little to no redeeming value. For a moment, the song transforms from a cherished favorite to a slice of sonic narration.

For all its strong points, the crazy thing about the soundtrack is that the two most ballyhooed moments are the least memorable. I have to say upfront that Fergie annoys the shit out of me, so that may be part of the reason I’m not feeling “Labels or Love.” Imagined as a pop-song variation of the show’s classic theme song, it just doesn’t seem to work. If I want to hear something as irritating as “My Humps,” I’ll borrow somebody’s Black Eyed Peas CD. And the movie’s closing workout, the pleasant but ordinary “All Dressed in Love” finds Jennifer Hudson doing her damndest to bring life to what is a borderline lifeless song. A set of pipes as powerful as Hudson’s – and the ending of a film of this magnitude for that matter – deserves a better last hurrah. Still, J-Hud gives it all she’s got and the girl deserves her props.

All in all, the soundtrack for “Sex and the City” is just good, fashion-forward fun. It’s not the music from “Shaft,” “Superfly” or “The Graduate,” but it has a charm all its own. There’s enough energy here to fuel any night out on the town, cosmos and all. The spirit of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte definitely radiates from these ditties.

I so can’t wait for volume two.

‘Candy’ girl: Maddy’s latest a bittersweet treat

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As the release of “Hard Candy” approached, Madonna and company praised the record as a sweet, ass-kicking return to the roots of her self-titled debut, “Like a Virgin” and “True Blue.” Hailed as a hip-hop infused dance party helmed by everybody from Timbaland to The Neptunes, it’s definitely filled to the brim with energy and a skyline vibe. But in translating Madonna’s sound from the posh throwback disco of “Confessions on a Dance Floor” to the of-the-moment groove of her latest release, Madonna was lost. As a result, the album feels more like a hard pill to swallow than a hard candy.

As I said in a previous post, the issue is not Madonna working with producers like Timbaland, which left a lot of her fans questioning her judgment. His work with Madonna’s fellow MTV veterans Duran Duran on last year’s “Red Carpet Massacre” was quite good, because despite all of the trademark Timbaland production touches it still sounds like a Duran Duran album. “Hard Candy” falls short because while it’s high quality, it’s not Madonna quality. It sounds like leftovers from Nelly Furtado and Fergie sessions, an undercurrent that leaves the album a bit stilted. There are some transcendent moments that remind you of why Madonna’s one of the world’s premiere divas, but more often than not it sounds like a new artist gunning for a hit rather than a seasoned pro about to become a quintagenarian.

If she wanted a hit, she got one with “4 Minutes,” a grating collaboration with Justin “I’ll throw ya under the bus” Timberlake that’s already landed in the Top 5. Things improve a bit with the fuzzy, bubbly beats of “Candy Shop” and “Incredible,” but characterless cuts like “Give it 2 Me” and “Heartbeat” are boilerplate Neptunes and break no new ground. Still, there are remnants of the ragtag “Lucky Star” Madonna those of us raised in the ‘80s know and love. “Beat Goes On,” which features hip-hop divo Kanye West, is a colorful swirl of squiggly synths and hand claps that brings to mind the boom box Saturdays of years long gone. (I have visions of Saturdays at the roller rink with my big sister each time I play that one.) The slinky “Dance 2Night” is another highlight, a pop-funk ditty that channels the spirit of the Chic sound of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers – icy vocals, chunky bass-line and all – in what’s clearly a nod to the Rogers-produced “Like a Virgin” and its respective era. With the right push, either could be her next hit.

Though the singer’s much-improved vocals don’t get much shine this time around, the atmospheric “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” showcases a solid performance and displays the growth she has become known for more than anything else on the record. A synthesis of classic Timbaland and the quiet Madonna of the “Ray of Light” years, it’s an interesting reflection on looking through someone despite the many faces they wear. When you think about the fact that the song is being rendered by a pop queen who built her career around donning a slew of faces, hairstyles and philosophies that still leave her court guessing about who she really is, the song takes on a new resonance.

Ultimately, I guess you could say “Hard Candy” is bittersweet. It’s the Material Mom’s eleventh time at bat and the bitch is swinging hard, but one can’t help but wonder exactly what her target is. She got a hit and some attention from kids who in truth are attention span challenged, but at what cost? The mark of Madonna’s greatness was always her refusal to play second fiddle to anyone, a tactic that made her brand a bit stronger that those around her. She’s an icon who’s earned the right to enjoy the ride and coast in and out of any sound she chooses, but hopefully next time she’ll remember that, much like fabulous disco diva Sylvester once said about himself, nobody conceptualizes her.

Madonna’s the concept all on her own.