In his book Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nature, Mark Anthony Neal entitles a chapter “Some Otha Shit.” In this chapter, Neal discusses the music of Macy Gray, spoken word poet Ursula Rucker and Res. I’m taking a cue from Neal to talk about four current black female music artists who do not simply mix and blend genres in their music. Instead, U.S. artists Res and Santigold and UK artists V.V. Brown and Ebony Bones create new sounds that defy genres and reshape how we think black women should make music. Of course, there are many others who have embraced this shapeless music landscape, but these four have created devoted fan bases over the past few years and will be seen as carriers of the torch for punk, neo-soul and rock foremothers as well as foremothers in their own right in changing the music scene during the beginning of this millennium. In fact, these women have a decidedly punk mentality but with more attention to musicality than their 70s forerunners.
It’s 2001. Most R&B, hip-hop heads have become familiar with the distinct rat-a-tat of Questlove’s drumming. A good drum roll can be just the right announcement and make just the right impression if done properly. Well, Questlove wasn’t behind one of the most awesome drum rolls of that year. Instead, this distinction belongs to session drummer Chuck Treese who introduced us to Res on the opening track of her album How I Do.
“Golden Boys” sounds like nothing else out at the time. It departed from neo-soul. It departed from hip-hop soul. It departed from “traditional” or popular R&B. It truly stood out from anything else on the music scene at the time. Interestingly, for me, I distinctly remember “They-Say Vision” as the first song I heard by Res to know it was her, but when I bought How I Do, I felt as if I had already heard “Golden Boys” with its awesome drumming, knockout chorus and no-nonsense lyrics. Unfortunately, it took me a while to warm up to her album. It was too “out there.”
But the thing is, something kept drawing me back to that album every once in a while. I constantly got the urge to listen to it. I kept telling myself that it needed to be more rock with that edge I heard in “They-Say Vision” and the hidden track “Say It Anyway.” What I came to realize is that How I Do is great as it is. It has such a fluid, non-genre conforming sound with Res’ unique voice and original lyrics. Different people have different faves off this one including “Ice King” and “700 Mile Situation,” recognizing that Res is definitely on her own thing.
Unfortunately, How I Do didn’t give Res the full recognition she deserved even though she has managed to build a loyal fan base. As part of that base, I kept a lookout for her work. I found she had taken to the Internet in the interim between How I Do in 2001 and her latest project, the 2013 EP Refried Mac. I found her self-released second album Black.Girls.Rock!, A Box of Chocolates and her side project Idle Warship’s album Party Robot. With all these projects, Res still has the uniqueness that made How I Do a classic if an unheralded one. Fortunately, with Refried Mac, Res has shown that she still defies genres and does music on her own terms.
Retro soul became a thing in the early part of the millennium. Artists like Amy Winehouse capitalized on it most successfully with music straight from the 60s underscoring deliciously contemporary lyrics that would have never passed the censors 50 years ago. Groups like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings did more than just emulate the style: they recorded the same way albums were recorded during that time. Even Imani Coppola embraced retro soul during her time with Little Jackie in her bid to make the mainstream finally notice her.
However, many people may not recognize V.V. Brown as part of the whole retro soul moment. Yet her debut album Travelling Like the Light is not only distinctly British but also includes the familiar sound of 60s girl groups and late 50s/early 60s Motown. Her single “Crying Blood” has that characteristic of a deceptively bouncy tune coloring lyrics of heartache of the worst kind. Things get a little happier with “L.O.V.E.” and “Crazy Amazing,” but “Travelling Like the Light” has its poignancy with its 60s soul, doo wop background.
Yet, the song that gave V.V. the most recognition has a decidedly more contemporary feel. Yes, I used to watch Degrassi: The Next Generation. Yes, I first heard “Shark in the Water” on a regular basis because of the show. “Shark in the Water” was used rather effectively for show promos as Degrassi changed its direction to accommodate a new cast and V.V. finally had a tie-in that could give her much deserved recognition.
While Travelling Like the Light was released in 2010, V.V.’s next effort Samson and Delilah was released in 2013. Saying it was a departure from the retro soul of her debut is most definitely an understatement. Samson and Delilah has a much more experimental feel. Even V.V.’s vocals have changed. While the first release has a light tone because of the music, the second carries dark undertones throughout with ominous instrumentation and lyrics.
Yet, it all comes together in the same way that album oriented rock did in the 70s. V.V. even put together two singles from the album to create a short film. “Samson” leads into “The Apple” for the short film “Samson and Delilah,” the theme that runs throughout the album. Through the dark sound, a feeling of dreaminess with V.V.’s haunting vocals creates a unique sound that captures longing and frustration. Furthermore, Samson and Delilah puts her in the same class of artists like Res, Ebony Bones and Santigold who give the finger to genre and form to come up with music that transcends milieu and makes itself at home wherever music lovers are.
“My Drive Thru” is one of my favorite summer songs. It has all the elements that makes N.E.R.D. one of the most musically interesting groups from the early millennium. Those of us who remember the debut album with busy but fun music and subpar vocals from Pharrell. I may not have expected much different from “My Drive Thru,” but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. You see Pharrell only performs the first verse. He wisely leaves the rest to Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and Santigold.
Santigold’s voice stands out not just because she is the woman among two men. Her voice has a uniqueness that makes her recognizable among a near assembly-line of R&B and pop vocalists. She does not have the punk screech or the trip-hop whisper, but she possesses a vocal style that makes it easy for her to cross genres, mix them and create albums that say eff you to all expectations. During the early 2000s, she was the lead vocalists of a punk group out of Philadelphia called Stiffed with the group releasing Sex Sells in 2003 and Burned Again in 2005 before she was offered a solo deal.
While some critics fail to acknowledge the rock influence in her work, Santigold’s 2008 first studio album, then the self-titled Santogold, can be traced back to new wave rock of the early 80s with tracks such as “You’ll Find a Way” and “Say Aha.” The reggae and electronica influence is also prominent throughout the album, making it a mash-up of styles that somehow all comes together in one coherent work. Apparently, she stayed busy that year, releasing the mixtape Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub during the summer.
Still, Santigold didn’t release her second studio album, Master of My Make-Believe, until 2012. Even though the album contains some of the same influences of dub step, dance and electronica, it still departed from the debut album in style and form. “Big Mouth” can never die as a club banger along with “Look at These Hoes.” New wave also found its way back into Santigold’s repertoire with “The Keepers.”
Santigold works on her own music, but, not surprisingly, she also has ties to others besides Pharrell Williams who step outside the carefully drawn lines of musical boundaries. Long before she released her first album, Santigold collaborated with Res, co-writing much of her album How I Do, which explains any similarities in their free styles. She also draws comparisons to rapper M.I.A. (with whom she has toured and collaborated) for her vocal style. However, Santigold also plays a number of instruments including drums, guitar and keyboards.
The Emerald City fanfare from The Wiz. What better way to announce yourself with something so familiar? This is what Ebony Bones did with a track off her self-titled debut “We Know All About You.” Unfortunately, it would be a while before Americans could get to know Ebony Bones since her 2009 debut was not released outside of Japan for some time. However, I came across her a couple of years ago via AfroPunk.
What I found was someone with an intentionally eclectic look but also a sound that defied genre and convention. And it was all so fun. The announcement “This is the sound of Ebony Bones” may sound like a threat when it introduces “W.A.R.R.I.O.R.” but it only gives a hint of what she had in store for newfound fans. As fun as she looks and sounds, Ebony Bones comes hard.
“W.A.R.R.I.O.R.” bookends the first and second album. When she released Behold, a Pale Horse in 2013, Ebony included the song as a bonus track at the end of the album. She also took a step further into the uncategorizable with the album that blends electronica with pop and other influences even including the New London Children’s Choir in “What Difference Does It Make.”
Interestingly, Behold, a Pale Horse has a darker tone than the self-titled debut that even made a song about frenemies, “Smiles & Cyanide,” sound like a skip through the park. Seriously, “Don’t Fart on My Heart” is a club banger, but tracks from the second album like “Neu World Blues” and “Morphine for the Masses” take much darker tones. But it all fits together. Few artists can take a left turn in their styles and still manage to come up with something that completely sounds like them. Just goes to show that Ebony has an incredible range and can do whatever she wants when it comes to her music.
Neither Res, V.V. Brown, Santigold nor Ebony may consider themselves punk, but they definitely have that defiance and free spirit that truly drives punk. What’s more punk than doing exactly what you want even if it means shattering concepts of boxes, genres and other categories? Perhaps this new Internet age will be kinder to artists such as these who have a chance to take advantage of the fragments everything has become and find those who also defy expectations of what they “should” listen to. With Res, V.V. Brown, Santigold and Ebony Brown, carefree black girls have a soundtrack for our lives and representations we may not have seen consistently as we grew up.