Archive of posts tagged with "r&b"

January 15th, 2009

Bacon Bits

photo by zoomar

Props to Emynd and Bo Bliz for holding it down over at Crossfaded Bacon, where they’ve been posting some great tracks (nh4nr) — with an occasional soft spot for a bunch of R&B too.

Yesterday, Bo Bliz posted re: Stevie Wonder’s new song (a track for Obama’s inaugural soundtrack). Perhaps surprisingly, at least for those who don’t remember Stevie’s been at the tricknology vanguard for a minute (e.g.), Bliz reports that the song uses that plugin dujour, Antares Autotune (hereafter in lowercase, like xerox and kleenex).

Now, obviously Stevie doesn’t need help hitting his high notes. (I saw him in concert a little over a year ago and can attest that his pipes remain remarkably powerful.) So his use of the plugin calls attn, more than anything, to the way it’s become but a zeitgeisty effect — the “new reverb” — employed for style, not pitch correction (at least in certain cases — ahem — when it’s used for both).

Because you only really hear autotune when a singer is in between notes, and b/c there’s not much sliding in this song, Stevie’s use of the effect is far from T-Painful (luh dat tho); he resists running stairs despite being one of the most virtuosic and, importantly, motivated melismatic acrobats out there (in contrast to American Idol hacks who put fancy, meaningless filigree on every syllable).

Signed, sealed, robot-o-fied for 2009!

photo by Burns!

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November 20th, 2008

Ne-Yo Schenkerian

When I wrote about Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” last week, I mostly wanted to talk about timbre — the effervesynths that seem to give it so much of its tingly, zeitgeisty affect. But I did find myself discussing things like form and rhythm and harmony too. Actually, I pretty much passed on any real harmonic analysis, as a quick ear’s glance suggested to me that the surface simplicity of the song (I called it a “two/three-chord” progression) betrayed a much more complicated — and in some ways not so easily / usefully reducible harmonic structure.

So I decided to seek out some expertise from a dear, old friend, Greg Brown, a colleague from UW-Madison working on a PhD in music theory. A student of Brian Hyer and Lee Blasius, Greg writes really beautifully about Sigur Ros, but he’s also quite able to walk the walk and talk the talk on some 18th/19th century “common practice” sump’m sump’m, knomesayin. So I look to Greg when in need of high theoretical perspectives that remain well grounded. Below, he lends his ears to those of us who’d like to attend a little more closely to the harmonic bedding for Ne-Yo’s r&b fantasy. All hyperlinks are his.

Here’s the audio for those who want to follow along —

[update 1/27/10 — there used to be an imeem link here, but then myspace bought imeem and nuked it, leaving me a nice orange ringtone ad instead; so i’ve deleted that. i’m sure you can hunt down the neyo song yrself.]

Take it away, Greg…

Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent,” harmonically speaking, isn’t going to fit into any neat Schenkerian plan, and not just because of your and my justifiable skepticism of music-analytical reduction.

Because of the meter, I’d argue (and maybe I’ll even use the present, non-conditional tense starting now) that we have to hear the first chord as some sort of I. But we can’t, if we’re gonna be Zocchian about it. (For the benefit of anyone reading this who’s not Wayne or I, I’ll just say “Zocchian” is an inside-joke, a reference I use with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s a shout-out to a mutual friend, who’s an awesome pianist who can provide a play-by-play harmonic analysis, score, unseen, of even the fastest, most complicated tonal music.) So, straight off the bat, we lose the ability to proceed through a convincing harmonic analysis of this song in any traditional sense.

Of course, we can (and I will) do so anyway, which isn’t a bad exercise. In fact, the process might help us connect to the music on another level.

With philosophical disclaimers out of the way, I’m thinking we have to hear the song as being in B-flat minor. With no altered keys (five flats: BEADG, if you’d like a refresher).

Whereas the Romantics (not the band, as far as I know) — perhaps in an attempt to ride the coat-tails of Beethoven after the “controversy” — which stemmed from the fact it opens with a series of V-I, not I-V or I-V-I progressions — of his First Symphony, we can’t say it’s surprising or innovative that “Miss Independent” doesn’t start on I. Starting on IV is a little weirder, but not really too weird, because the producers are likely not thinking tonally, per se.

As a side note, this goes well with my theory that contemporary music (lots of dance music, but lots of other music, too) has effectively replaced V with IV. IV used to serve to prepare V (so sayeth the Schenkerians), or otherwise it was simply used to expand I. Today, IV tends to be the place I moves to and from — thus playing a role traditionally given to V — but IV still retains a sense that it’s “expanding the tonic” (another word for I, the root harmony, which defines the key), which is why the music we both love so much keeps flowing, pushing forward even as it asks us to listen to things that aren’t harmonically relevant.

Back to the beginning of the song: the first chord is E-flat minor. But because we initially hear it with that gay (sorry, I couldn’t resist) effervesynth, which starts on — and folds back to — D-flat, the chord is effectively a seventh chord. So it starts on a (minor) IV-7.

So the progression, as I (am asked, for the historical record, to) hear it is:

iv7 — i — VI — VII

(Note: I’m capitalizing major chords and not minor, as most theory students are asked to do unless they attend UW-Madison.)

This (non-)progression is repeated over and over until the bridge, which, by the way, I haven’t given much thought to yet, other than to briefly think about how cheesy it sounds to me. Have fun with that!

Now, I could spend way too long on this. Hell, I probably already have. But one thing is worth noting in particular. If you were to remove the iv7 (which would likely change the song beyond recognition), you get a familiar progression of some pop music (and note: it’s not really a classical progression, since it doesn’t — to Zocchian ears — “progress”). I’m thinking of some hardcore metal songs, the verse of Prince‘s “Little Red Corvette,” or the entirety of Stevie Nicks‘(s) “Edge of Seventeen.” Weird, actually, I think the Prince reference would be on key. Keep in mind we’d have to hear both those songs as I — II — iii instead of VI — VII — I.

So yeah, it’s complicated, mostly because we’re forcing harmonic theory where it doesn’t belong. Still, even leaving that opinion aside, it’s also complicated because the iv7 makes it complicated. It’s a lush, energetic chord that displaces the tonic (i) harmony on the downbeat. When you play it on the piano …

D-flat      D-flat
B-flat      D-flat
G-flat      F
E-flat      F

… you can feel and hear how the iv7 results from a double-appoggiatura of sorts. G-flat and E-flat narrow in on F, and when they get there, it’s just a i-chord.


To help you out, let me finish by writing out for you how I’d play it to really feel what I’m getting at. The middle lines are the right hand (start with your pinky on the top note, thumb on the bottom). It looks like four lines, but think of it as triads. I just want you to see (and feel) the two pitches converging into one. The bottom (bold) line is the left-hand bass line, which I think matches the bass of the song. I positioned the right-hand triads to give smoother voice leading between the first and second chords, and also so that you can hear the riff’s melody on the top, which is where it is in the actual mix. Finally, I just noticed that the melodic instrumental riff follows what I had already notated as the top line of the right-hand triads, but it fills in the F-to-D-flat interval stepwise, while rhythmically anticipating the chord changes. This melodic hook (for your own safety, don’t try to play it at the same time) is in italics at the very top, but there’s no space to notate anything other than each pitch the first time it’s heard. (I’m not notating repeated pitches or rhythm there.)

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November 6th, 2008


Since I’ve lately dived headlong into heart-on-sleeve blogging, I may as well keep things going, even if that means losing a few of you hardcore lurkers out there. You see, I’ve been wanting to gush for a minute now about — believe it or not — Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent,” which has been on heavy rotation on JAM’N for the last several months. Here’s the video c/o that lovely new MTV service —

Although the lyrics are actually quite laudable in an era when women are more likely to appear as strippers than equals in R&B and hip-hop depictions, I confess it’s the instrumental that initially caught me and continues to tickle me all over.

Where to begin? There’s the dancehall drum track, which I’m happy to hear now completely absorbed into R&B’s all-encompassing palette. (I mean, who even hears this beat as a reggae beat at this point, except for nerds/headz like me?) And then there’s that plucky little harp melody, reinforcing Ne-Yo’s tunefulness. But what really gets me is when that rippling, tactile, crunky/trancey synth comes in to propel the chorus (as also heard in the intro).

I have to admit that when I first heard these techno presents find their way into hip-hop, I was a little skeptical, especially when garageband loops were substituting for actual experimentation (even if one can argue that the very practice is itself inherently innovative — introducing unlikely material, etc.). But they’ve grown on me, big time. Indeed, I’m totally delighted that hip-hop has embraced synths (again, of course, if we remember our history) — so much so that the new Akon & Weezy joint sounds like Vangelis meets Van Halen, or sump’m.

Not to rehash debates about drug determinism, but there is something about these synths that wash over you all MDMA-like — they’re tingly, soothing, effervescent. And of course it helps that the producer of the Ne-Yo track (who did it, btw?) has structured the synth-line to follow a two/three-chord, lilting harmonic progression that feels at once melancholy and uplifting. This seemingly “old school” approach to arrangement — harmony, rly? — takes macro shape at the level of the song’s form, which includes a classic “bridge” (see 3:13) that sets up expectation for the return of the chorus (3:36) and those affective effervesynths. You’re not likely to hear a bridge in hip-hop tracks, but they remain a common compositional device in R&B despite the genre’s “recent” embrace (going on 10-15 years now) of hip-hop’s rhythm-driven aesthetics. (Perhaps it goes without saying that hip-hop has been borrowing more recently from R&B’s harmonic language, oddly enough as filtered through sentimental trance-loops.)

What’s the point of all this? I don’t really have one. I just really dig this song right now and wanted to talk about it and how it relates to contemporary pop aesthetics and affect. And I’m really glad that MTV has made it possible to so easily share hi-qual versions of videos in this way. Although all the distributed, “illegal” labor on YouTube has made it a pretty amazing source for pretty much any audio or video one might seek — especially for indy/alternative/foreign/obscure media — the possibility of takedowns and the varying (but usually low) quality are two major problems with that repository. So I have to welcome MTV’s latest venture, making available high quality video streams from their extensive (and presumably perpetually-licensed) video archive. And even though I bristle at the ever-expanding commodification of our social and cultural lives, I’m heartened by their announcement to partner with MySpace to monetize, rather than penalize, instances where people embed popular music videos on their websites.

As I’m hinting here, at least as important as making them available, MTV has also made these videos spreadable, as Henry Jenkins calls it. Not only is it, rather literally, marvelous to have such a trove of music videos at one’s fingertips, but it’s wonderful to be able embed these rich little things into our increasingly multimedia conversations. Even if we have so little to say (initially) as, I like this, don’t you?

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May 23rd, 2008

linkthink #3954: Areas of Excerptise

videyoga ::

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March 4th, 2008

linkthink #6523: Any Other Chooseday

videyoga ::


January 4th, 2007

Our Specialty

Got a piece in this week’s Phoenix on some recent reissues of classic rhythm&blues and early rock’n’roll c/o the Specialty label. Fans of my Blogariddims mix should note that that’s where I happened upon Percy Mayfield’s “Louisiana.” But, as mentioned in the review, my favorite recording on all the discs is the absolutely unfuckwitable acapella demo version of “Hit the Road Jack,” featuring Papa Mayfield and an unnamed female partner who, as I put it in the article, “holds a darker-than-blue tri-tone on the chorus’s ‘moooooooore’ in a way Ray Charles wouldn’t dare.”

If she were singing to me, I sure as hell wouldn’t come back. (Or would I?)

& dig the doubly deferred rhymes in the second verse! Now that’s fonky.

For my moolah, the Mayfield’s the best of the bunch.

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October 16th, 2006

Slim Pickins

Imagine being asked to open up for an old school hip-hop DJ. Y’know, one of the innovators, the originators, the architects. Pretty good deal, right? An opportunity not to be missed.

Now imagine being given a list of tracks you can’t play. Fair enough, you think. Gotta leave some crowd pleasers and ol’ stand-bys for the big man.

But what if the list looked like the one below (never mind that there are some wack tracks on there)? What you gonna play now, Mr. Hotshot Opener?

B-Boy Traks
1. Mexican – Babe Ruth
2. Big beat – Billy Squire
3. Apache – Bongo band
4. Seven Minutes of Funk – family
5. Mardi gras – Bob James
6. Pump It up – Trouble funk
7. Fusion Beats – Tramp
8. Get up and dance – Freedom
9. Just began – Jimmy Castor
10. Give it up and turn it loose – James Brown
11. Listen to me – Baby Huey

Old Rap/Hip Hop
1. All Tupac songs
2. All Naughty by nature songs
3. Rappers Delight – Sugar hill gang
4. The Adventures of GMF GMF
5. The Message – Grandmaster Flash
6. Planet Rock – Afrika Bambaataa
7. All LL Cool Jay Songs
8. Mic Checka – Das Efx
9. Take it Personal – Gangstarr
10. All Eric B and Rakim Songs
11. It takes 2 – Rob Base
12. Jump Around – House of Pain
13. Time for some action – Redman
14. The choice is yours – Black sheep
15. All Public Enemy songs
16. All Tribe called Quest songs
17. All Krs 1 songs
18. Humpty Dance – Digital underground
19. Ive got the power- Snap
20. All Cypress Hill songs
21. All Run Dmc songs
22. All Dela Soul songs
23. Jam on it – Neucleus
24. Treat Em right – Chubb Rock

Classic (R+B)
1. Im coming out – Diana Ross
2 Got to be real – Cheryl Lynn
3 I cant wait – Nu Shooz
4 More bounce to the ounce – Zapp
5 Genius of love – Tom Tom Club
6 Hot stepper – Ini Kamoze
7 All Michael Jackson songs
8 Groove is in the heart – Deelite
9 Give it to me baby- Rick james
10 Freakout – Chic
11 Knee Deep – Funkadelic
12 All Prince songs
13 We are family – Sister Sledge
14 Toms Diner – Suzanne Vega
15 All night long – Mary Jane Girls
16 Outstanding – Gap band
17 Hold On – En Vogue
18 Before I let go – Maze
19 Bounce rock roll skate – Vaughn Mason
20 Square biz – Teena Marie
21 A Dj saved my life – Indeep
22 Good Times – Chic
23 Another one bites the dust – Queen
24 All Madonna songs
25 All Donna Summer songs

New Rap
1. All 50 Cent
2. Chingy Rite there
3. Magic Stick – Lil Kim
4. Get Low – lil John
5. The Benjamins (all versions)
6. Party and Bullshit – Rah Digga
7. Like a Pimp – David Banner
8. The Jump Off – Lil Kim
9. Do that dance – Baby
10. Back that ass up – Juvenile
11. Bling Bling – BG
12. Pump It up – Joe Buddens
13. Excuse me – Jay Z
14. Roc the mic – Freeway
15. Beautiful – Snoop Dog
16. Vivarin Thing – Q tip
17. All BIG songs
18. Beware – Jay z
19. Never Scarred – Bone Crusher
20. Ante up – MOP
21. Nothin – Nore
22. La La La – Jay z
23. I just wanna – Jay z

New R + B
1. Love like this before ( all versions) Faith Evans
2. All songs by Mary J Blige
3. Frontin – Pharrell
4. Crazy in Love – beyonce
5. This is how we do it – Montell Jordon
6. Neva let you go – Syleena Johnson
7. Only you ( all versions) 112
8. Rock your body – Justin Timberlake
9. Neva Leave you Uh Oh – Lumidee
10. Jenny from the block – Jennifer Lopez

I mean, I can understand calling a few of the anthems, and maybe even locking down the b-boy classics. But all PE songs? All Eric B and Rakim songs? All Tribe Called Quest songs? All B.I.G. songs? Damn. Might as well call “All hip-hop.”

Incidentally, I got the list above from a local DJ (who will remain unnamed) who was recently asked to open for one of hip-hop’s most legendary DJs (who will remain unnamed). When I asked him what that left him with, he said “All B-more!” Good lookin’ on the bright side, yo.

So, what would YOU play?

Cross-posted to the Riddim Method

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I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com


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