The last time I wrote here, I waxed on the subject of Beyoncé's split personality cum business marketing scheme, "Sasha Fierce", a phenomenon which more or less fortified her position as the "flyest chick in the game." It was a tipping point, for sure: a pop cultural moment that influenced a dizzying amount of parodies which bombarded YouTube, press packages that bombarded my TV/phone/computer, and general rage for the artist which bombarded the streets. Besides bringing designer, Thierry Mugler, out of retirement, Beyoncé's return to center stage was actually forcing the early-retirement of many of her contemporaries. R&B songstresses were working harder than ever to top the tour de force that is the "Beyoncé machine," but few succeeded, including her own sister. The paucity of female R&B singers was obvious (and deliberate, mind you), as the release of many of these artists' albums were either being pushed backed, largely ignored or just shelved altogether. Some, however, maintained relevancy but hardly for the music they produced...ahem, RiRi.
It was saddening to know that the Black female perspective in music was narrowed to a single experience, a single voice. Although über-producer Keri Hilson's debut album, In A Perfect World, was an ambitious and successful offering to the R&B canon, she stands as an aberration amidst a sea of sunken (R&B) battle ships.
All this while male MC's and R&B crooners, some new, some old, are (re)appearing in droves (KiD CuDi, Drake, Big Sean, Maxwell, The Dream, Robin Thicke) to seemingly change the course of their respective genres. Collaborating with some of the biggest names in the industry, these male artists easily toy with their personal style, their once baggy jeans now tapered and fitted, while their surprisingly vulnerable canon of work pulls from the likes of Prince, The Pixies, Radiohead, Coldplay, even Peggy Lee. These male entertainers are either given artistic freedom, or merely take it, and breathe new life into their art form, while reaching a broader audience that is hungry for innovation. The female equivalent of this trend could easily be found in the all-girl group, Electrik Red, who drop their debut album this week.
The musical protégées of producer wunderkind, The Dream (the man ironically responsible for the success of I Am...Sasha Fierce), the ladies of Electrik Red don't necessarily debunk the R&B all-girl group formula that The Supremes devised some forty years ago, but rather reinvent its meaning for this cultural moment. Instead of "shooping", Electrik Red is much more prone to growling; instead of singing about "the other woman" that stole "my man", more than likely one of Electrik Red's members is that woman. Not necessarily crass, Electrik Red takes a much more Vanity 6 approach to their music and, well...life. The Dream stands in for Prince in this scenario, maneuvering the sassy quartet to superstardom. He provides the beats, while the ladies of Electrik Red provide the attitude. Bedecked in leather, maxi dresses, and sky-high heels, they sing of escape and fantasy, while The Dream's own celebrity offers them a platform for exposure.
All former back-up dancers for such artists as Ciara and Usher, Naomi Allen, Lesley Lewis, Kyndra "Binkie" Reevey, and Sarah Rosete, are not necessarily impressive vocally, but stylistically, are transgressive.
They ooze sex appeal and attitude, often smiling as they offer prose on sexual conquests, nights of raucous partying, and the general haters that abound when a group of lovely Black women assemble. Although we've heard these stories before, their lyrics are infused with wit and a pointed rawness that make such instances new again; they speak frankly about sex and what they prefer, what they desire, and are quite unapologetic about it all. With several impromptu monologues sprinkled throughout their songs, the ladies of Electrik Red explain their pathos clearly and succinctly: they know due to their provocative appearance they'll be sexualized, but they should never be pathologized because of such. They are admittedly "freaky", but don't call 'em hoes -- they are far, far too smart for that. Hence the album's title.
How To Be A Lady: Vol 1 acts as a manifesto, made up of many chapters, all of which are intent on obscuring previously held ideas of feminine composure. With songs like "Freaky Freaky", "Muah", and "Drank In My Cup", Electrik Red seem to be mixing quick tongues, candidness, and sexuality to extremely rambunctious results. All of the songs feel like the girls are winking at the fellas, while playfully flicking them off. It's their irreverence that will distinguish them and ultimately make them stars.
The album, of course, is decidedly "grown" in tone -- y'know, with anthems so aptly titled, "We Fuck You", Electrik Red is definitely not a group for the Hannah Montana set. Instead Electrik Red is for that woman who is decidedly confident in her sexuality; she is not marked by it, it does not define her, but rather she works to keep it satisfied. The group easily bats around ideas about sexuality and gender with such ditties as these. However, to be fair the message of "We Fuck You" is not necessarily subversive: I mean, telling a man you wield a certain sexual control and power over him still confers power, rather than dismantling those dynamics that rule relationships. But the song can start conversations about women owning their sexuality...whatever that comes to mean for them.
Oh, and did I mention it's all damn fun?! The Dream has done what he does best by crafting a sound for the ladies that is slick and glossy like the pages of a fashion mag. Loads of imagery, color, synth-beats and lithe forms come popping forth much to the listener's amusement. Don't be surprised if you find yourself bopping along, mouthing the words and really believing it as much as the girls do. But the group would be remiss without the R&B slow jam, which the album is chock full of. Not necessarily "ballads," as they are no less smoldering than their higher-tempo anthems, "Devotion", "Go Shawty", and "Blind" seem to suggest a real vulnerability underneath the harder, bawdier exterior of the group. Discussing real love actualized (and lost), the girls speak to an intimacy that leaves you hot and bothered.
Although Electrik Red seemed to have inherited the legacy of EnVogue, TLC, SWV, and most recently, Destiny's Child, I would never suggest they are cut from the same cloth. No, I look to this group as, hopefully, a more innovative turn in R&B female artistry, one that doesn't hold back in person or on wax. Perhaps they'll go over the heads of today's music listeners, but Electrik Red will at least make a necessary dent in a genre whose walls are closing in on itself.