20/20 Vision: Lucy Pearl

20/20 Vision returns as Son Raw revisits the R&B supergroup's 2000 full-length.
By    August 11, 2020

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Son Raw’s so glad that it’s not windy

All too often, R&B is Schrödinger’s genre: simultaneously thriving and dead. The case for the upside is obvious; as the ur-genre responsible for Rock & Roll, Soul, Funk, Hip Hop and beyond, with roots in African-American musical traditions dating back to before recorded music, R&B in one form or another, is both the foundation of all contemporary popular music and a vital cultural continuum of the Black experience. Yet in the last decade and a half of the 20th century, it found itself no longer central to the musical discourse: Rock had progressively unshackled itself from its signifiers, while Hip Hop, an upstart genre that owed its very existence to classic R&B records, surpassed it in critical and commercial recognition. This didn’t mean there weren’t fantastic R&B records in the 90’s, but too often it felt as if the genre was playing catch up, either willfully ignoring Hip Hop’s innovations in favor of smooth sophisticated adult music, or reacting to Hip Hop and working on its terms.

By the turn of the millennium however, it seemed as if R&B had (pardon the pun) gotten its groove back by zeroing in on two musical areas Hip Hop was ignoring. On the commercial side, powered by futurists Timbaland and Darkchild, R&B production leapfrogged Hip Hop’s sampler-fueled post-modernism in favor of a digital futurism of shiny electronic pulses, ultra-syncopated rhythms and sexy teen idols performing in state of the art videos. Though it didn’t quite beat Hip Hop to the punch – producers like Mannie Fresh and Swizz Beats were working in similar territory, not to mention Timbaland’s own work with Missy – this MTV-friendly iteration of R&B could be sweeter, sexier and more inviting than Hip Hop at the time when the latter had doubled down on thugged out materialism. Let Juvenile, DMX and Jay-Z be the bad boys, Ginuwine, Usher and Aaliyah were pin ups.

On the flip side, this post-shiny-suit era made room for a genuine alternative, a space for musical styles and signifiers that stood in opposition to the Y2K era’s flash. Defined by Jazz chords, Black consciousness, sophistication and maturity, Neo Soul spent the late 2000s building an audience of adults, raised on Hip Hop’s freewheeling early years, that had been dismayed by the progressive narrowing of mainstream rap’s boundaries. Here, A Tribe Called Quest and Roy Ayers weren’t in opposition, after all one sampled the other and both were on the outside looking in as popular music shifted towards highly digitized soundscapes. So with Hype Williams videos on one side and head wraps and incense on the other, R&B staked out its claims: pop primacy and adult contemporary, with each extreme eyeing the other from afar, yet never meeting. 

Except perhaps, for Lucy Peal. 

A supergroup in the classic rock tradition, drawing its members from previously successful outfits, Lucy Peal was the rare R&B act pop enough to entice the jiggy while still smooth enough to keep the bohemians’ heads nodding. This balance was embedded in the group’s DNA: Raphael Saadiq had made his name as part of Tony, Toni, Toné, an alternative minded R&B group whose wide range of interests, oddball humor and cratedigging aesthetic made them a sort of R&B answer to De La Soul, right down to their “serious” 4th album. His long time friend Ali Shaheed Muhammad meanwhile, was A Tribe Called Quest’s DJ and an integral contributor to the group’s hard drums and jazzy basslines. The final spot was meant to go to D’Angelo, which would have placed the group firmly in Neo Soul camp, but when he backed out due to scheduling conflicts, Saadiq invited an old friend from high school, and a multi-platinum recording artist in her own right, En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson to fill the spot, shifting the balance back towards pop accessibility. Though En Vogue’s best records were just as creative and funny as Tony, Toni, Toné’s, they also had pop hits and mainstream appeal, and Dawn’s vocal presence and songwriting would prove to be an integral part of Lucy Pearl’s success, even as personality clashes would lead to the group’s dissolution.

So let’s tackle the 4-ton elephant in the room. Today, Lucy Pearl are probably best remembered for their spectacular break up, rather than for their sole album. Saadiq was accused of hoarding money. Robinson was tagged with the sexist trope of being “difficult,” a kiss of death coming off the back of a similar split with En Vogue (and that despite Saadiq getting little clap back for his own groups’ breakups). Muhammad was caught between the two, much as he’d been stuck between Q-Tip and Phife only a few years earlier. Gossip folks and Vibe Magazine were enthralled, but truth be told, it’s not a particularly interesting story, just one worth mentioning as yet another example of how the music industry feeds egos and withholds money, to the detriment of Black artists. Given that the revamped lineup featuring Joi went nowhere fast, it’s more interesting to look at Lucy Pearl as a on-off record, because what a record.

Like many, the first time I heard the group was through the video for lead single ‘Dance Tonight,’ a master class in combining sophistication and accessibility. Bouncing between the late 90s video set version of a cramped apartment, to a post-industrial basketball game/jeep ride, to a packed concert equal part rave and disco (complete with glitter ball), the scenery nimbly dodged both the crunchy granola earth tones of Neo Soul and the slickness of pop, mirroring the song’s balance of Hip Hop bounce and 70s soul glamor. Or to put it another way, as a skinny, 16 year old Canadian white kid, I had no hope of pulling off R Kelly’s furs nor D’Angelo’s bare chested sexuality, but I could at least pretend my crew was as cool as Lucy Pearl when we shot hoops at school or played records in my mom’s basement.

The rest of the album’s singles toe a similar line between commercialism and artistry. ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’ snatches disco back from filter House, marrying a Chic-esque bassline to gospel choirs as warped by Funkadelic and Outkast, while B-side ‘Can’t Stand Your Mother’ comes second only to Outkast’s ‘Miss Jackson’ in the anti-mother in law mini genre. Things get dicier with ‘Without You’ is a Saadiq solo groove that found time to twist the knife by showcasing Joi, Dawn Robinson’s replacement in the video (the single didn’t chart). Much more interesting is ‘You’, which makes up for Dawn’s absence with Snoop Dogg & Q-Tip’s guest spots, which could have served as a de-facto partial Tribe reunion had the beat not been so entirely indebted to co-producer Battlecat’s pneumatic G-Funk bounce. 

(And that’s not even counting the noise the group made with their near perfect slate of remixes. Dance Tonight’s Groove Chronicles mix and Don’t Mess With My Man’s Wookie versions are exemplary proto-Dubstep dance tools and Dwele and Phat Katt’s Without You would be the perfect Detroit version, were it not for Jay Dee stripping things down to the drums and the bass on his own superb flip.)

Yet Lucy Pearl works as more than a collection of singles and remixes, it’s a modern soul album that thrives as a skip-free listen, ironically because of the chemistry between Saadiq and Robinson. With Ali Shaheed Muhammad mostly working in the background, it’s the album’s two singers who define the album, with their personalities balancing each other out and complimenting each other’s point of view. In this way, Lucy Pearl’s principle antecedents are Motown era duet albums by Marvin Gaye alongside Tammi Terrell and Dianna Ross. Like those soul era classics, Lucy Pearl is at its best when shifting between different writers and perspectives, offering a fuller, well rounded view of the personal topics covered throughout the record.

All of which adds up to a superb album that dominated radio and TV at the peak of broadcast media, but also one whose cultural impact seems curiously muted in hindsight. To be certain, Dawn’s firing and the group’s subsequent break up took the wind out their sales. While of great interest to the press at the time, replacing Dawn was a foolish idea that would never gain traction, and one that would eventually pushed Muhammad to leave the group as well, cutting the Lucy Pearl story short. Afterwards, all three artists continued to on to varying levels of success: Raphael Saadiq indulged his passion for retro R&B, Dawn reunited with and then left En Vogue, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad mostly worked in a collaborative capacity alongside names like Adrien Young.

Meanwhile, R&B’s jiggy side got jiggier and Neo Soul got weirder, only for both to eventually become sample fodder for a new generation of artists keen to resurrect a moment where R&B started to beat Hip Hop at its own game. Yet there’s no Chixtape Lucy Pearl flip, and no Partynextdoor single or Drake anthem flipping the strings off “Dance Tonight:” Lucy Pearl went from a perfectly balanced pop commodity to a record too popular to be a cratedigger secret but also too overlooked to remain in the public consciousness past its promotional cycle. Still, it’s a personal favorite, an understated slice of brilliance, and a reminder that once you look past an era’s trends and concerns, classic, romantic R&B is always there, and always worth listening to, particularly when it’s a chance meeting of three masters going for a vibe.

Besides, R&B was a major part of music at the turn of the millennium that will get more than one entry in this series. And did you really think I’d be writing about R Kelly?

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