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Mia X Talks Making 'Mama Drama' And Trailblazing For Southern Female Rappers

When looking back on the lyrical man-eaters of the '90s, names like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve and Trina often dominate the conversation. However, one artist that often gets left out of the shuffle is Mia X, who helped take No Limit Records from being a giant on the independent circuit to being a global force. Born and raised in New Orleans, Mia X caught the rap bug from an early age, joining forces with a teenage Mannie Fresh during the '80s and forming the group, New York Incorporated, in 1984. "The guy who started the group moved to New Orleans from Queens, his name was Denny D,” Mia X recalls via telephone. “We started a DJ crew, but I was their emcee, and we would go all over New Orleans performing. Sometimes we didn't have but $25 in our pocket at the end of the night, but we were so happy because we were rhyming and we were doing what we wanted to do. When my class night came and they asked what I wanted to be, and this was in 1987, I told them I was gonna be a rapper."

Mia X's desired career path became a reality in 1994 when she caught the attention of California transplant and fellow New Orleans native Master P, who recruited the buzzing rapstress to become the First Lady of his independent label, No Limit Records. Releasing her No Limit debut, Good Girl Gone Bad, in 1995, despite failing to make an appearance on any Billboard charts, Mia X's reputation as a fierce lyricist with a slick tongue and an air of raunchiness caught on big among rap fans in the south, making her one of the premier artists on the label. However, by the time Master P inked his historic distribution deal with Priority Records, Mia X was finally ready for her star-turn, releasing her sophomore album, Unlady Like, in 1997. The album, which peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart—and eventually went on to being RIAA certified gold—positioned Mia X as the premier female emcee out of the South, with the ability to go bar-for-bar with any emcee on a track, regardless of gender. With the massive success No Limit's stable of talent achieved during their first round of major releases and the deafening hype surrounding the label, the stakes were high when it came time for Mia X to return with her third studio album.

However, the following year, Mia X proved to be the real deal, unveiling her third studio album, Mama Drama, on October 27, 1998. With guest appearances from various No Limit artists, including Master P, Snoop Dogg, C-Murder, Mystikal, Silkk The Shocker, Mac, Fiend, Mr. Serv-On, and production from in-house producers KLC and Beats By The Pound, Mama Drama was the biggest release of Mia X's career. The album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with 99,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Nielsen Music. It debuted and peaked at No. 3 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, behind JAY-Z's Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life and the Belly Soundtrack.The success of the album, coupled with scene-stealing roles in films like MP Da Last Don, I Got The Hook-Up and Hot Boyz, brought Mia X into the national spotlight and made her one of the more accomplished and respected females in rap, particularly from the South. But after the release of Mama Drama, Mia X seemingly vanished from the music industry, leaving fans to wonder what became of her and her once promising career.

In celebration of Mama Drama's 20th anniversary (Oct. 27), we spoke to Mia X and got the scoop on the making of the album, life on No Limit, her disappearance from the limelight, female empowerment, being a pioneer for female rappers in the South and what she's got cooking up next.

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VIBE: Before the release of Mama Drama, you had a scene-stealing guest appearance on the No Limit posse cut "Make 'Em Say Uhh.” In what ways would you say that music video and song boosted your career?
Mia X: Well, I was happy that they liked the verse. "Make 'Em Say Uhh," it was another one of our soldier songs. And honestly, the concept [of it], people were making fun of P saying "Uhh" and I told KL, I was like bruh, we have to come up with some way to flip this ‘cause this ain't funny. KL really did his thing putting that beat together. We were happy that the world received it. I mean, no matter what coast you lived on, everybody loved that record. And for me, I was just happy that I was able to represent for the ladies, ‘cause when I came in the game, that was the only thing that I wanted to do, make sure we were represented right.

How would you describe life on No Limit during the label's Golden Era?
Most of us, we were like family at No Limit, and a lot of us actually were, so my time was really cool, aside from a few things that I went through. I was in an abusive relationship and then I lost my parents. I had some other setbacks in my life, but as far as being an artist and being on the label, I really did love and enjoy everybody, and I'm so thankful that I got the opportunity to, like, christen some of their kids, you know? We really were family and we really stuck together and ran together. We kinda weren't all over the place as a label, so we were around each other a lot. I think that's what people liked about us a lot, too. When they saw us, they always saw us together, but we were just excited. As a label, we were excited that the world was f**king with us. We was grateful because our intention was to hold the South down with everything in us, but we never dreamed that it was gonna blow the way it blew, where the whole world was feeling it and that was a great feeling and we were grateful. We didn't take that for granted at all.

Being the First Lady of No Limit, you were already well-versed in the No Limit system and how they create and rolled out projects. Given the breakout success of the label and it becoming the biggest business in rap, were there any differences in the recording process for Mama Drama in comparison to Good Girl Gone Bad or Unlady Like?
I recorded Mama Drama in 10 days and [had] already recorded four records [beforehand]. We was shooting I Got The Hook-Up, and [Master] P said if you wanna come out in the fourth quarter, you gonna have to go and finish your album now because I gotta turn it in. I was used to doing 20 records, so it took me 10 days. I wrote and recorded 16 [new] songs. KLC and Beats By The Pound, they was literally recording, dumping and mixing this record, like almost at the same time, to get it out on time. It was a fun album and it was challenging because I had a deadline and I still I wanted to cover all of the subject matter that I like to cover, but I also wanted to be original. It was one of them things like... I felt like that's when I was under the gun as an emcee to finish a project and not finish it at the luxury of my brain just being creative.

"What'cha Wanna Do," the album's first single, paired you with former Gap Band member and R&B legend Charlie Wilson. How did that collaboration come about and what are your memories of creating that song and working with Charlie in the studio?
We were in the studio together, [on] the same day, [at] the same time. I was at Snoop [Dogg]'s house, I was making Snoop some macaroni and chicken and Uncle Charlie was over there. This is around the time Mr. Biggs [Ronald Isley] was real, real hot. So everybody's talking about Mr. Biggs, but I'm telling Uncle Charlie that The Gap Band was one of my mama's favorite groups and she took me to the Burn Rubber Tour when it came to New Orleans. I had the Gap Band 3 t-shirt, I was telling him, you know? I told him "Yearning For Your Love" was one of my favorite songs and I asked him if I rewrote it, would he sing it and he was like, ”Yeah, let's do it right now. It happened just like that. We did the record and after we did the record, he told me he was impressed with the way I rewrote the record. I asked him would he be available for the video. Not only was he available for the video, but he also did a real solid, he brought the whole Gap Band to be in my video.

One of the more uplifting songs on Mama Drama is "Mama's Tribute," which finds you giving words of encouragement to women. What spurred you to deliver that message with that particular song?
The first time I did "Mama's Tribute," I redid "I'll Take Your Man." "Mama's Tribute" is really all about me showing love to some of my favorite emcees and I decided to pay “Mama's Tribute” to my renditions of [MC] Lyte's "Paper Thin." I just wanted to flip the lyrics to represent us as women and just make us feel powerful and make us feel uplifted because it's hard being in a male-dominated industry with so many records that's basically throwing tomatoes at women. And a lot of times, we don't have no choice. We find ourselves just drowning out some of the words and nodding our head to the fiery beats or whatever and, for me, I always wanted to make it like, well, if we gotta listen to all of that, then y'all gotta listen to all of this. At some point, we gonna get together and make us a record that everybody can jam to, but until then, men stand up for men. I was finna stand up for women and just make what we heard in the club sound a little different.

Women are everything, we gangstas. Usually, you learn how to defend yourself and be strong because nine times out of ten, it's your mama telling you that you gotta go outside and hit them back. Don't take no mess from nobody. You learn how to put your sentences together from your mama. And when it gets real, when a lot of dudes get locked up, the only one they have is their mama, and their mama does every one of them years with them. No matter how many times he embarrasses her, she’ll be there like a soldier. So how can a dude figure that a broad ain't a gangsta emcee when we the first gangstas y'all know?

Another song from Mama Drama that stands out on the tracklist is "What's Ya Point," which features guest appearances from Fat Joe and Snoop Dogg. What's the backstory to that song?
I wanted to do that record because we had got so much love from the East Coast and the West Coast. I just wanted to make a record to let everybody know... pretty much, when you travel different places, it's the same stuff going on. It's just the atmosphere and environment is different. The way we talk, the slang is different. The dress code might be different—

But the spirit is universal.
Yes, it's all the same thing. There is no such thing as the toughest live on this coast or that coast. Or the meanest or the smartest. I wanted to do that record because I didn't like the tension. Even in New Orleans, with the tension between the east and the west. I didn't ever like that because you have artists you love and they make music that you love and I just really didn't see a point. I feel, if anything, music is a universal language. You can be a Black Panther, you can be a Ku Klux Klan and little do y'all know, y'all might like the same record. That was my thing, as far as "What's Ya Point." I wanted us to represent our areas, but at the same time, bridge that gap.

Also, at the time of Mama Drama's release, which included songs like "Thug Like Me," "Play Wit P***y" and "Sex Ed." Aside from Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, there weren't many female rappers infusing sexuality into their lyrics as boldly and bluntly as you, particularly from the South. With the current feminist movement and trend of women empowerment in rap, do you at all credit yourself for being one of the pioneers of that style of rap for women?
Let me tell you something: yeah, I feel like I'm definitely in the front of the game with it. My first record, "Da Payback", it came out in 1992. It moved close to 50,000 units and I was saying stuff like "Suck a ni**a d**k for a outfit/And suck a ni**a d**k for some K-Swiss/Will eat lady's p***y for a home-cooked meal/And blow the a** for a forty, bi**h!" (Laughs) That was in 1992, so... yeah. Me and Choice, actually. Choice is one of the first to talk that sh*t, period, because she talked it in '86 on Rap-A-Lot. We've always been very, very, very strong and outspoken women in the South, because we've had to hold down a lot of stuff. That kind of rap in the South was always what that was. Trina, Gangsta Boo, La Chat, Jackie-O. The South has produced some really good women and even now in New Orleans, they got some really good females [rapping].

On the song "Fallen Angels (Dear Jil)," you honor the memory of a close friend. Do you recall the process of writing and recording that particular song?
I just let KLC and them run the beat and I sat on the floor, went over and over it until I got what I wanted to say to her. Jil was my best friend and had just got murdered right before I dropped Good Girl Gone Bad, so I just kinda wanted that record to be a conversation, just catching her up on what had happened since she was killed. And man, you know, ‘til this day, Jil is my best friend. I've had a lot of beautiful women in my life that have been nothing but 100 to me, but she absolutely was, I think, the best friend I've ever had. That record was a heavy record. After I got the girls in and told them to do the fallen angels part, it was just [everybody] kinda sitting there [in the studio] and looking [around] ‘cause everybody had been through something. There was a lot of girls getting killed [in New Orleans] in the '90s.

Of all of the songs on Mama Drama, which ones hold a particularly special place in your heart?
One of the records I like a lot was this record "Like That" because I was really just expressing the way I was feeling about a lot of things. You know, not feeling appreciated, but always expected to do things. It's just one of those songs where I felt I needed to get a lot of stuff off my mind and when I finished, Mac was like, “I think this is gonna be one of my favorite song on the album." But then one of my favorite records on the album was when I did "Flip & Rip" ‘cause what we did [was] we sat in the booth and we just went back and forth. That was really cool because it gave me a chance to get a little rhyme exercise out, as the same way on Unlady Like when Mystikal and I did "Who Got The Clout." The last verse, we just went in the booth together and freestyled that and I like that because it makes me feel like I'm on my game. But I like "Flip & Rip." I like "Thugs Like Me." I like "What'cha Wanna Do." I like "Play Wit P***y."

You like everything because it's your album. (Laughs)
I wouldn't say I like everything. Out of the 20 songs, I probably like about nine of them. The rest of them, I feel like, sh*t. I was just hurrying up and thankful that people were coming in the studio where I could say, “Look, just hurry up and write a verse and jump on this record so I can feel this space up.” But there's about eight or nine of them I like, that's just the way it is. But overall, Mama Drama, I think it is a good album. I'm proud ‘cause I wrote those records and I'm proud because I have made a lot of young fans off of my old CDs and that's really a blessing. To go to concerts and have records that's almost 20 and over 20 and have these families come up to you with their now 20- and 21-year-old children, saying, “Oh, we been listening to everything, so I had to bring him to check you out." That's so rewarding, to be celebrating an album 20 years later. Because I know people have a choice when they're buying music and I'm very thankful.

Mama Drama was an overwhelming success, but would be your last album under the umbrella of the No Limit family, as you went on a hiatus shortly after. It's been reported that the decision was due to turmoil and tragedy in your personal life. Can you touch on that?
A few months after Mama Drama, going into 1999 actually, my mom was killed and then five months after that my dad was killed and then seven months after that, my grandmother died. At the time, my children were still kinda young, they were still in elementary school and I had a younger sister and she was entering college, so I made the decision so that I could do what I needed for my children. ‘Cause when I was young, on the road, my parents and grandparents were hands-on with my children. They pretty much handled everything. And when they died, when you have children, you're always a parent first, so I had to go and parent. And then a lot of producers was leaving the label and I was used to working with them. Some of them I've known forever, so my whole drive just went away. I talk to emcees, we go through these different phases where you can perform forever and then there’s some times you don't even feel like it and the excitement my parents and grandparents had as far as my records or when I was about to do something, that was like fuel for me. I felt like my light had been put out because they was so important to me. So I stepped away from the game after they [my family members] died. There was a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff happening, so I stepped away. But I didn't stop writing, I have crates and crates of notebooks!

READ MORE: New Orleans, A City Known To Create Moments, Is Having One Of Its Own

Did you ever have any regrets about stepping away from No Limit and the music industry?
Yeah, I felt regretful when the boys, when Mac and C[-Murder] and Mystikal, when they went to jail. I wish I could've stayed because we were always together and creating and thinking of something we could do to make a sound and push the envelope with the soldier beats. I felt like I kept everybody so preoccupied. I felt like I shouldn't have left because we would be busy and we would be planning. Sometimes I still feel like... I wonder how things would've turned out had I just tried to work through the process, but then I don't think that that would've been a good thing for me because I had to grieve, as much as I wish I could've stayed with my label-mates. We made records and we traveled really close together. We was always together, we really ain’t have time to be nowhere else, couldn't nobody accuse us of being somewhere else. So as much as I sometimes regret not just staying around, I think about all of the mental breakdowns I had in private as I grieved my parents. And I'ma tell you something, I always tell people when Kanye [West's] mama died, I always felt he should've stepped away for six months to a year. When you have a really good relationship with your parent and then they die suddenly without any expected illnesses, no prolonged sicknesses, when they pass suddenly and they are hands-on with a lot of stuff that you do, it takes you to a whole 'nother level. I think people would've seen me cracking up and tripping out in person right when the internet and blogs and stuff had just started blowing up...camera phones and things like that. I think people would've caught me tripping out during those early 2000s because I wasn't all there. I was really missing my parents, you know? I know we all grieve differently, but sometimes we gotta take that little sit-down. So as much as I regret it sometimes, I get slapped back in my senses because it's like, no, you needed to go through what you went through cause sometimes it was hell for me.

One of your latest endeavors is Team Whip Dem Pots, your catering business. When did you make the decision to jump into the culinary world?
#TeamWipDemPots is a cooking squad where I inspire people to cook and convince them that cooking is actually cheaper than going to buy food in those fast[-food] lines. Everyday we cook meals and we’re from all over the world. We post the meals, post recipes, inspire each other to cook and we're like a real serious squad. Got a lot of women and a lot of men, got people all through the U.K. and it's just about inspiring each other to cook. ‘Cause when you cook, you get your children involved and through preparing the food, you can find out how their day went, who they like, who like them, who don't like them. You find out a whole lot of things when you're in the kitchen and you're creating a meal. It creates that bonding time, so that's the whole purpose behind. But also, I was Essence Festival's 2018 Best-Selling Author in their bookstore this year. I did a cooking demo at Essence Eats and I dropped my memoir, Things My Grandma Told Me, Things My Grandma Showed Me and it's been doing very well. It's a memoir from 1975 to 2001, a lot of stuff that was going on at No Limit when I moved to California and how different it was living on the [West] coast and just how it was overall in the business. [I] talk about how my grandmother's house used to be a spot where people gambled and brought food and liquor and it had been like that since the early, early '40s. My grandmother, she had a lot of quotes. She was a straight-up talker. She had a sack of bullets on the side of her bed, she would loan people money. When you get her money, she throw a bullet at you. If you don't bring her money back, she gon' see if your a** catch the next one, so that's why I did that in “Bout It Bout It.” (Laughs)

My grandmother, I feel like she had a lot to do with the way I write rhymes, my style, the way she talked to us. When we were growing up—and thinking we cute and all that—and she tell us, “Your p***y don't make him stay, it make him skeet, the way to his heart is not your draws.” And [when] we have heartache—”our heart don't care how stupid you look, it just knows what it feels. That's why your common sense gotta have your heart's back.” So this cookbook is about her quotes and when she told me things and we would be in the kitchen cooking and she would be schooling me because I was a teenage mom and did a lot things in my life I shouldn't have did cause I had people that I could talk to. I talk about my mistakes, I talk about my grandmother's profound words that she would drop constantly on us and just teach us so much. I talk about how I've come to cook the food, because a lot of people in the industry, they know that I'm a fool with the pot! ‘Cause I been cooking since No Limit. I was always cooking for people. Cooking for all of the editors, all of the journalists. I cooked on Yo! MTV Raps. I was really getting it in ‘cause it's a passion, I absolutely love to cook, and now I'm happy. I'm leading a new generation and walking them into this age of home-cooking and growing produce and just bonding and just having real conversations with their children.

In the time since your departure from No Limit, you've released projects like your Unlady Like Forever and Betty Rocka Locksmith mixtapes and appeared alongside artists like Gucci Mane. What have you been cooking up in the studio as of late? Can fans look forward to a new project from you anytime soon?
I'm putting out a soundtrack to the cookbook, actually, and I'm also doing an audio-book of the cookbook where I actually read it to the fans cause they say they like the way I talk. I'm gonna read the book to the fans, but I'm working on a soundtrack. I love music, I'm still open for features, I still do concerts. I'm just enjoying myself. I'm allowing the game to feel the way it felt for me when I first got in it. And I fell in hip-hop in 1979 so it's like... I love it. I will never stop loving it. I will never stop writing, I will collaborate, but now, I'm also standing behind my son. My son, his name is Jakk Jo and he is dropping some incredible projects, he does tribute mixtapes. I've had him with me around the studio since he was four years old so he was around the early Cash Money, UNLV and Lil Slim making records. We would all be in the studio together, so his influences go all the way back to 1992. He drops these mixtape series called Wohday Musik, he's about to drop Wohday Musik Part 4. People really, really love him because he is naturally New Orleans. So I've been supporting him and I'm proud of him, but like I said, I'm still open for collabs, I'm doing the soundtrack, that's gonna be the little EP for me. And I'ma be whipping pots and getting where I fit in and then, what else? (Laughs)

 

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TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
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How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television

On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with  Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.

One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.

In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.

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Good Times (1974 - 1979)

Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”

When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.

Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.

Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.

The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.

The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.

But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.

“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”

The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).

The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.

Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’

”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”

Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)

Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved.  Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.

(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)

Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”

Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.

Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.

The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)

The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.

Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers  – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.

George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.

George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?

Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.

Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?

The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.

I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.

George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.

At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.

By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.

George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.

Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”

I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.

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Lennox McLendon

Music Sermon: The One Minute Hit - When TV Theme Songs Were Lit

The idea of sitting around the TV for appointment television is an archaic concept. Multiple devices with screens for everyone in your home plus the control of streaming has changed how we consume nearly everything except sports, award shows, and Game of Thrones (until tonight). But the children of the 80s very much remember when TV watching was still an event, cable was basic, and the networks reigned supreme. Back in that era of genuine primetime programming, our favorite TV shows came paired with 30-second to one-minute themes. But not just a random little ditty to open the show; these were genuine mini-songs. Verses, chorus, hook, and maybe even a reprise for the end credits.

Now, a drive for more advertising inventory coupled with shorter attention spans has rendered the true theme song a rarity; but in the cases where they do still exist, the songs continue to be a key part of experiencing the show (again, like Thrones). The theme song draws you into the world of the show, it sets the tone, and it stays with you after. And the theme song game wasn’t a space like the commercial jingle game where only folks in the game know who the players are. The theme show business has its own OGs, but there are also names we know well - acclaimed producers, artists and musicians who helped create TV music magic. As such, there’s also a lot of hidden music history and connections behind some of these joints. I have watched an inordinate amount of television consistently throughout my life - you will pry my cable cord out of my cold, dead hands - and I consider myself an expert on the TV theme song. I offer you my list of some of the most soulful, slappin’ and impactful examples of the majesty of TV theme songs from yesteryear.

Sanford & Son

There is literally no music space Quincy Jones hasn’t conquered, including television. Q was in movie scoring land when Norman Lear’s partner Bud Yorkin came to him about composing a theme for their new show, Sanford and Son. “He said, 'I'd like you to write the theme for it.' I said, 'Who's in it?' And he said Redd Foxx,” Quincy told Billboard. “I said, 'Man, you can't put Redd Foxx on national TV!” I had worked with Redd Foxx 30 years before that at the Apollo. We used to do the Chitlin Circuit. I used to write this music for him to come out with.”

Q composed “The Street Beater” without even watching the Sanford and Son pilot. “I wrote that in about 20 minutes,” he said in an interview about his work in television. “I just wrote what he looked like. It sounds just like him, doesn’t it?” The funky, rag tag, backwoods bluesy song was the perfect musical accompaniment for Fred’s surveying his junkyard as Lamont’s truck rolled up, “It was raggedy, just like Foxx.”

Good Times

Norman Lear was the goat of working-class American storytelling on screen, but his shows also had some of the most iconic theme songs – “Those Were the Days” for Archie Bunker, “One Day at a Time” has great lyrics if you pay attention, he even had Donny Hathaway singing about pre-Golden Girls Bea Arthor for Maude. TV producers often used the same writing and production teams for their shows' themes, and Lear often tapped the husband and wife team of Alan and Marylin Bergman, who got their break co-writing with Quincy on “In the Heat of the Night.”

But as I said before, don’t let the TV theme song credits fool you, the Bergmans are two-time Academy Awards winners and in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That’s the kind of talent behind Good Times.

The Good Times theme is a negro spiritual (there’s a Hammond B3 organ in it; issa spiritual), and singers Jim Gilstrap, from Stevie Wonder’s backing group, Wonderlove; and Somara “Blinky” Williams, a former original member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) Singers along with Andrae Crouch and famed session player Billy Preston, put some extra oil on it.

You don’t believe me when I say this is worship music? Watch this.

I really wanna know what the Bergmans knew about hanging in a chow line, though. I’m not even sure I knew that was the lyric before Dave Chappelle told us.

The Jeffersons

Before we move on from Lear sitcoms we have to pay respect to the best black TV theme song of all time. And before you argue with me, let’s please look at the stats: a 35-person choir, stomping and clapping - even double clapping! - mention of fish fry, and a reprise over the end credits with hummin’ like your big mama used to do while she was cookin’ on Sundays. Winner.

Even though it’s one of the best-known sitcom theme songs ever, what’s lesser known is that another Lear alum was behind it – Ja’net Dubois, aka Good Times’ Wilona Woods, co-wrote and sang the theme. Also, the male voice that joins her in the bridge isn’t Sherman Hemsley (although it really sounds like it could be him) but career backup singer Oren Waters.

Ja’net, who was a singer as well as actress, ran into Lear on the CBS lot one day and shared that she wanted to display her talent beyond acting. Lear partnered her with Jeff Barry to work on the aspirational Jefferson’s theme. Jeff had pop hits under his belt as part of producer Phil Spector’s stable; he wrote “River Deep - Mountain High.” He also wrote “One Day at a Time,” and later “Without Us,” Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis’ yacht-rocky theme for Family Ties.

Dubois later told Jet magazine she pulled from her own experience once she’d “made it” with Good Times. “I moved my whole family. I bought (my mother) a house, bought her a mink coat. I did everything, retired her. I did everything I ever promised her.” And you can feel Ja’net’s testimony coming through as that moving van makes its way across the Queensboro bridge and up the East Side.

Amen

Sherman Hemsley had the good fortune of being associated with two entries in the Praise Songs of TV (I just made that up) category. Amen’s “Shine on Me” is not only a rousing bop, it’s a forreal and actual gospel song. The theme was written, produced and played by the father of modern gospel, Andraé Crouch, and sung by gospel legend Vanessa Bell Armstrong. Sister Vanessa was backed in the TV version by the choir from Crouch’s First Memorial COGIC church. She later did her own version, but it didn’t have quite the same oomph when slowed down a little and without the full voices of a choir behind her.

Sigh… Imagine a time when a sitcom about a deacon in the black church with a whole gospel theme song was a primetime network hit. Also shout out to “There’s No Place Like Home” from 227, which preceded Amen on Saturday nights.

The Cosby Show

We’re going to set everything about Bill Cosby the man aside for a minute to talk about the show and its music. Agreed? Amen.

The Cosby Show has to be in this conversation, because over the course of the show’s history, the theme song and opening sequence became a hallmark of the series’ greatness, and it’s a prime example of theme songs being deeper than just something to play over opening credits. Every season, a new adaptation of “Kiss Me,” the theme written by Cosby and Stu Gardner (who also co-wrote the themes for A Different World and Living Single), opened the show. The opening sequence featured a Huxtable family dance showcase, changing as the kids grew and the cast core cast added, and sometimes subtracted. We were as anxious for the Cosby season premiere to see the new intro as we were to see the show itself.

Season 3 is when it started getting crunk, with a little Latin action. Auntie Phylicia was gettin’ it.

In Season 4 (my least favorite), “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” mania had made its way to the Huxtable family with Bobby McPheren’s rendition and a bit of a roaring ‘20s (and for the sake of the show location, we’ll say Harlem Renaissance) feel. Elvin’s first year in the sequence, Denise’s first year out.

Season 5 was a production. Literally, it was staged like a Broadway production. By now, the show was known for exposing diasporic art and culture and the people behind it to the world whenever possible, and that was the intention here as well, on the low.

The set design was a little South Pacific-esque, and costumes had a Caribbean flair reminiscent of some Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater pieces - appropriate since the movement was choreographed by Ailey great (and Boomerang’s off the chain creative director) Geoffrey Holder. Cosby’s high school classmate James DePriest, one of the first internationally recognized African American orchestral conductors, arranged the music, played by the Oregon Symphony orchestra. It was sweeping and gorgeous and I remember it being kind of a big deal. Second season with no Denise in the credits. I think she had left Hillman and gone Africa by this point. Or something.

Season 6 is my favorite. It was a party. The entire family was getting it in to a jam session take on the theme remixed with Junior Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun.” Even though the opening was set in front of the Apollo marquee, this was the Motown sequence. “Shotgun,” was a massive crossover hit, produced by Berry Gordy, and featured Motown’s famed session players, the Funk Brothers on instrumentals.

Welcome back, Denise. And hi, Martin and Olivia. Theo and Vanessa were hitting. that. heaux.

Ok, actually, Season 8 is my least favorite. Least favorite season, theme song, opening sequence, all of it. Here, I think, it’s clear that the show was past its prime. This jazzmatazz intro didn’t feel super fresh or creative, and Theo was trying to hit b-boy moves, and cousin Pam clearly wasn’t comfortable, and Vanessa looked like she just got engaged to a 40-year old ninja named Dabnis, and Clair still had her coat on because she couldn’t be bothered.

But on the cultural side, it was still in theme. The mural was created by kids at Harlem’s Creative Arts Workshop, although a legal dispute over art clearances kept this visual from being used as originally intended in Season 7. On the horn is Lester Bowie, a trumpeter known for his free jazz style.

A Different World

Obviously, we were paying a visit to Hillman next. “A Different World” is one of the best theme songs of all time – for Seasons 2 through 5 (also one of the best shows of all time – for Seasons 2 through 5).

Dawn Lewis, aka Jaleesa, co-wrote the song with Stu Gardner. She was originally supposed to sing it, as well, until whoever hired her to write the song realized she was also in the cast, and whoever cast her as Jaleesa realized she also wrote the song. The collective powers that be thought Dawn singing the theme would center her too much when the show was about Lisa Bonet, so they went to Al Green. Yes, the Reverend Al Green. A version of the “Different World” theme song sung by Al Green exists out there in the world somewhere, and I now have a life mission to hear it. Producers didn’t like it, though. They decided to go with a female voice, and pegged folk and blues singer Phoebe Snow.

As the show went into its second season, producers decided to take a similar approach as The Cosby Show and flip the theme every season with different artists and styles. Then Aretha Franklin recorded her version, and that idea was dead, because why would you ever ask someone else to sing behind Aretha. Debbie Allen, who had just stepped in as the show’s executive producer (Aunt Debbie brought A Different World out of the middling fare of its first season to the strong, black and relevant show we remember it as, but that’s a different Sermon) called Auntie Re personally, and then brought her whole team from Detroit to LA on a bus (because Auntie Re wasn’t gonna fly, chile). Then, TV history was made.

“I just know that she came in and hit it,” Allen told Vulture. “It wasn’t like she had to do ten takes, that’s what I know. She just hit it. That’s what I remember and then we all kind of hung out and had food together, you know — she loved our show which is why she did it.”

I’m low key surprised Aretha agreed to do the song since her ex-husband, Glynn Turman, joined the cast in Season 2 and she’s petty like that, but she also watched a lot of television and was a fan. When most think of A Different World, they’re thinking of seasons two and beyond. That iconic montage we’ve see recreated in tribute again and again, from SportsCenter to Grown’ish Season 2 promos. Nobody references car washes and hanging out outside of….a barn, I think? Where they at a farm for the Season 1 opening sequence? (You can tell some white people put that together – no shots).

Finally, the last season of A Different World was sort of “Different World: The Next Generation,” so they went in a new direction for the theme with a very non-Boyz II Men sounding Boyz II Men (I thought it was Take 6 for the longest), but Seasons 2 through 5 still reign supreme.

Different Strokes

On to a different show about different worlds. Remember I mentioned OGs in the theme song game? One of them was Alan Thicke. Yes, Robin Thicke’s daddy was not only lovable TV dad Jason Seaver, but also a professional theme writer. Thicke penned the tracks for a couple of sitcoms, including Facts of Life (with Robin’s mama Gloria Loring on vocals), but his thing was game shows. Your grandma has Alan to thank for the “Wheel of Fortune” theme. He not only wrote but sang “Diff’rent Strokes” (sounding a little like his son), and I mean, the song is perfect. The opening, the harmony build in the second verse, the bridge, the breakdown “…and together we’ll be fine, ‘cause it takes…,” the hum at the end of the closing credits version. You can tell from this one-minute jamalam that Robin got his blue-eyed soul honestly.

Speaking of the Chappelle Show again (there’s a Chappelle reference for everything in life), Dave closes out his famous White People Can’t Dance episode (Season 2, Episode 3) with a spirited performance of “Diff’rent Strokes,” going into a “Facts of Life” vamp, backed by Questlove and John Mayer.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Living Single

I’m putting these two together because they’re two of the last examples of the explanatory theme song for black prime time television.

The Quincy Jones-produced Fresh Prince theme tells us Will’s entire back story and the premise of the show – a ‘90s hip-hop answer to the Gilligan’s Island theme.

Living Single’s theme conveyed the high energy city life the four upwardly mobile friends were navigating, with emphasis from Queen Latifah’s sing-rapping about her homegirls standing on her left and her right, and the legendary dancing silhouette that is Big Lez.

Both shows, songs, and visuals have become representative of the hip hop generation’s takeover of ‘90s black television and ‘90s black culture, and both continue to hold up amazing well 25 years later.

We haven’t even touched on the soulful ‘70s themes that became hit singles, like “Welcome Back Kotter” (my joint) or “Angela” from Taxi, or sketch show theme songs like Heavy D for In Living Color (or TLC for “All That,” for y’all younger folks), or the cartoon smashes. There are gems galore to be mined, all containing shining bits of nostalgia and callbacks to a simpler time. These songs often resonate with us even more strongly than our favorite singles from the era because they were a constant for years instead of months. And thanks to networks later devoting blocks of time to classic TV reruns like Nick at Night and TV Land, many of these shows – and theme songs – have been introduced to a new generation.

We’ve focused mostly on black TV shows, but there are a few theme songs that cross cultural, generational and international boundaries. When the Golden Girls premiered in 1985, the series featured a remake of the 1978 song “Thank You for Being a Friend,” and it has lived in all our hearts ever since. So much so, that a member of the black church delegation gave the song a proper remix a couple of years ago. Let this be a reminder that great TV theme songs were not only catchy songs that stuck in our heads for decades, but also impetrated universal lessons about life, love, and friendship.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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8 Best Samples From Megan Thee Stallion, Tyler The Creator And DJ Khaled's Projects

Megan Thee Stallion, DJ Khaled and Tyler, The Creator have more in common than just a release date. The artists also know a thing or two about thoughtful sampling.

Their projects, which all happen to be some of their best efforts, find inspiration from 70s soul and deep 90s underground jams. Jackson 5, Jay-Z and Sizzla were sampled on DJ Khaled's previous release Grateful, but with Father of Asahd, the producer and proud dad jumps back into the crates. This time around, modern hits are used like Ms. Lauryn Hill's "To Zion" and Outkast's "Ms. Jackson."

Megan Thee Stallion's samples also prove her rhymes aren't the only thing fans should pay close attention to.

Check out some of our favorite samples from this week's releases below.

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Megan Thee Stallion- Fever 

1. "Hood Rat S**t"

Sample: Latarian Milton's Viral Video (2013)

Plucked from the wonderful world of viral videos, Megan uses the then 7-year-old's mischevious joy ride to accurately describe how she rolls with her crew.

2. "Pimpin"

Sample: DJ Zirk & Tha 2 Thick Family featuring 8Ball & MJG and Kilo-g  "Azz Out" (1996) 

There's something to be said about Megan's very clever samples. The chorus to the late 90s underground gem stems from southern legends like Tennesee's 8Ball and MJG along with NOLA's own Kilo-g. Megan grabs a few bars from the track and puts her own twist on them for the chorus: "Stick 'em up, stick 'em up, raise 'em up, raise 'em up Drop it off in his fucking face just to saw it off/Gotta get my a** ate, gotta make that a** shake/Gotta swipe this ni**a card so much they had to call the bank"

3. "Simon Says" featuring Juicy J 

Samples: Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs. Jones" (1972), "Looking For Tha Chewin,'" DJ Paul (Ft. 8Ball, DJ Zirk, Kilo-G, Kingpin Skinny Pimp & MJG) (1992)

Another variation of the aforementioned track is also heard on her collaboration with southern legend Juicy J. The soft intro by way of Bill Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" also offers a soulful touch to the track.

DJ Khaled- Father of Asahd

4. "Holy Mountian" featuring Buju Banton, Sizzla, Mavado and 070 Shake) 

Sample: "One Spliff a Day," Billy Boyo (1981) 

Boyo's legendary riddim has been used by a bevy of artists including SiR and Wiz Khalifa but Khaled's curation of the track with some of the biggest names in reggae takes it to another level. It also doesn't hurt that his longtime friend and icon Banton opens the album.

5. "Just Us" featuring SZA 

Sample: "Ms. Jackson," Outkast (2001) 

This sample definitely raises the eyebrows, but the careful loop paired with SZA's sing-rap flow makes it worth a listen.

6. "Holy Ground" featuring Buju Banton 

Samples: "To Zion," Ms. Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana (1999) 

Grand opening, grand closing. Banton closes out the album with soul-baring lyrics and a thoughtful sample to match. Carlos Santana's chords from the original track give the song a sentimental feel along with Banton's lyrics about mass incarceration, cultural warfare and spiritual freedom.

Tyler, The Creator- IGOR

7. "A BOY IS A GUN" 

Samples: "Bound," Ponderosa Twins Plus One (1971) 

Tyler might have gotten inspiration to sample this song from Kanye West (Bound 2), but his take is smooth and subtle as he navigates through love and heartbreak.

8. "ARE WE STILL FRIENDS" featuring Pharell Williams 

Samples: "Dream," Al Green (1977) 

Underneath IGOR's tough exterior lies a gentle soul. The placement of Al Green's "Dream," on the latter end of the album takes the listener on a starry love high. Pharrell and Tyler allow the sample to act as a skeleton for the song as they point out how to keep love alive.

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