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20 Years Of TLC's 'FanMail': A Futurist Prelude To Digital Era Intimacy

TLC owned the year 1999. FanMail released on this day (Feb. 23), 20 years ago, and made the Atlanta R&B trio the best-selling female group in the United States. The flood of popular R&B acts that emerged during the early 1990s under the banner of New Jack Swing, hip hop soul, and silky slow jams, fizzled out.

Meanwhile, TLC seamlessly evolved as newcomers like Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child emerged on the Billboard charts. On the Grammy-winning Best R&B Album opus, TLC and longtime producer Dallas Austin brought back their radio-friendly hip-hop, R&B and pop anthems empowering women and underdogs, this time with a nod to the digital era.

FanMail, from the sound to the art direction, embodied a timely futuristic aesthetic, as everyone was obsessed with technology’s cultural takeover in the new millennium: remember Y2K hysteria, Napster mp3 file sharing, and the Dot.com boom? On the album's cover, T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye's faces appear as silver-faced avatars floating above an orbit. A code of numbers are printed across the cover, imagery often associated with The Matrix. (Although FanMail dropped a month before the film hit theaters.)

On the title track, listeners are greeted by Vic-E, the everpresent robotic voice narrating the album: “Just like you, they [TLC] get lonely, too." She reassures listeners that fame doesn't stop them from being human. The digitized voice is reminiscent of the “tour guide” on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders. Yet, unlike Tribe, TLC collaborates with the robot, as it contributes background vocals throughout. Austin also sprinkled FanMail with samples of sounds — check “Communicate (Interlude)” and “LoveSick” for examples — he found on the Internet, movies, and devices like printers, he shared with MixOnline.

It was a smart move to modernize, as it had been five years since TLC released its best-selling 1994 album CrazySexyCool. The sultry mix presented a more mature and stripped back follow-up to the colorful, youthful angst of Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip. This five-year gap could have left the group’s fans uninterested, especially if they were releasing in today's fast-paced consumption environment, in which stans demand new releases on social media after only a year or two. But the time away didn’t hinder TLC. Now 10 years in the game, they managed a successful return by dedicating this project to their fanbase.

“Left Eye came up with the title, and we made it come together creatively as a group, along with Dallas Austin,” T-Boz said in their May 1999 VIBE cover story. “It was like, Let’s write and sing one big fan letter. Let’s put fan names on everything – all the singles, the album cover, T-shirts, mugs. Just show our appreciation."

Left Eye also chimed in with a transparent business savvy explanation. “Now we know that the way contracts are set up, it’s not really made for artists to get rich from selling records – that’s the company’s one shot to make money,” she explained. “The artist is supposed to use that as an outlet to do merchandising and other things that we never took advantage of because we were too busy sitting in bankruptcy court trying to get a settlement out of LaFace.”

That part. Although TLC were multi-platinum selling artists up until FanMail, they had faced a public financial battle with their management Pebbitone, Inc. and label, LaFace Records. This caused the delay between their sophomore and third efforts. In 1995, the group, who revealed they were "broke" at the 1996 Grammys, filed for bankruptcy in hopes to break their contract and renegotiate a new deal.

They were $3.5 million dollars in debt and earning an 8 percent royalty rate. In November 1996, they settled with Arista and BMG and LaFace for an 18 percent royalty rate. To add to the drama, there were talks of producer Dallas Austin leaving the project because of back-and-forths with TLC and L.A. Reid over the creative direction of the album, the 1999 VIBE cover story stated. Thankfully, the parties resolved their misunderstandings enough to complete one of the biggest albums of the decade.

On 17 tracks, TLC took on sexuality, insecurities, self-reliance, and vulnerability with resistant messaging, their tried and true winning formula. This energy paved the way for Destiny’s Child’s reign in the 2000s, and the transparency R&B singers like SZA, H.E.R. and Summer Walker carry on today. TLC's defiance gave women of the ‘90s permission to be vocal about the spectrum of their emotions, from their sex drives on “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to revenge cheating on “Creep.” FanMail brought more of those goods.

The most notable “No Scrubs,” also considered pop canon, is a scathing critique on men at bottom of the dating pool. “A scrub is a guy, who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta/ always talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**,” Chilli belts in opening lines. The no. 1 track became such a phenomenon that it inspired the petty male response, “No Pigeons” from Sporty Thievz, their biggest claim to fame. Former Xscape members Kandi Burruss and Tameka Dianne "Tiny" Harris penned it and Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, also behind Destiny’s Child’s no. 1 song “Bills, Bills, Bills,” produced it.

TLC tapped the legendary Hype Williams for the "No Scrubs" visual. Instead of setting the video in a club where scrubs are likely inhabitants, the visual features the trio in outer-space suits floating through a futuristic setting no scrub could ever reach. Most notably Lopes, who in the video does martial arts while a drone films her, manages to keep the digital theme, even when dissing the guys. “Can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me/You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens,” Lopes raps.

The wonky bop “Silly Ho” is another anti-playa anthem, in which TLC proclaim they aren't the kind of women who are scheming for men's pockets. “I can run a scam before he can/ I am better than a man/ I always keep my game all day,” they chant. TLC keeps demanding respect on the choppy “My Life,” their Janet Jackson Control moment, appropriate given their music industry woes.

TLC breaks from jittery beats and Vic-E assisted numbers for alternative pop, on the album’s second no. 1 hit single "Unpretty," which tackles insecurities caused by a toxic partner’s body-shaming. T-Boz deads him by summoning self-love: “Maybe get rid of you/ And then I'll get back to me, yeah.” The track was inspired by a poem T-Boz wrote, Dallas Austin told CNN in 2000. He also spoke on the songs’ folky essence. "I like a lot of alternative music, and when I saw the title, “Unpretty” reminded me of a song somebody like (alternative singer) Ani DiFranco would have (written). I just went at it,” he explained. The crew also gave us sensual beckoning on the mid-tempo groove “Come On Down,” penned by legendary pop songwriter Diane Warren.

The album ends with soulful bop “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,” but it’s “Communication (Interlude)” that feels like the proper conclusion. “There's over a thousand ways/ To communicate in our world today/ And it's a shame/ That we don't connect,” they say in a spoken word that offers a foreshadowing to our present human condition. Loneliness is on the rise, and more screen time and less human interaction are being linked to growing depression among American adolescents. "So if you also feel the need/ For us to come together/ Will you communicate with me?” As technological advancements create the feeling of being in closer proximity to more people's thoughts and happenings, it reminds us that these interactions can be fleeting and one-on-one intimacy with your chosen tribe could never become obsolete.

Although its 1999 original drop date has come and gone, in 2019, FanMail is still a fitting soundtrack for dating in the digital age. Whether they're making their contact through the passenger sides of cars or down in the DMs, the personalities pointed out on the poignant album, are still walking amongst us, messing with our hearts one way or another. FanMail proved that TLC was more in tune with the future than their pop peers, and will more than likely continue to be.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Meet Afro B, The UK Artist Whose Hit Song "Joanna" Put Him Atop The Afrobeats Wave

Afro B is tired. Or at least, he’s got to be with the nearly gap-free schedule that’s been carved out for him this week. It’s a brisk Friday in February, and while he’s chummy upon arrival at VIBE’s Midtown office, the London-raised Afrobeats artist with deep Ivory Coast roots is trying to keep his energy level up.

He hasn’t stopped running around since he landed in New York a day or so ago, already hitting a bevy of popular local radio stations. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the stops he has to make before preparing for his 3 a.m. performance alongside Funkmaster Flex at Brooklyn’s Milk River tonight. Well, tomorrow. Yeah, R.I.P. to that sleep schedule.

But why nap when you’re running off the high of a world finally catching wind and diving into the genre of music he’s long held close to heart? A DJ by trade, the man born Ross Bayeto has always been plucking and curating songs for his listeners to really move to, but now when it’s his own music? Game over.

“I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment,” he says of the rise of Afrobeats music and his rapidly rising place in it. It’s been a full year since his banner song, “Drogba (Joanna),” hit the airwaves, but there’s virtually no way to tell. Based on how fired up the dance floors of the U.S., UK, African countries and beyond get when it comes on, the song hasn’t aged a bit. It still sounds as fresh as when it first rang out in London clubs. Afro B knows better than anyone that there’s no expiration tag on a vibe, especially when the music ignites a new moment every time it reaches a new international border.

“This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting,” he says. “But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. I just have to keep going.”

With “Joanna” under his belt and another potential hit on the way ("Shape Nice," a new collaboration with Vybez Kartel and Dre Skull drops on Feb. 25), it’s now about maintaining that momentum, riding that wave into the next level of his career, and representing the sweet sounds of the culture he loves so much. “If I'm standing for Africa and the culture,” he says, “I need to push what's going on inside it.”

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VIBE: Tell me a little bit about what brings you to New York. Afro B: For 10 years, I've been pushing this Afrobeats genre and African music and the culture. I had a [DJ] residency at a club called NW10 [in London] and they predominantly played dancehall music and R&B. So, it's kind of hard to break free because I only have sets that would last for 5-10 minutes, or two songs in and the crowd's not dancing because they're not used to what I'm playing. As time went on and we're getting big records from Wizkid and stuff, that's when more people warmed up to it, and, yeah I'm here today. I made the transition from the DJ to an artist five years ago. I made the hit “Joanna,” and that's what brought me to this club world, to New York.

Were people hesitant at first when you were like, "okay, I'm not DJing anymore?" Yeah, of course. ‘Cause people are used to me just shutting down the clubs, making it lit inside. But then they're like, "oh why are you making music, why are you leaving this behind?" At first, I was the DJ making music, now I'm the artist that can DJ. Every week I got a rager show. An Afrobeats rager show that's promoting it every Saturday, 11 p.m. until 1 [a.m.].

What made you want to decide to be an artist? Specifically, an Afrobeats artist? When I was growing up I always listened to African music and I used to play keys in church. So, yeah. The typical story. African music has always been in the blood. I've always been proud about being African and just promoting where I'm from. That's definitely the reason.

 

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Following God’s lead that’s all. 🙏🏾🏆🇨🇮

A post shared by Afro B 🇨🇮‪ (@afrob__) on Jan 23, 2019 at 10:53am PST

Can you break down Afrobeats for those who are unfamiliar? It's easy to just say anyone of African descent making similar music is doing Afrobeats, but maybe that's not the case. Can you break down if there are any distinctions surrounding the genre? Sub-genres like Afropop? Afrobeat without the “s”? Right now it's a bit confusing because there's so many elements merged into one thing. You could hear a track and hear like a dancehall melody in there with a hip-hop hook or the straight-authentic African. So, it's hard to pinpoint where exactly it is, but Afrobeats is the name we're giving it. But Afrobeat without the "s" is more traditional, then over time the sound just started to evolve and evolve, now it is what it is today.

Are people open to it being called or labeled Afrobeats? It's mostly the Nigerians that always have a debate on what we should call something. Yeah, most people are familiar with just calling it Afrobeats. I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment. I still call it Afrobeats at the same time. Wave is my thing. That's my brand. Just a wave of what's happening at the moment, the new school kind of African sound.

So who else would you put in the Afrowave category? Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy—Burna Boy bounces from dancehall sometimes. There's a lot of UK artists doing that sound, like mixing rap with Afrobeat melodies and dancehall. There’s an artist called J Hus. Kojo Funds. Yeah, there's so many names, man. And the Ghanaian artists as well. There's even a whole French scene that's crazy as well, but they call it Afrotrap, which is more uptempo. Then you got the Angolans and South Africans that have their house vibes. There's a lot of different angles. We should just call it African music but Afrobeats is what the majority call it, the English speakers call it.

Let's talk about the song I got to know you for: “Joanna.” Or “Drogba.” Who is that? He's an icon from my country, Ivory Coast. He used to be a top soccer player—we say football—who used to play for a team called Chelsea and he had incredible impacts. Everyone from my country just saw him as a hero because you know he was representing us. So, in African music, there can be a lot of shout outs towards different people that are making noise or have a lot of money or whatever. There will be artists that will shout out politicians, footballers, maybe NBA players or just random female names like what I did with Joanna.

Yeah, I was about to say, who is Joanna? What does she have to do with anything? We concentrate more on the vibe than the lyrics. When I was in the studio, I was putting more the melodies first and then picking out the words that I thought I could hear. Joanna's what I picked out. Do you want me to explain the lyrics? So "your busybody" means there's a lot going on. “Your busybody busy tonight/Joanna don't leave me outside. Your busybody giving me life." Yeah, that's it. And then, "how you going to play me like Drogba," and that's kind of a metaphor ‘cause he plays soccer. Don't play me like how he did. Don't play with my feelings, you know what I mean?

Why do you think that now it seems that the U.S. is catching up to songs like “Joanna”? Usually we’re late to the international party. Yeah, I released it this time last year. Last year, I took multiple trips here [to New York], just making the most out of it when I was out here. Pushing the song, going to different shows and just drilling it into people's heads. So amongst the African community here that were bringing me out here, it was popping amongst us. I think now it's gotten to a point they did word of mouth to the mainstream people. And now, yeah, now it's picking up here. It's gotten to a point where it's hitting different territories and then it's fresh there. Then it's just like a brand new song again.

Do you think it's necessary to come in and put in that groundwork? I feel that social media's good, but when they see you in person, it's something else. It's feeding your energy, connecting with you, and just getting a better understanding of what it is. When I was coming up, it was a few people calling it reggae and dancehall and then I had to correct them. "This is Afrobeats," and I was showing them different artists and my other songs so that they get a better understanding of what is.

That seems like your DJ sensibility kicking in, too. Working it into the crowd. You just understand the crowd. Yeah, and then it just builds up from there. And also another thing that helps, I attached a dance challenge to it, mainly on Instagram. That was the #DrogbaChallenge, and the craziest thing is, a lot of people that got involved with the challenge were not African. So I was getting Colombians doing the dance, Indian, Dubai, people from out here [in the U.S.]. That gave me an indication that this tune is actually spreading like wildfire. Let me just keep pushing the challenge to see how far it goes. And even after now, I'm still getting videos of people dancing to the song, so that was like a way to market and make it spread.

Where's the craziest place that you've seen your song or your work appreciated? I think it was at an NBA game. I'm not sure what game it was, but just to see the DJ play it. It was a [Dallas Mavericks] DJ Poizon Ivy that played it. And then she just sent me the video, but I didn't know it at the time. She played it during the break time and just ran the tune. That was a big moment.

What songs do you think paved the way for this global movement that Afrobeats is having? The first one I recall is Dbanj’s collab with Kanye West. That opened doors. I think that Snoop Dogg did a song with Dbanj as well, but that didn't impact as much as the one he did with Kanye. That was called “Oliver Twist.” There’s an artist from the UK called Fuse [ODG], he had more impact in that, the European and the Middle East and the UK as well. So he has songs called “Azonto” and “Antenna.” Obviously, the cosigns from Drake as well with “One Dance,” and I think Beyonce posted a couple clips and had like Afrobeat music in the background. Little things like that are just helping it elevate. And Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You" had some African influences so, that was helping it come from underground to mainstream. Just getting cosigns from the major artists.

What does it feel like when you as an international artist see your music get bigger than where you're from? It's crazy because it's gotten to a point when I'm not surprised a celeb is vibing to the song because people that I grew up listening to are vibing to it as well. So I was like, damn. The other day I received a clip of Trey Songz singing it on the mic, I think he was hosting a club night. Ashanti. It was Cardi B in the background, and her sister was vibing to it. And they're fully posting it on their main page and stuff. 50 Cent's son as well. I use it as an indication to show me that, I should keep pushing it because it could get to a serious level. ‘Cause I think the issue is that they give it a certain time, then they'll just move onto the next song and then they don't let the song that could potentially blow up everywhere enough time to grow. Like I said, [“Joanna”] came out this time last year, I'm still pushing the same song. And I’ve only dropped two songs. Well, two songs with a remix in between. That's it. Add more to the fire.

So you're letting it cook. Because attention spans are so short now, that I think people are scared. But that's what's crazy. This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting. But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. There's large amounts of people, I just have to keep going basically.

Do you think it's necessary to have a cosign? It helps it, it helps speed up the process. It going from underground to mainstream. And it also makes a listener who's not used to the sound warm up to it or accept it. Whereas before if it wasn't cosigned by these people, nothing worked. "What the hell is this?" And then just continue listening to whatever they listen to. So, it is kind of important to get those cosigns from major people or major influences for sure.

 

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@treysongz singing Drogba (Joanna) 🔥🔥 See the joy! This is mad mad mad #AfroWave

A post shared by Afro B 🇨🇮‪ (@afrob__) on Dec 29, 2018 at 2:14am PST

Some Afrobeats songs will be in English, then weave in native language or dialect slang. Do you think there's a way for songs to still have a huge impact globally and really connect without incorporating English? I don't think so, ‘cause I think people need to connect somehow. And I feel that they connect through the lyrics as well as the vibe. The vibe is always there, but if they can understand what's going on, what the artist is saying, what message the artist is trying to send, then they can connect with it more. That's why I feel that “Joanna” works because 95 percent of it is in English. Then there's a bit of Pidgin, a bit of French.

Are there people you'd like to collaborate with down the line, both within the Afrobeats space and then outside of it? Inaudible. Within, I’ve already ticked off who I wanted to collaborate with, which is Wizkid. He did the remix to “Joanna.” Vybez Kartel was in the wish list as well, so, I've ticked that. That's on the way. American-wise: Drake, Swae Lee, Tory Lanez, the melodic people that can add to the vibe. I grew up listening to 50 Cent, Akon. All of the melodic people. I think these days people prefer vibes more than lyrics because right now, there’s a lot of mumble rapping. We don’t know what’s happening, but it sounds lit, innit? Instrumentals are right. Young Thug is an example. He sounds wavy, but we don’t know [what he’s saying].

I looked at your video for your song, “Melanin.” Shout out to you for casting those all those shades of black women. What is it that you love most about the black woman? Everything, man. Everything. I feel like I want to promote them, put them in the forefront, because watching a lot hip-hop videos or whatever, they don't promote the black woman. They'll promote all these models and whatever, Instagram models, but they're not promoting the black African beauty. And if I'm standing for Africa and the culture, I need to push what's going on inside it.

Who do you make your music for? Who do you have in mind when you're creating your music? Everybody. Global. I just want to promote the culture, give them an insight. Shine a good light towards Africa, because I feel like when people think about it, they just think it's poor. If you’ve noticed, for a lot of music videos, they always go to the streets, the projects or whatever, to shoot a video. Like, there's other parts, you know. They always do it. I think the Americans do it the most. I think, "why are you always going there?" Omarion's video, he's in the middle of nowhere, he's in a tribe, and I'm thinking, we're not like that. We're normal people! At the end of the day, everyone's African. We understand each other. The only difference is probably our accents, at times, but you know, there's poor people in America. There's poor people everywhere. We're all the same. But, I don't know, sometimes people think there's a difference between African American and Africans, when that isn't the case. I just wanted to add that, that everyone's one. They should be together. Unity. That's what I stand for.

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Alicia Keys Vibes Out In New "Raise A Man" Music Video

Alicia Keys is getting personal in her music video for her latest single, "Raise a Man." The Bill Kirstein-directed visual was shot in a recording studio with the singer's friends and features the R&B singer's 4-year-old son, Genesis.

"I just dropped something for y'all! I was in the studio and I wanted to VIBEEEEE out!" she wrote on her Instagram post. "My friends were there, my Gen was there!!"

Keys brings viewers into her own little world of her creative process, making us feel just as home as she was in the studio. The music video comes after the release of the single on Feb. 11, after the "If I Ain't Got You" singer hosted the 61st annual Grammy Awards earlier this month. The song appears to be dedicated to Keys' two sons as their faces appear on the song's cover.

On the six-minute single she poses questions about vulnerability. "Is it okay that I'm not independent? Is it okay that I...Is it okay that I show weakness? Is it okay that I..."

The natural beauty's make-up-free skin is front and center in the new visual as her friends and family trickle in later. Watch the video and "catch the vibes" with the bare-faced beauty!

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