In 1971, Marvin Gaye released his classic What's Going On, and all hell broke loose in the world of R&B. Smiling hit makers became serious artists and social commentators, and within months Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield had all followed suit, creating their own distinctive brand of soul music. A similar revolution was thought to be in progress in the mid-'90s, when D'Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and others broke the old stereotypes about how black music should sound. But improvement for some iconoclasts has not meant freedom for all. Instead of an open landscape, now there's a new career path. Base your music on the chord changes of '70s funk hits, steer clear of materialism in your lyrics but offer a sense of gospel praise, and you too can be a neo-soul star.
Although she's young, black and a child of nobody's Destiny, Res is pioneering her own way. The Philadelphian's debut recording, How I Do, offers a savvy merger of Jill Scott's artful brassiness and Fiona Apple's restless introspection to create a new and bold statement about identity politics and the entertainment industry. The recording leads with "Golden Boys," a track that skewers the superficiality of a guy who lets himself be molded into one of the millennium-style Nubian princes (no doubt bald and buff) before segueing into "They Say Vision," a diatribe about pressures to conform. But despite their pointedness, these manifestos are delivered with charm, not confrontation. There's often a chuckle welling up in Res' dark alto; she wants you to relate to her confidence, not her grit. Fittingly, when she sings laments of love lost, as on "The Hustler" and "I've Known the Garden," her delivery is rooted in Ann Peebles' wistfulness rather than Gloria Gaynor's bruises.
Mostly produced by Doc, best known for his work with Esthero, who took the noir out of trip-hop and replaced it with a sensuous high-concept interior, How I Do ranges from bass-heavy mid-tempo to soaring power pop. That may land her in the cut-out bin by Christmas (isn't that where you find Cree Summer and Dionne Farris discs these days?), but blame the industry marketing departments, not the singer. On her debut, Res did just fine.
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