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Normani, Megan Thee Stallion and SZA refuse to be put in a box. The trio who cover Rolling Stone magazine's March 2020 issue, sat down with the publication for "The First Time," a video series where they discussed some of the challenges faced by Black women in music.
“We’re multifaceted, period. As a diaspora and then as a gender so it’s kinda coming in and not being pigeonholed to one space,” SZA said using Megan and Normani’s creative eclecticism as examples. She added that Black female musicians are essentially told by the industry, “Let me tell you exactly how we see you and you can take it from there.’”
“And they try to push that perception on you,” added Normani. “To put that cap on me and to restrict me from the fullest of my capacity. Me [not] being able to explore that just doesn’t seem fair.”
Megan noted that being a Black female artist is about “overcoming being put in a box.”
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we been shaping the future @rollingstone happy black history month
The interview also features Meg, SZA and Normani sharing stories about the first time that they felt like they officially “made it,” and more.
Watch the full video below.
In February 1990, three R&B underdogs dropped a chart-topping debut single that would be more than just their signature hit—it would become a harbinger for a new style and approach as a new decade dawned. Bell Biv DeVoe may have been unlikely trailblazers, but Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe’s classic first single charted a new course for R&B and set the stage for where the genre was heading in the 1990s.
Most R&B fans know the history: fresh off the heels of their bestselling album, New Edition’s members were looking to do other things. Former member Bobby Brown had become a solo superstar, and with the former teen act at a bit of a crossroads following the success of 1988’s Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced Heart Break, lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill were eying their individual projects.
On the suggestion of Jam & Lewis, Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe decided to form a trio. If New Edition was going on hiatus for Tresvant to start his solo career in earnest (as Gill refocused on his own new album with former MCA head Jheryl Busby over at Motown), why not try to do their own thing? Bivins had been brimming with ideas and was eager to try them out in a new format.
Of course, no one was expecting much from the three former New Edition members who’d famously stayed in the background for much of that group’s tenure. Rapper/producer Kwame ghostwrote some of the raps in “Poison,” and he admitted that he wasn’t impressed with the idea of Bell Biv DeVoe as a group—or their soon-to-be-hit.
“The lyrics that ended up making the record were [Ronnie Devoe’s] rhyme,” Kwame would tell Hip-Hop Wired in 2015. “I was hanging out with Mike Bivins. It was me, Mike Bivins and Dana Dane, we were going to a club, somewhere. And [Bivins] put in a tape of the demo of ‘Poison.’ No disrespect, I love the record now, but when I heard the demo I swore it was the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”
“I was like, Y’all gonna put this out? He was like, Yeah man, me, Ronnie and Rick, we going to do a group called BBD. [I’m like], Who wanna see y’all three? I wanna see New Edition! All this breaking up, Bobby solo, Ralph doing his thing, now y’all…what happened to New Edition?!”
BBD’s sound and image was going for something harder than what New Edition or even Bobby Brown had done up to that point. Eschewing the tailored suits and dapper presentation of most 80s R&B, this act was going to set a new blueprint for R&B style with hip-hop swagger.
"The kind of style we were groomed into from our early days had this Temptations, Jacksons, Blue Magic kind of feel. That was what caught us, that whole kind of flavor,” Bell explained to the Baltimore Sun in 1990. But in teaming with producers like Dr. Freeze and hip-house duo Wolf & Epic, they guaranteed that their sound wouldn’t retread what had worked in new jack swing--it would be something unique. "We just figured we'd go in the studio and do what we've been wanting to do all along, the kind of music that we've been listening to," Bell shared. "When we'd go hang out at the clubs or whatever, that's what was happening. We were just into that.
“We wanted that hip-hop flavor, but we wanted to kind of smooth it out. We figured we'd put some harmonies, some melodies over and that would kind of smooth the whole thing out.”
Hitmakers like L.A. & Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis had dominated the R&B charts during the late 1980s, as new jack swing took over airwaves and dance floors with an infectious blend of tuneful R&B and hip-hop beats. BBD’s manager Hiriam Hicks knew about an up-and-coming producer named Elliot Straite, who went by the name Dr. Freeze. Hicks tapped Freeze for the BBD project, which by then already featured big names like The Bomb Squad.
In a 2016 interview with Red Bull Academy, producer Dr. Freeze said the song’s lyrics were personal for him—even before he had a song to put the words to. “It wasn’t a song at first,” Freeze said. “It was a letter. When I wrote it as a song, I let a lot of my friends hear it, and they said it was weird.”
Freeze’s beat featured a sample of hardcore rhymer Kool G Rap’s hit “Poison” as the hook, and when paired with the group’s image, it helped reintroduce BBD as something more than just “the other guys” in New Edition. Almost immediately, the trio was rebranded as something fresh and exciting. And they had a name for their unique sound and look: “mental.”
"Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it,” Bell would continuously explain. “We want to be the first to express this kind of music. We knew what we wanted to do."
The group would work with hip-hop powerhouses like the aforementioned Bomb Squad and superproducer Marley Marl, setting the table for hip-hop producers to tackle R&B projects. With the notable exception of Teddy Riley, the idea that hip-hop producers crafting R&B tracks was still novel in 1990, but over the next ten years, hip-hop heavyweights from Jermaine Dupri to Kay Gee to Timbaland would produce some of the biggest R&B records of the decade.
"We listened to Public Enemy's stuff and we were just amazed," Bell said at the time. "We just thought, 'Damn! Imagine us doing something like that.' Because we always think 'Why not?' We always ask that question. A lot of artists don't. So we'll just do anything, just go with our feelings. And that's usually what works best for us."
Bell Biv DeVoe’s uniquely “Mental” approach would prove wildly influential. Even in the new jack swing era, R&B acts mostly marketed themselves in the sophisticated, urbane mold of Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, and Freddie Jackson. BBD’s former New Edition cohort Bobby Brown had done much to shift the image of the contemporary R&B singer to something much more brazen and aggressive, but even his smash 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel featured mostly slick, romantic R&B/pop. With “Poison”s thumping beat and “never trust a big butt and a smile” refrain, it announced a brash new approach to R&B that would come to define the genre in the 1990s. When one considers the hip-hop-drenched look and attitude of everyone from Jodeci to Usher, Bell Biv DeVoe and “Poison” represent a seismic shift.
“The engine for Bell Biv DeVoe was Michael Bivins,” Shocklee explained in 2015. “He had a vision for the group. New Edition was all about wearing suits and dressing upscale. Michael brought it back to the street realm. They really brought out the hip hop element by wearing Timberland boots and sagging pants. This is what gave the group their visual look.”
Thirty years later, it may be easy to take “Poison” and BBD for granted. It’s the kind of dance floor classic that becomes ubiquitous at family reunions and wedding receptions. But the last three decades have proven its staying power—and its lasting influence. Nobody may be calling it “mental” anymore, but it’s still pretty damn cool. In 1990, nobody would’ve predicted this song would be this influential. Or this timeless. It made stars out of a trio of backup singers. Not a bad look for “the other guys.”
How do you move forward when you’re already one of the greatest of all time? In rappers’ circles, a 20-year career has seen Royce Da 5’9” considered one of the best MCs on earth. His witty punchlines, versatile flows and irreverent sense of humor have seen him compete with the likes of Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar, his former Slaughterhouse groupmates, and his longtime friend Marshall Mathers. “Eminem himself will tell you I'm the only ni**a livin' that done ever spanked him on the same record with him,” he pointedly rapped once. In recent years, he’s added a personal tone to his music, using songs like “Cocaine” and “Boblo Boat” to grapple with his family history of substance abuse and incarceration while conquering his own alcoholism and infidelity.
Now, after introducing listeners to his lineage, Royce is using his new album The Allegory to continue his artistic progression. His first two singles are more sociopolitical, lines that he isn’t known for drawing in his music: “Field Negro” chastises uppity blacks for forgetting their roots, while “Black Savage” calls on T.I., CyHi Da Prynce, and Sy Ari Da Kid to unite for an anthem against white oppression. The latter was chosen for the Jay-Z-led Inspire Change initiative with the NFL. And the third single, “Overcome” with Westside Gunn, features a music video that tells a “fictional” version of the story of 6ix9ine’s gang affiliation and his infamous testifying on the stand. “I hate when rappers get a mic in front of them and somebody asks them about something that affects us socially, and they write it off,” Royce said while visiting VIBE’s office in Times Square. “... I think with as much emphasis as we put, there’s certain rules that you’re supposed to be tapped into the hood. Just as much as you go out of your way to be tapped into the hood, you need to be tapped into us.”
There’s also one other detail: after a career working with legends like DJ Premier, Bink! and The Alchemist, Royce has decided to make his own beats this time around. He even landed a production credits on Eminem’s new surprise album Music To Be Murdered By, to go along with his trio of guest verses. “I call it rabbit hole behavior – I just start practicing a whole lot, just like I do anything else if I’m interested,” Royce shared. “...I didn’t set out to produce the whole album, it just happened that way.”
In a conversation with VIBE, Royce Da 5’9” talks about the importance of keeping up with your community, a musical lesson from T.I., and why he doesn’t care if he makes a wack beat.
VIBE: On your last two solos, Layers and Book of Ryan, you shared more of your personal life than ever before. After sharing that much, where do you go next creatively?
Royce Da 5’9”: I’m definitely taking my time. I don’t always know what I want to do, but it’s pretty easy for me to look at what I don’t want to do, and rule that out. I just create and try not to think too much. The important thing for me was, when I did do the super personal thing, when it was about myself, to make sure that I really did it thoroughly. Did it in a way where people get it. And also, I’m presenting the people in my life in a respectful, positive way, but truthful, honest way. From there, it’s just taking in as much information as I can and just talking about the way that I see the world. Whatever inspires overrules.
You said that you ruled out what you didn’t want to do. What did you not want to do?
I don’t want to look like I’m an artist that’s doing this as some type of job. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just don’t want to do it. I’m not an employee of the people; I don’t make music for people. That’s not my job, that’s not what I’m here to do. I think some people can do that, but in my mind, that’s crazy. I express myself through the art as a coping mechanism most of the time. I look at it as putting paint on a canvas and hanging it up. You’re more than welcome to come by look at it, but if you don’t, that’s fine. And then when I’m leaving, I’m taking it home with me so I can look at it for memories. Whatever that feeling is, money won’t give me that feeling.
Between “Field Negro” and “Black Savage,” both songs have a more conscious, sociopolitical slant. People don’t associate that with you.
I like “conscious” better than political. I think we separate those a little bit. I’m very conscious. I’m not very politically-inclined, but a lot of things that people associate as political are important to me. I don’t care who the president is. I don’t care about that type of sh*t. But I do care about the way that some of the things that happen on a higher level of government affect us in our community. So I’m very conscious of our people, and I’m very conscious of artists having a platform and understanding how important that is and understanding how important it is to be connected to us and how we need to take care of each other first. Then we’ll be able to take care of everybody. I’m conscious of that. But I’m not trying to run for senator in ten years. I don’t have any aspirations of being president or a political activist. But as I get older, the things that I say begin to get more important.
A lot of artists have their feelings on issues like that, but they completely separate them from their music. What made you decide to integrate it into your music?
Everything I’ve made has always been a reflection to what I’m doing at the time, who I am at the time. As black men especially, our perspective changes so much. I don’t know exactly what did it, but I know I hate when rappers get a mic in front of them and somebody asks them about something that affects us socially, they condemn it, and they write it off. That’s a pet peeve of mine. They condemn the concept all the way together. They don’t want to answer it, and they condemn it. Most of the time I feel like it’s because they don’t know, they’re unaware of it. They don’t know enough about it to be able to speak on it. Or they just look down on being smart or being socially aware. I think with as much emphasis as we put, there’s certain rules that you’re supposed to be tapped into the hood. Just as much as you go out of your way to be tapped into the hood, you need to be tapped into us. That’s important. But it’s not going to become important to you until you start taking in information the proper way.
So how do you keep in touch with what’s going on?
I mostly read. I don’t watch a whole bunch of TV. I just read. I do research online like a crazy person. I just stay aware, I look at what everyone is talking about, constantly on my phone. When I used to get drunk, I’d see everybody talking about something, and I’d just go look at something else. I don’t do that no more; I need to know now.
It’s always interesting to me when I hear about your life pre-sobriety and post-sobriety. Because I realize how many things stem from that - getting your personal life in order, being more lucid with your family, being more aware of the world around you.
Well, that’s the problem. Drinking makes it to where you don’t care. Perfect: I’ll go cheat on my girl, I’ll become a ridiculous person. Nothing is connected into nothing until I started going to therapy, then I realized everything was for a reason. And then, I started learning about myself in a way that made me elevate, first my mind and then better as an artist. I’m like damn, I can keep learning about myself – how can I stop being better at everything? Most of us we come in, and if we want to get better at rapping, then we just figure we’ve got to keep up with the times, let me keep up with rap and I end up being a better rapper. That’s all you’re dialed into, all of that misinformation that’s being spread around. You’re doomed. There’s no way you’re gonna get better. No way. It’s impossible. If I’m keeping up with what’s current, but everything that’s current, there’s no future in none of it. I focus on me, getting myself better. I make a lot of music I don’t use. Every time I do something that I feel is cool, I let it go.
How old are your kids?
Twelve, 10, 5 and 3. And 21.
Do you have conscious conversations with them?
Only Roycee, my oldest son. We can go pretty deep. My daughters, they’re just having fun right now. I’m not going to lay too much on ‘em. [laughs] Just let them be kids. I’ll eat with Kino, his kids know how to order at a steakhouse. … Nah, none of that. They don’t watch rap videos. They aren’t tapped in yet. Just chillin’. That’s one of the only reasons I celebrate Christmas: I just want to see them open gifts and having fun. But there’s lots to tell, lots coming on the horizon.
On this new album, you made all of the beats. Did you make beats at all before then?
Nope. But I have made a beat here and there before in different situations. Sometimes in the studio 4 in the morning, and we’re all drinking, I just decide to start hitting piano keys. Make some terrible beat that we rap on at the moment. [laughs] But I never had equipment, this is my first time doing that. But I’m glad I did it that way. I learned Pro Tools first. I learned how to cut my own vocals first, just engineering. Denaun showed me how to make beats in Logic, and it was easy for me to catch onto because it was very similar to Pro Tools. I call it rabbit hole behavior – I just start practicing a whole lot, just like I do anything else if I’m interested. I just kept on practicing and came up with this song, came up with that song. If you do it enough, stuff comes out of it. I didn’t set out to produce the whole album, it just happened that way. That’s the fun part. Normally, we would tell ourselves, you can’t do nothing like that. I’m glad I didn’t even have expectations. I wasn’t even thinking. I just love practicing. If I make something and it’s terrible, it does not bother me, as long as I don’t have to play it for nobody else. [laughs]
Did anything spark that initial creativity to start making beats more?
It was boredom. But there wasn’t a starting point. One time we were working on a mixtape or something, and I decided I was going to do the beat. I’ll just have my engineer play something. I never applied myself and bought equipment like, “I’m going to make beats.” Little stuff in passing. But just drunk shit. This is my first time deciding to do it that way. I went to Guitar Center. I bought Ableton, bought the Maschine, it starts out like that – get a bunch of stuff, and see what sticks. Everything went back except the MPC. [laughs] I kept that, but I gave it to my friend. I just use Logic now.
What’s interesting about what you’re saying is that your raps are very meticulously crafted. I think if you were to write a rap that was wack, you’d be upset. But you’re saying that if you make a beat you don’t like, you don’t have an issue with it?
It goes both ways for me. But I do understand being that way about a rap. I was that way for a long time. I think we start out like that. I don’t know if it’s “upset” – it’s more of a fear. Most people won’t admit that, but it’s like a creative fear. You don’t want to come up with something that’s not good, or you don’t want to admit that it’s not good. If you don’t know no better, that’s synonymous with falling off. You never want to admit that. But the more honest you are with yourself, the better off everything is. So going out and working with Puff, and him making me rewrite the same verse 8,000 times, is what made me introduce the art of rewriting into my lexicon. I just started rewriting stuff to rewrite it. And then i developed this relationship with the verses in a song where it’s just, I don’t have no respect for it. I call it clay. I just lay a bunch of stuff, poke holes in it, fill a line in, take the bottom half out, fill that in, remove the top of it, put some back on top of it. [laughs] It’s like playing LEGOs or something. Take the best pieces, take it from there, and then just A&R it. There’s no such thing as a bad verse – I’m sorry, yes there is. But it can be great for different reasons. Just because it’s lyrical, that doesn’t make it great. “Ain’t Nuttin But A G Thang'' is a perfect verse. Add too many syllables, you f**k it up. I’m sure that if Dre knew Marshall back then, and Eminem hit him with a super technical verse, he’d probably be like, “that’s lyrical, but that ain’t it.” It’s almost like you’re A&Ring yourself. It’s so much going on, you don’t have to be so tight if it’s not the right one.
“Black Savage” is you, T.I., CyHi Da Prynce, Sy Ari Da Kid, and White Gold. How’d that song come together?
The producer me picked the people. I always knew I wanted to work with CyHi on something. Anytime I ever do anything that’s a little bit socially conscious, I always think of T.I. He’s very aggressive, I can tell he hit that point in life. I think we have spiritual awakenings, man. Us as black men, we just wake up one day like, “this is what I am,” and we have no idea where it came from. T.I. seems like he’s there with it. You get to a certain point and start seeing things for what they are. You don’t always like what you see. I think T.I. is at that place, so I always told myself if I was ever doing anything along the truthful line, to speak up for us, I would call Tip. We did some stuff before, but it ended up slipping through the cracks. Tip actually suggested Sy Ari to sing the hook. He said, “the hook we have is a little bit too direct,” and he asked me what I thought about somebody else taking a shot at it. I said, I’m more than open if you think you can make it happen. He reached out to Sy Ari, and he sent it right back. That’s one dope thing about collaborating. I learned that in Slaughterhouse: learn that with an open mind. A lot of guys would’ve taken it personal. I was cool with what we had, but when he sent Sy Ari’s hook, Sy Ari’s was better. But I still liked what we had, because the part that we had as the hook was White Gold’s part. So I was able to use both, and I moved them and made it more like a bridge. I had to change the music around a little bit, but it worked way better. But he was right – it was super direct. I’m a very blunt, direct person, and I heard what he meant. So it actually taught me something, so I’m glad we had that conversation.
That really sounds like Producer Royce, man. Not just beatmaker Royce, but producer Royce.
I could never be a beatmaker, because I’m around too many guys who make beats who have been doing it their whole life. You can’t catch up, it’s impossible to catch up to Bink!, Denaun, DJ Premier. I’m way behind. There’s never been a beatmaker Royce, but I’ve been producer Royce even before I was making tracks. I had to play that role in Slaughterhouse, I had to have that relationship with the music in Slaughterhouse. I was the guy that was more on the technical side, doing the drops and stuff like that. I just always had a knack for the sonic stuff. After us getting our own place, I think it was the logical next step. It just kind of happened spur of the moment, and I like for things to happen like that. Every time I ever planned to do beats, I didn’t end up seeing it through. But the one time I just thought of it real quick, I was at Guitar Center 30 minutes later. I came back and it didn’t just end up being a conversation – I saw it all the way through, because I wasn’t thinking about it.
How did you connect with the NFL for their campaign?
Kino was talking to Jason from Tidal, and he said they were looking for a song to launch the initiative. Everybody knows about the initiative. They were saying they were looking for something, and Kino was like, “I think I may have the perfect song for you.” It was just a shot in the dark. He sent it over to them, and they loved the song. Once he explained to me what the initiative was and all of that, I was 100 percent with it. After that, I found out that we needed to partner up with them and go do stuff, which was cool too. Anything Jay-Z related, man, I’m in. I’m not a real big football guy, but I’m willing to be for that cause.