Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Whatever Happened to Dionne Farris?

Maybe it was only a feeding frenzy after all. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Anytime an artist sidesteps formula and hits upon a winner along comes the deluge, the signing shitstorm that starts off promising but ends up with diminished returns, Shabba Ranks leading to Snow, Pearl Jam leading to effluvia like Creed. But this movement was something else. I didn’t believe it myself. Back in the mid nineties you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a brilliant black female musician.

The sheer number was staggering: Ambersunshower, Carleen Anderson, Jhelisa, Davina, Amil Larrieux, Sha-Key, 99, Meshell NdegeOcello, DK Dyson, Nicole Renee, Cherokee, Julie Dexter, Erykah Badu, Ndambi, Angel, Joi, Joi Cardwell, Janice Robinson, Skin, Res, Sandra St.Victor, N’Dea Davenport, Jazzyfatnastees, Kira, Des’Ree, D-Influence and Caron Wheeler. Neneh Cherry had just released Homebrew, a stunning new direction for hip-hop that showed you could be a blues-heavy world-wise funky mother of two and still wear no panties if you wish. This was the glory days of Vibe magazine under Jonathan Van Meter, where every week they seemed to dig up brand new funky thing. Like the so-called black wave of film directors (remember that NY times cover?) this wave of unclassifiable black women talked like a revolution, artists who were neither divas nor garden tools and who weren’t afraid of taking their minds to the dance floor. Dionne Farris in particular was championed by the magazine. Late of critical darlings Arrested Development and ready to take on the planet, she had even a better album than her former group.

But ten years later, Beyonce and dark-side-of-the-force clone Rihanna is as good a R&B gets. Missy Elliot, our last dependable funk-freak has become predictable, Meshell has left R&B for jazz wankery, and everybody has all but disappeared. Worse the standard for intelligent black pop has lowered considerably, excusing the hippy-dippiness of Jill Scott, the abysmal lyrics of Alicia Keys and the overbearing sentimentality of India. Arie, a woman whose lifetime channel wisdom is unleavened only by her considerable hubris.

But back then, when Dionne Farris slayed us with her first single I Know, we knew not only that revolution was coming but that it was going to start in the bedroom first. Her album, Wild Seed, Wild Flower was The Love Below of its time, with a little Prince, a little Betty Davis and a little Bill withers thrown in for good measure. Hot Southern soul that wasn’t afraid to rock out, as she did on Passion. Hell, she became the second woman (Neneh was the first) to take a Lenny Kravitz sample and come up with a better song, her blistering Stop To Think. And if that wasn’t enough she snatched her own hit single back, stripped I Know to its acoustic core and let it loose in the Mississippi Delta. Wild Seed, Wildflower was a near perfect album, inexplicable as it was irresistible. Farris and black female artists in general seemed on the verge of making a major statement. Then she disappeared. Fourteen years later “I’m not my hair” is as profound as some black women get. What happened?

And attack of the black, that’s what.

Not long after Wild Seed, Wild Flower, Farris, along with co-writer Van Hunt (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog) contributed a song to the Love Jones soundtrack, Hopeless, a single whose fortune was anything but. The record became an R&B smash. Still warm and gorgeous now nearly ten years since it first came out Hopeless also sealed Dionne Farris’s fate. Suddenly the powers that were sought to make an R&B diva out of her. Give us more of this they “asked.” And throw in some ghetto love, baby mama drama, some tracks we can play on BET Midnight Love, and something with a big ole space so we put Biggie Smalls smack in the middle of it. By the way, ditch the guitar, only lesbians play guitar. Okay maybe they didn’t say any of that. Instead they did much worse. Farris refused to compromise and asked to be let out of her contract. She went home, raised her kids, picked up carpentry and vanished. Some of her fans even believed she was dead.

Synchronicity can be a bitch, of course, for it seems a similar fate happened to the whole wave of black women who rose up around the same time. Nicole Renee is still MIA, presumably without a record deal, a shame for a woman who sounded like Prince and looked like Sheila E. Joi got picked up and ditched again, despite committing no sin other than making the female Stankonia. Twice. Meshell traded pop for jazz, but confused elliptical with boring. Sandra St. Victor took so long to rise that her music suffered from datedness. The list goes on and it only gets more depressing. Then you have the tragic case of diminished returns. Women like Alicia Keys, Arie and Scott being praised not for what they are (clichéd musicians and terrible lyricists) but what they're not, another round of producer controlled bimbos. Ironically, Janet Jackson for all her flaws has still delivered more gut truths than all these "artistes" combined. Not one of these women or anybody else in neo-soul for that matter has contributed a single new idea to music. Erykah Badu has, but she's a hip-hop artist who's been fooling herself.

Thankfully that’s not the final story. Erykah Badu’s “Healer” has sparked an online sensation not seen since, well “On and On” and word is her new album, New Amerykah, is the masterpiece she almost made with Worldwide Underground (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog). Best of all, Dionne Farris is finally back with a new album this year. The title? Signs of Life.