A For-the-Ladies Slow-Jam Report Card
Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, he's had kisses that made Judas seem sincere
For its first six tracks, Release Therapy is a pretty good album, full of the sort of buzz-clomper beats Ludacris was wrecking back on Back for the First Time. Luda's punchlines aren't landing with the same delirious relentlessness as they once were, but his snarlbark is still one of the best voices in rap, and he does great things with it. But on track seven of Release Therapy, Luda throws off all the momentum he'd built up over the album's first half by talking a bunch of awkward, boring sex-talk over a bullshit quiet-storm acoustic-guitar windchime beat and letting anonymous R&B lackey Bobby Valentino handle the hook, and it's terrible. He follows it up immediately with "Woozy," another awful attempt at a pillowy sex-jam, this time with R. Kelly, who isn't anonymous but who might as well be on this song. And the album immediately falls apart, diluting its rants with halfassed attempts at social consciousness and fake gospel. And the worst part is we knew it was coming. Virtually every commercial rap album of the last couple of years has followed a connect-the-dots blueprint. Rappers rarely stick with their strengths; instead, they cover their bases: the hard battle-rap song, the club song, the for-the-ladies song. It's a schizophrenic approach, since it requires every rapper to play a different character on every song and thus prevents any real relatable persona from emerging over the album's course. Rappers think they're showing their versatility by switching their styles up, but they're really doing away with their own repeat-play value by trying to be all things to all people, and that may have more than anything else to do with rap albums' current and catastrophic sales decline.
The worst of the obligatory cookie-cutter song-categories is generally the for-the-ladies song. In theory, it's a really great idea, easing up on all the nihilistic violence for a second and reminding everyone that you're human, opening up, showing your tender side. Ideally, it's the rap equivalent of the 80s-metal power ballad. But it hardly ever works that way. More often, it just gives the rapper a chance to use his talking-on-the-phone voice over the weepy tinkly mush, which doesn't even make sense since most girls I know like to dance and you can't dance to that shit. The best rappers figure out ways to have fun with it, displaying something approaching humanity and using beats that don't utterly evaporate the second they hit your ear. The best for-the-ladies rap song of the year, paradoxically enough, isn't on any album; it's Cam'ron's "Weekend Love," and it's a fizzily pretty and playful slice of summertime nostalgia that never forces sentiment where it doesn't belong. Cam lazily flirts with a girl he used to know, and he doesn't resort to nasty back-of-the-truck sex-threats or bullshit claims of undying devotion; he just lets the girl know he likes her. Kelefa Sanneh wrote an article for the Times a while ago about how "Weekend Love" could've been the rap jam of the summer if anyone had ever thought to release it as a single. I'm not convinced, since no one these days can ever accurately predict what's actually going to catch on, but I do agree that it would've sounded good seeping out of boomboxes and across blacktops. If more rappers did it like this, the for-the-ladies song might actually be something to look forward to. But they don't. So here's a fairly random list of a few of this year's rap albums' for-the-ladies song and where they score next to "Weekend Love." A lot of these albums had more than one of these songs, so I just picked one and said fuck it.
Chingy feat. Tyrese: "Pullin' Me Back." Chingy can't rap his way out of a styrofoam takeout tray, and dudes hate him, so these days he's mostly sticking with the treacly for-the-ladies songs, even though his few tolerable moments ("Holidae Inn," Houston's "I Like Dat," the Zone 4 remix of Mya's "Fallen") have all been uptempo club tracks. This one is his heartfelt story of how he had to leave a girl because she didn't understand that he's a big rap star and so he just happens to attract tons of women and he can't understand how that could possibly bother her. He thinks about going back to her but then doesn't, and he ends up basically sounding like an asshole chump. Tyrese coos an anonymous hook over music-box tings, and the whole thing couldn't possibly be more generic or boring. Somehow, this has been a pretty big hit single over the last couple of months, but that hasn't translated to albums sold. Chingy's new single, which replaces Tyrese with Jermaine Dupri, is a little better, but I don't anticipate hearing it too many times. D
Field Mob feat. Ciara: "So What." For-the-ladies songs tend to sound better if the songs move, and this one does: airy sonar blips, understated synth wobbles, a sleepily murmured Ciara hook. The Field Mob guys do their best to convince a girl that they're actually good guys despite what all her friends tell her. And yes, they've been to jail, but her friends don't want her to believe that they'll be there for her, that they're more than their images; its the sort of stuff that actual people might say in an actual conversation, and it connects the song to a grand tradition of he's-no-good-or-is-he? girl-group songs ("Leader of the Pack," "Out in the Streets"). On other tracks, the Field Mob guys can rely too much on awkwardly constructed punchline-rap and utterly preposterous gun-talk, but here their loony voice wobbles fit the track's pretty glide and slide in right next to Ciara's sad croon. If this song didn't have one of Jazze Pha's unbelievably irritating "Phizzle-Phizzle-Phizzle" intros, it might be a B+, but it has one, so it's a B.
Ghostface feat. Ne-Yo: "Back Like That." Ghostface's attempts at for-the-ladies songs always feel a bit weird and awkward, since most girls are never going to buy a Ghostface album no matter how many R&B singers might be on it and because he did an awfully convincing impression of someone who hates women on the first verse of his first album's second song. But he always approaches the songs with a sort of warm openheartedness; he does, after all, love 70s soul music, woozy melodies and all, and this song has a lot more to do with that lineage than a hallucinatory banger like "Shaky Dog" does. On this song, he's mad at a girl for cheating on him with someone he hates. He'd understand if it was someone else, but he just really hates that guy. So he kicks her out and takes all his stuff back, and he says he'll cut her finger off if his ring is stuck on it too tight. It's hard to figure out who's supposed to fall in love with him based on that sentiment. Method Man said in a few interviews that this song did more for Ne-Yo than it did for Ghost, and that might be true, but he didn't mention that Ne-Yo's bridge is the best thing about the song. B-
Juvenile feat. Brian McKnight: "Addicted." It sounds like any other buttery slow-jam (liquid guitars, electric pianos, virtually no beat), but it's totally counterintuitive. Juvenile doesn't even rap on the song; he just talks. He tells his girl that he doesn't care if she cheats so she shouldn't care if he cheats; they're just fucking and that's it: "So what you got my name tattooed on ya body? I ain't tell you to go do that!" And then he brings in Brian McKnight to croon all sweetly, but here's what he's saying: "This isn't love / You're just addicted to what the dick did." Romantic! It's a fascinating song, but fascinating doesn't mean good. C-
Rick Ross feat. Rodney: "Hit U From the Back." This one pretty much encapsulates everything that's wrong with the whole for-the-ladies enterprise. "Hit U" doesn't show another side of Rick Ross; it just shows that he's as stupid and disgusting as you already thought he was, and it does it without the sweeping disco-pulse production that makes the rest of the album pretty good. Instead, we get the standard guitar whooshes and barely-there drums, and some guy named Rodney chirps the song title over and over and calls it a hook. Rick Ross, who is absolutely no one's idea of a sex symbol, raps about how this girl was really into him because he had money and so he fucked her: "Baby girl, take some advice / And come and fuck ya boy tonight." Hurk. F-
T.I.: "Why You Wanna." In concept, it's not that different from the Rick Ross song: T.I. talks to a girl with a lame-ass boyfriend and tries to convince her that she should fuck him instead, not exactly revolutionary material. But he's light at easy with the compliments: "What, he think he too fresh to show you that you the best? / Compliment you on ya intellect and treat you with respect?" He says that right after telling her he'll make it feel it in her chest, and the nasty sex-talk and faux-romantic flourishes kind of cancel each other out; like Cam'ron, he's pretty much just telling a girl he likes her. And like Cam'ron, he doesn't need an R&B singer to deliver his hook for him, mumbling an old Q-Tip bit over gorgeously disco Crystal Waters organ-purrs. He makes it sound easy, and that's exactly how it should be. A-