Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ignoring The Hype: Angry Black Women Sing The Breakup Blues

The Good: Interesting concept, Decent voice, Some decent music, "Say My Name."
The Bad: Poor execution of concept/worldview, REPETITIVE!, Overproduced
The Basics: With an interesting, but poorly-executed, concept, The Writing’s On The Wall is a mainstream r&b album with strong female vocals and anti-male message.

I'll admit, I was actually looking forward to listening to Destiny's Child's album The Writing’s On The Wall after almost a decade of putting it off. I wasn't much of a fan of the last single off the album, "Jumpin, Jumpin," when it was released, but I recently heard it on the radio and I was able to listen to it without turning it off. And The Writing’s On The Wall has one of the rare songs I loved and thought deserved to be number one on the pop charts, though it did not quite make it (it did peak on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts). "Say My Name" is possibly the best r&b song I've heard in the past decade. Nothing since it came out has come close. So, I was predisposed toward The Writing’s On The Wall when I began it.

That did not last.

The album opens with a ridiculous track called "The Writing’s On The Wall" wherein the members of Destiny's Child take on Italian Mobster accents and affects to declare that no one ought to be hurt by love. They begin to issue commandments about relationships and there is no way for me to describe how bad an opening this was. I like concept albums. They say something about an artist that is being rapidly lost in the downloading music age. Concept albums are an artist's statement of thematic unity and belief in the album as a medium. I respect that. I've met so many people lately who can't identify the album the tracks they like that they've downloaded are from (and some of them are fairly recognizable - seminal - works by the artists they represent, like The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails) and that has led me to a greater appreciation of artists who are still willing to make concept albums.

The Writing’s On The Wall, the track and the album, is a somewhat ridiculous attempt at that. If the concept is about rules for relationships, one might think that the album would be a celebration of love. No, not in this case. "The Writing’s On The Wall" is an exhortation against all the problems of relationships. Men are almost universally players or cheaters. Commandments that Destiny's Child hand down include "Thou Shall Not Give In To Temptation," "Thou Shall Know When He's Got To Go," etc. But the commandments are almost universally declarations on the problems of men. They cheat, they are cheap, they are inattentive, so these rules are not designed so much to create relationships but rather establish guidelines on how to cut out that man. It's less than charming.

The album, I cannot reiterate this enough, gets off to a bad start with the establishment of the concept. "The Writing’s On The Wall," the track, is a concept so witless one wonders how the recording company allowed it to be executed. Destiny's Child is painted as Italian-style gangsters. Why?!!!!!? Did the hood run out of gangsters?! Why in the world would Destiny's Child take on this ridiculous affect? Does Beyonce Knowles truly think she is Marlon Brando? Yes, I'll say it, gag me! And when one hears such lines as "Thou Shall Move On To The Next," one wonders why they went gangster at all. I mean, shouldn't they be taking on the affect of a god-figure, you know someone who traditionally issues commands? My point here is that the album opens at such a low point that is somewhere between laughable and cringeworthy that the rest of the album can only be better. Destiny's Child wasted a good opportunity to create something unique and impressive here; establish the strength of a woman's gang. Instead, they make a terrible stereotype seem reasonable through their butchery.

The Writing’s On The Wall, the album, then follows as a pretty typical r&b album. This quartet of young women has exceptional voices, when they come through above the overproduced basslines and instrumentals. The album is designed to get the listener moving on most of the tracks. Indeed, "Jumpin, Jumpin" could well be one of the most assembled for movement songs since ""Gonna Make You Sweat." It doesn't make much sense all the time - lyrically it's fairly stupid in the directions it gives - but it does get people moving.

What stands out on the album is the track I was looking forward to coming in. "Say My Name" never became so overplayed as to be tiresome. It has the best lyrics on the album with the pretty direct challenge of "If no one is around you, say "Baby I love you" / If you ain't running game / Say my name." It's pretty simple. If you're having an affair, you can't say my name in front of her. It sounds good, it's got great vocals and the production of the song is not overbearing. It complements the lyrics and story. And the narrator of the song is smart. I like that.

The problem is that after so many lame tracks with men being portrayed as players and cheaters, "Say My Name" almost seems redundant. Actually, it so wonderfully presents itself that it makes the rest of the album seem redundant.

Hearing The Writing’s On The Wall now, one sits in wonder at the marketing department for Columbia Records. "Bug A Boo," one of the most repetitive and nonsensical songs (though "Temptation" with its "Knick-Knack-Paddy-Whack" refrain takes the cake on the latter point) on the album became the first single off the album. How that didn't sink the group is a mystery to me.

Anyway, the result of this is a pretty standard r&b album with a general concept of laying down relationship rules, though most of them revolve around keeping a man in check as opposed to, say, communicating better or actually expressing love. All that keeps this album in even "average" status is the quality of "Say My Name." I suppose one could save money and time and simply seek out the single for that song as opposed to listening to this album.

With 16 tracks, including the ridiculous opener and showboating closing, The Writing’s On The Wall should have been clear for Destiny's Child. A decade later, it's not unclear how they burned out so quickly. The best track - by far - is "Say My Name" and the worst is the first, "The Writing’s On The Wall."

For other R&B or Hip-Hop albums, check out my reviews of:
The Heat - Toni Braxton
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
3D - TLC


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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