Vinyl examination: Double your pleasure with A Taste of Honey

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When A Taste of Honey issued the 1980 Capitol LP “Twice as Sweet,” the R&B/disco group was looking to make some changes amid changing times.

The original four-piece lineup of Janice-Marie Johnson (bass), Hazel Payne (guitar), Donald Johnson (drums) and the late Perry Kibble (keyboards) made history in February of 1979 when they became the first black band – and second black act overall behind labelmate Natalie Cole – to take home the best new artist Grammy on the heels of the smash single “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and their self-titled platinum debut album. They bested favorites Toto and The Cars in the category, a triumph that surprised industry insiders and fans alike. As one would expect, many tried to make the win a black thing – but Janice-Marie wasn’t trying to hear it.

“Don’t get us involved in a racial thing. Look at it as a victory of R&B and disco over pop and rock,” the bassist told the Los Angeles Times. “How about the fact that two of us are women? I think that had more to do with winning than us being black.”

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Such out-of-the-box success, however, was tough to duplicate: Though the frothy single “Do it Good” became a Top 20 R&B hit, its parent album “Another Taste” was met with a lukewarm response in the States that left the band fending off the dreaded one-hit wonder label. Fearing that disco’s impending death spelled the demise of the band, they began to retool their sound and image. Perry and Donald exited the lineup after “Another Taste” and producers Fonce and Larry Mizell were jettisoned in favor of George Duke, who was having tremendous success with his fusion of jazz, funk and disco on hits like “Dukey Stick” and “Reach for It.” The result was the soulful, jazzy “Twice as Sweet” (No. 12 R&B/No. 36 pop),  a record that proved a huge shot of musical love for A Taste of Honey’s career.

A lean, sophisticated nine-track collection, the album could have easily been a follow-up to their blockbuster debut. Duke’s well-honed chops as a jazzman suited the talent of these lovely ladies to a tee because their panache for guitar playing was never really limited to disco in the first place. Janice-Marie and Hazel could swing from funky slap and pop bass to laid back blues licks in the blink of an eye, and Duke drew from their diverse approach beautifully. While the R&B charters “Rescue Me” (No. 16) and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” (No. 64) were textbook grooves, “Don’t You Lead Me On” and “Superstar Superman” glisten with a blend of grace, rhythm and femininity that was often missing from the funk the sisters brought early in the game. Hazel’s lead vocal on “Superstar Superman” in particular is noteworthy, as her distinct sense of phrasing is as precise as her nimble guitar riffs. That’s not to say they don’t bring the heat here, as the frenzied and fabulous “She’s a Dancer,” with Hazel’s searing rock guitar and Janice-Marie’s lead vocal, is a direct descendant of the material from their first two releases and the best dance cut on the LP. Even the Sugar Hill rap combo Funky 4 + 1 knew what was up: The pioneering rap combo sampled “Rescue Me” for the classic “That’s the Joint.”

Oddly, it was the album’s dramatic closing number, not its sophisti-soul center, that turned the duo’s fortunes around. Legend has it that Janice-Marie felt that an English-language ballad version of the 1963 Kyu Sakamoto chart topper “Sukiyaki” – a Japanese song about a heartbroken man who looks up while he whistles so his tears won’t fall down his face – was just the single the group needed to transcend the stifling disco label. Capitol rejected the idea, releasing “Rescue Me” and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” instead under the assumption that black folks would not want to hear a Japanese song – but it wasn’t long before Janice-Marie won out. Black radio had already jumped on the track, and massive airplay forced the label to issue it as a single. In a victory as stunning as the group’s Grammy win, the song shot to the top of the R&B chart and climbed all the way to No. 3 pop. Complete with a koto arrangement by Hiroshima member Dan Kuramoto, the song was the ultimate Quiet Storm classic. Janice wrote the special English lyrics heard on the duo’s version of the song, but a publishing dispute resulted in her name being removed from the writing credits before it was released. To this day official credit for the lyrics eludes her, despite the fact that everyone from Mary J. Blige to 4 P.M. have struck gold with them.

When I read that Capitol was not hot on releasing the song, it just didn’t make sense to me. In its original incarnation – which, ironically, was released by Capitol Stateside – it not only topped the pop chart, but it rose to a respectable No. 18 R&B, which shows that black people were in fact feeling the record the first time around. And I have to say that while I can’t understand a lick of what Sakamoto is saying, his version of the song has a nice feel to it. It’s easy to see why kids both black and white dug it. The fact that Janice-Marie was able to see the hit potential in such a song is a testament to her understanding of music and how people respond to it. The move was a sheer stroke of genius, and the woman deserves all of the credit she is due and then some.

A Taste of Honey would score one more major hit with a beautiful cover and the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles classic “I’ll Try Something New,” but the duo split up after the 1982 album “Ladies of the Eighties.” Janice-Marie issued the album “One Taste of Honey” and the single “Love Me Tonight” for Capitol in 1984, but neither proved a major hit. Today, both Janice-Marie and Hazel travel with their own configurations of A Taste of Honey and occasionally appear together. Hazel has carved out a niche as a stage actress, while Janice-Marie continues to record for her own Tastebuds Records label.

Thankfully, “Twice as Sweet” is not too terribly difficult to come by. The album is available for download on Itunes for under 10 bucks, and back in 2000 it was issued along with “A Taste of Honey” in a two-disc set. Though it’s now out of print, used copies sell regularly on the Web for reasonable prices. Perhaps one day, the group’s entire catalog will be made available. In the meantime, “Twice as Sweet” remains the perfect starting point for anyone with a hankering for the sweet, sticky stylings of A Taste of Honey.

Nearly 30 years later, it still proves that they indeed had the groove.

Check out A Taste of Honey in a lovely performance of the hit “Sukiyaki” below.

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Keith Barrow’s life a beautiful song unsung

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A full-page ad in the Billboard magazine for the week ending May 7, 1977, carried the message in clear, declarative verbiage, a call to arms displayed above the vibrant, smiling face of a new voice in R&B.

“Keith Barrow is why you should pay attention to this debut album.”

This was a bold statement, especially when you consider the competition perched on record store shelves in those days. The Soul LPs survey for that week was quite the musical menagerie: “Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium” was at the top, “Teddy Pendergrass” and Natalie Cole’s “Unpredictable” were sitting in the Top 10, The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and “The Jacksons” hovered in the middle and the eponymous debut album by a beautiful young soul-jazz singer named Phyllis Hyman made its first chart appearance. Indeed, it was a period when soul, disco and rock sang in unison, captivating listeners spanning all shades of the color spectrum.

And it was the perfect time for Chicago’s Keith Barrow to let his major-label career take flight.

Though he’s not talked about much today, Keith was a true talent of his era, a singer’s singer whose velvety falsetto was on par with the finesse of Eddie Kendricks and the fancy of Sylvester. The son of the Rev. Willie Barrow of Operation PUSH fame, he would record only four albums before dying at 29 in 1983 – a tragedy that fuels both a lack of knowledge of his talent and hasty, ill-conceived labels for his musical legacy. Often called a “disco singer” because of the legendary status of the dance classic “Turn Me Up,” it’s a categorization that, while hardly offensive, does not capture the spirit of his gifts. To listen to Keith’s three secular albums is to experience soulful diversity ground from the gospel that rang from his upbringing, a quality that gave everything he sang resonance. Though disco was certainly in the mix, it wasn’t the whole story.

Much like his musical output, Keith’s life was a well-rounded one. According to the obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 1983, he was class president at Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Academy, a graduate of Wartburg College and held a master’s degree in educational psychology from New York University. He also participated in the Chicago Passion Play and worked with the Kumba Players Theatrical Workshop. As multi-faceted as he was, however, music was his ultimate calling. “He had music in his bones and in his soul; he started writing music when he was eight,” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times back in 2004.

Though he began his recording career in the gospel tradition with the critically acclaimed Jewel Records LP “Keith Barrow” (some sources list the album as being titled “All Right Now”) in 1973, Keith would eventually find himself at Philly’s famed Sigma Sound Recording Studios working under the production aegis of legendary music man Bobby Eli for his self-titled Columbia Records debut. A collection of tightly constructed disco and lush ballads, the 1977 album was an all-star affair, as talents like Ron “Have Mersey” Kersey, Larry Washington and lauded backup singers Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson all contributed to the recording. There are spots where the luminaries subsume the developing voice of the album’s central figure, but they are few and far between. Keith’s youth and charm are on full display on delightful cuts like the mild hit “Mr. Magic Man,” “Precious” and the spirited stepper “I Put the Twinkle in Your Eye,” a personal favorite of mine. The greatest moment here, however, was the self-penned “Teach Me (It’s Something About Love),” one of the most beautiful slow jams the singer ever recorded. It was a perfect fit for a young man at a stage in his life where most people are finding their own voice, a lovely portrait of innocence and melancholy. Popular Philly group Blue Magic scored a Top 50 R&B hit with a version of the song in 1976, proof of its reach and timelessness. When it was all said and done, “Keith Barrow” didn’t prove a huge hit, but it was a high quality effort that laid the groundwork for what would become his finest hour on record.

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By the time Columbia issued the Michael Stokes-produced “Physical Attraction” in 1978, the sublime disco that underscored Keith’s debut for the label had morphed into a mainstream phenomenon championed by both urban dance club denizens and kids in the sticks. Right down to the arty, high-concept cover shot – which features Keith in a cold embrace with model, actress and former Robert De Niro flame Toukie Smith – the album did in fact boast a bit of the movement’s decadence, a setting the singer worked surprisingly well in. Most of the material was co-written by Stokes and ace songwriter and recording artist Ronn Matlock this time around, and they brought a series of fine selections to the table. Of the three disco songs on the LP, “Joyful Music” was probably the strongest, a short, to-the-point guilty pleasure of gospel-inflected tambourine and nimble guitar that finds Keith seemingly having a ball. But it was the seven-minute, propulsive dance floor sensation “Turn Me Up” that clicked with club goers and stands as one of the best-known nuggets in Keith’s catalog. To this day jocks, particularly on the international dance music scene, turn to this cut to set clubs on fire.

The beauty of his voice, however, came out when he opted to slow things down rather than disco down. His biggest hit, the mellow steppers’ favorite “You Know You Want to Be Loved” (No. 26 R&B) is a masterwork, one of those Quiet Storm rarities that makes you tingle inside each time it surfaces. Unlike the dense arrangements that characterized many of the slow songs on the previous album, the approach employed by Stokes is simple and sparse, replete with subtle horns and haunting backing vocals akin to the work he was doing at the time with popular quintet Enchantment. The other ballads on the album follow suit, as the lovely opening track “If It’s Love That You’re Looking For,” “Garden of Love” and “Overnight Success” convey the quiet longing in Keith’s voice with chilling focus. The album’s closer, the beautiful “Free to Be Me” seems almost autobiographical – Keith, who was gay, sings with an eerie sincerity, relaying a sentiment any and all people can relate to in a world that often celebrates conservative conformity over liberating individuality. The song rounded out what was a fantastic album, the last recorded before things began to change drastically in the singer’s life.

“One night, in 1979, he called me from Paris and said ‘Momma, I don’t think I’ll be able to go on stage tonight. I really feel sick,’” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times. “I said, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright.’ I prayed for him and then he called again a couple of hours later and he said: ‘Momma, I can’t perform. I have to go; they have to take me to the hospital.’ That’s when he found out that he had [what was later determined to be] HIV.”

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Despite this major setback, Keith soldiered on, recording one final album in his lifetime. “Just As I Am,” recorded for Capitol in 1980, is easily the singer’s most ambitious work, marrying the new wave sounds taking over the airwaves in the post-disco era to his R&B foundation. It’s far from terrible but it is not on the level of his previous efforts, a condition likely connected to the rigors of his personal life. Produced by Ralph Affoumado, the record often fails to connect with the listener, as “Running on Empty (Well Travelled Man)” and “Why Love Half the World (When You Can Love the Whole World)” feel like unfinished ideas rather than completed compositions. There are some noteworthy moments: The title track is funky and forward thinking, while “Tell Me This Ain’t Heaven” is a solid slow groove in the vein of other “Capitol Rare” offerings. The elastic “In the Light (Do It Better)” finds the singer giving up a little ‘tude and good humor. Toward the end of song he shouts, “Uh uh! Naw … you made a mistake! Uh uh! Don’t turn those lights off … I don’t wanna hear nothin’ about no candles! I’m not into candles!” Still, much like the singer’s hollow gaze on the album’s cover shots, there’s a dark, finite texture to the material that makes it hard to focus on any potential for progression that was there.

After the album ran its course, an ill Keith would eventually return to Chicago from New York. One of R&B’s first victims of AIDS, he drew his last breath on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1983. He was just 29 years old.

In the years since, Keith’s small but meaningful body of work has gotten very little attention, which is something that bothers me immensely. Though his first two albums are in limited circulation as imports and a few of his songs appear on various compilations, none of his full-length albums are available on CD domestically. There have also been reports that an album was completed not long before his death, but it has never seen the light of day. Historians relegate him to footnote status in the annals of R&B, as he rarely appears in the content of reference books or Web sites about black male singers. Hardly the blip on the disco radar writers make him out be when they do mention him, he was an artist in every sense of the word – and he deserves better.

I guess that’s why whenever I hear his voice part of me wants to cry for him. His pining falsetto does something to me that I can’t explain; it stirs reflection in me like few other voices do. Whether he’s singing about the “Garden of Love” or the randy delights of “Physical Attraction,” Keith’s a singer who should be heard in all his glory. I can only hope that one day his Columbia and Capitol recordings will find a home on CD and digital formats, as they are among some of the best modern soul records of the last three decades.

More than anything, I want people to appreciate and respect the life and the voice that was Keith Barrow, a man who was a treasure just as he was.

Check out “You Know You Want to Be Loved” below.

Nineteen eighty-eight … the year that still grooves me

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Editor’s Note: This entry is part of a special radio and blog project saluting the year 1988. Along with Friday’s edition of Put the Needle on the Record on radio station WFMU, writers Michael A. Gonzales and Donnell Alexander and bloggers Invisible Woman and yours truly all offered our musings on that unforgettable year. Check out the entries and take a look back.

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When I was approached about reflecting on the year 1988, it was hard for me to even wrap my mind around the fact that it was 20 long years ago. After all, my existence at the time was that of a smallish, bespectacled 9-year-old fourth grader whose life was filled with the simplest of delights, an endless summer of “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights, Super Mario Brothers, weekends at Granny’s house and plain old good times. It’s a time I remember fondly and often wish I could recapture, as it really was one of the sweetest, most memorable periods of my life. As is often the case when you look back at your childhood, it’s the little things that had the greatest impact. Not only was I allowed to pick out my first pair of “big kid” sneakers that year in the form of a funky fresh pair of British Knights (complete with the dope BK Button), I also got what I thought was the greatest birthday present in the history of the world: my very first stereo, Plexiglas covered turntable and all.

As far as I was concerned, I had arrived.

Though I’d had my own little suitcase record player that I played random 45s on for a while, this was the real deal. Since most record labels market recording artists to kids between the ages of 8 and 16, I was a prime target for the sounds that radiated from what was then Hot 103, the top black radio station in Hampton, Virginia, that’s now known as 103 Jamz. The beauty of this era was that you’d hear any number of cuts at black radio, a phenomenon lost in today’s conglomerate-driven culture. Loose Ends, Pretty Poison, Anita Baker and George Michael all could easily pop up in the same set, a sign of what was a diverse, wonderfully open time in music. Like most kids growing up in the ‘burbs of Virginia, I fancied my fair share of bubble gum: Aside from mainstays Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran and New Edition, upstart pin-ups like The Boys, Expose, New Kids on the Block and Rick Astley were favorites of mine, artists who tickled my fancy for delectable dance beats and catchy, sing-along hooks. (I’m still a sucker for a good hook, even today.) Soon, however, the vocal-driven, street savvy vibe of a burgeoning style of black music would take hold of me, shaping not only my musical youth but the adulthood that would follow.

It was a little thing called new jack swing, and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Critics deride the style as the death of black music because of its lack of organic instrumentation, but if they had looked past their own personal biases, they would have seen it was quite the opposite. It was old school and new school at the same time, a melding of the sensibilities of the sensual vocal-based soul of singers like Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills and the street-paved swagger of Run DMC and Kool Moe Dee. In truth, it was the first real identifiable movement in R&B music my generation experienced – and the last before hip-hop rose to prominence. While some of the songs that emerged during the period need to remain distant memories, others are unforgettable. Al B. Sure!’ s “Nite and Day,” The Mac Band’s “Roses are Red,” Vanessa Williams’ “The Right Stuff” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” were some of the year’s biggest hit singles, perfectly capturing the care-free, light-hearted spirit of the time. Still, if I had to pin down a flagship act for the new jack swing era it would be Teddy Riley and brothers Aaron and Damion Hall, collectively known as Guy. (Timmy Gatling, not Damion Hall, appears in early promotional photos, as he left the lineup before the group took off.) Their self-titled debut remains the definitive moment in new jack swing, an album that’s as fly now as it was two decades ago.

Though producer Riley – “The King of New Jack Swing” – had used the new jack swing style to great effect on Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever” LP in 1987, he perfected his formula with “Guy” (No. 1 R&B/No. 27 pop), one of the first albums released on Andre Harrell’s Uptown imprint. (Al B. Sure!, Jeff Redd, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci all called Uptown home at one time or another.) A blend of percolating, hip-hop flavored beats, subtle samples and soulful vocals, it’s one of those records that works in the contexts of both listening and dancing. This wasn’t cold, assembly line soul, as the synth-tinged melodies are crisp and airy and the beats varied – a perfect platform for Aaron Hall’s crooning and the group’s minimal but effective harmonies. Aaron Hall was the group’s secret weapon, the ingredient that gave them a slight edge over the competition. He was the antithesis of the pretty-boy singers that populated much of radio in the late ‘80s, The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson with a new jack, high-top faded twist. This was without question a producer-driven medium but these brothers didn’t play second string to the beat, which ultimately is what makes the record click. By the time the album took its final bow, five of the 10 tracks had become R&B hits.

The album’s strongest moments are the up-tempo numbers, sweaty concoctions that are as funky and flashy as the leather suits the trio sports on the album cover. “Groove Me” (No. 4 R&B), “Teddy’s Jam” (No. 5 R&B), “I Like” (No. 2 R&B), “Spend the Night” (No. 15 R&B) and “‘Round and ‘Round (Merry Go Round of Love)” (No. 24 R&B) are certified bangers that make you want to dust off your running man, classics that sum up the period like few others. “Teddy’s Jam” and “I Like” in particular have held up well, as they boast of some of the most clever arrangements Riley and co-producer Gene Griffin brought to the table for the project. “I Like” remains my personal favorite, because it conjures memories of my sister’s baby blue Hyundai Excel and the times I was privileged enough to cruise the streets of Hampton with her after she started driving. But I digress.

As one would expect, Aaron Hall did the damn thing on the ballads. “Piece of My Love” and “Goodbye Love,” though not charting singles, were Quiet Storm staples and helped put the new jack slow jam on the map. Atmospheric and engaging, the songs are the kind of period pieces that could easily be labeled dated but strike a chord in people that elevates them to a level of eternal perfection. It’s in these songs that Aaron Hall proved he was a standup singer worthy of accolades stretching beyond what he received both as a part of Guy and as a soloist. More importantly, they helped strengthen the group’s identity in what became a field filled with imitators waiting to cash in on the approach they played a key role in crystalizing.

Though Guy would continue having hits via the albums “The Future” and “Guy III,” their debut remains the quintessential new jack swing exercise and the high water mark of their career. A seminal signpost of the era, it’s a feel-good snapshot of ‘88 that is more than mere nostalgia, as evidenced by the fact it was issued last July as an expanded, two-disc special edition. In that album, you hear the street-laced soul that would become the hits of ‘90s labels Bad Boy Entertainment and Rowdy Records. But there’s nothing like the real thing, and it began with this listening experience.

Together, “Guy” and the other popular releases of 1988 tell a sonic story of a simpler time in our lives. Some of it was frothy, teen dream pop and some of it was pure soul – but it all captures something in each of us and serves as one of the few uniting forces in our common consciousness. It’s as much about the music as it is the feelings it stirs.

And when I’m old and gray, those jams from 1988 will still groove me.

Check out Guy and the video for “Groove Me” below.

‘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.