Album of the Week: Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Mariah Carey is snarky. After Eminem repeatedly dissed her and then-husband Nick Cannon, she made “Obsessed“, a smash hit that still ranks among the most popular songs in her extremely successful catalog. And she wasn’t afraid to bite back at Em: “See, the difference is, my song is on the radio and his, you have to search for it,” she said in 2009.

Of course I knew the brilliant “Obsessed” back then, but I just discovered Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel earlier this year and my first thought was, “how did it take so long for me to hear this album?” I’ve followed The-Dream for the past decade as a big fan, so it surprised me that until 2020 this album, almost-entirely penned and produced by The-Dream, somehow Mandela effect-ed its way from seeming nonexistence into my ears. And – surprise! – it’s her best work.

Most Mariah full-lengths are scattershot. And that’s ok! She’s made a lot of music, and plenty of it is top-notch. But for every “Vision of Love” or “Fantasy”, there’s usually some sappy filler that lines the rest of the album. Memoirs, however, hits over and over.

Much of Memoirs sounds exactly like what Dream was doing on his first three albums (AKA The Love Trilogy), and that is a good thing. “Candy Bling”‘s beat is almost identitcal to “I Luv Your Girl”; the screwed “lovin’ on my mind” vocals on “Ribbon” recall the same effect on “She Needs My Love”; the whole album is filled with ay-ay’s and oh-oh-oh’s that are hallmarks of Dream’s sound. No complaints there.

What separates the album from being just another Dream record is, of course, Mariah herself. Besides contributing her iconic vocals, the female voice in her songwriting is the antidote to what we hear excessively on Dream’s solo albums, namely the licentious tales of an extremely horny guy. Take “It’s a Wrap”: over a silky piano line, she begins, “Yet another early morning and you walk in like it’s nothing / Hold up, hold up, hold tight / Ain’t no donuts, ain’t no coffee / See, I know you seen me calling and calling / I should crack you right in your forehead”. Damn, MC. Sass is a consistent lyrical motif in this album, and she pulls it off. For the last few songs, however, Mariah changes her tune and goes full ballad mode, covering Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”. She pulls that off, too.

In fact, Carey’s cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is” got the nod of approval from Foreginer’s Mick Jones, and broke the record for longest-running number 1 on the charts… in Brazil. It’s a euphoric end to her tightest album. I only wish that Spotify had a version of the album without the bonus remixes, so that I don’t have to hear a ridiculous techno mix of “Obsessed” every time the main album ends.

Listen to Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Ginuwine… the Bachelor (1996)

How does one describe the sound of the beat on “Pony”? Belching synthesizer? Squelching vocoder? Hungry jury? I like to think of it more as a croaking toad, but whatever the case may be, the timeless classic vaulted both Ginuwine and Timbaland into stardom for good reason.

There’s a lot more to Ginuwine’s debut album, however. Timbaland and Ginuwine’s Virginia-based crew (including Missy Elliott, among others) came up under the tutelage of Jodeci’s DeVante Swing. Transplanted to New York, where Jodeci was working with the late Andre Harrell’s Uptown label, Ginuwine and the 23-year-old Timbaland recorded in Rochester (where Jodeci made their third album) and Ithaca. The late, great Static Major wrote the hook for Pony, and the rest of the music was Timbaland’s creation.

Timbo’s value and influence here cannot be understated. The use of space, bass, stuttering drums and unconventional (often squeaky or “squiggly”) sounds created something darker and cooler than the majority of 90s R&B, and it still knocks to this day. What makes both Ginuwine and Aaliyah’s voices so perfect for Timbaland’s production in this time is their sense of restraint and minimalism. Instead of belting and warbling like R. Kelly and Mariah Carey, Timbaland’s singers brought something slick and chill to fit snugly into the folds of Timbo’s futuristic grooves. Nothing is rushed on Ginuwine… The Bachelor: no song runs under 4 minutes in length, and most are over 5. Maybe it’s the lack of immediacy (outside of “Pony”, the album’s first proper track) that has kept this album from being canonized alongside other R&B classics.

The Bachelor does have the songs, though. “Lonely Daze” flips the guitar from “You Are Everything” with a sublime performance from Ginuwine. “Only When ur Lonely” is perhaps the most emotionally charged track here, building to a superb climax (sampled well by the Ginuwine-worshipping PARTYNEXTDOOR on “Muse”). Throw in a great cover of “When Doves Cry”, complete with Timbo’s deep background vocals (10 years before Futuresex/LoveSounds!) and you already have a few standouts. Also, Missy Elliott raps over Portishead’s “Numb” on “G Thang”.

“World is So Cold” is my favorite track here. Any R&B song that can make me wistfully stare out of a window (other examples include Aaron Hall’s “I Miss You” and Tweet’s “Smoking Cigarettes”) is an instant classic in my eyes. This one also has one of those amazing moments where everything goes up an octave, adding significantly to the impact of the ballad. After some unnecessary 3-second interludes (remember when silent interludes were included at the end of CDs?), The Bachelor concludes with a banger in “550 What?”. The drums and group vocals will have you wanting to party at Ginuwine’s address, even when you have no idea where the hell they are talking about.

Ginuwine’s follow-up 100% Ginuwine rules too, that one being his final album-length collab with Timbaland. “Pony” and other hits have stayed in the collective conscious, thanks in part I guess to Magic Mike and Parks & Rec. But Ginuwine’s debut should be taken seriously as an R&B classic, and a wonderful document of the blossoming of Timbaland’s fruitful career.

Listen to Ginuwine… The Bachelor on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Immature’s Playtyme Is Over (1994)

If you asked me at any point over the last 8 years what my favorite song was, I’d probably say Immature’s “I Wanna Know U That Way”. I discovered the R&B boy-band’s early track via a Spaceghostpurrp sample of the track’s face-melting keytar sample. Immature quickly became my favorite boy-band, these adolescents providing the soundtrack to many a high school night of cruising around in the ’03 Honda Pilot.

The members (led by a young Marques Houston, then known as Batman) were aged 12-13 when their second album Playtyme Is Over came out. The kid on the cover with the eyepatch is Jerome Jones, then known as Romeo (later Young Rome). Romeo predated both Lil’ Romeo in name and Nelly’s band-aid in fashion sense by rocking the eyepatch for years (apparently Brandy hit him in the eye). Batman takes the lead here on vocals, while Romeo occasionally raps (like on his adorable “Walk You Home” verse), and third member LDB basically plays the background.

What makes Immature special? Ostensibly, they were just one of several New Edition clones; a factory made formula designed to gain traction on the “Urban” charts, with contemporaries in Hi-Five (“I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)”) and Another Bad Creation (I kid you not). Where Teddy Riley produced Hi-Five at Jive and Dallas Austin produced ABC for Motown, writer/director to-be Chris Stokes (You Got Served) was at the helm for Immature (for Virgin on the debut, then MCA). While Riley and Austin are both certified legends, I think Stokes had a bit more proving himself to do. Jermaine Dupri and “Tricky” Stewart(!) assisted on the debut On Our Worst Behavior, but that album is super scattershot and as the group’s name implies, the youngsters were underdeveloped vocally – they were literally 10! There are some serious standout tracks, like my favorite song mentioned at the top of this piece, but it is not a great album.

Playtyme Is Over is. They almost completely ditched the New Jack Swing thing here – which is a good idea, because you can’t beat Teddy Riley – in favor of a smoother sound. Opener “I Don’t Mind” lays down the vibe – summertime in Cali, cruising in the jeep, just oozing that inexplicable 90s cool. “Never Lie” became the group’s biggest hit and still is to this day. This always surprised me, because the back end of the album hides two absolute jams, which I believe could have hit bigger if released as singles. “Sweetest Love” snaps – think TLC’s “Diggin’ On You” (released 3 months later!) with a bit more punch in the chorus and you’ll be there. Then “Just a Little Bit”, which has a kind of Backstreet/N*Sync synth groove (one that French producer Onra would later sample) and killer background vocals. Both songs rank among the top of the Immature catalog. But I haven’t yet touched on this album’s greatest track, “Constantly”.

What a trip it is to be a young teen in love. Few R&B ballads capture the absurd pain and longing quite like “Constantly”. So picture me, 18 and lovesick, pulling over the aforementioned ’03 Pilot to cry to “Constantly”. Have you ever pulled your car over to cry? It is very cathartic. I mean, just listen to the lyrics here: “You look so fine / I often pretend / That you’re my girl / At least my friend”. Damn. Oh, and that high synth note after Batman sings “Every single way of every single day / I start driftin’ away” – incredible shit.

If “Ambient R&B” were a thing it might be my favorite genre. Maybe I’ll explore the idea further another time, but as a seeker of this particular sound Playtyme Is Over ends with an absolute blessing: “I Don’t Mind – The Vibe Mix”. And what a vibe it is. Simply a version of “I Don’t Mind” with no drums, the subtle difference nonetheless creates an indelible atmosphere, allowing the listener to bask in the harmonies and open spaces of the song.

Immature’s legacy seems largely forgotten, and that’s a shame to me. They would go on to release two more good full-lengths as Immature before rebranding at the turn of the century as IMx, releasing another pair of albums with middling results and eventually separating. Marques Houston continued a fairly successful solo career as a singer and actor. The group reformed in 2015 for an EP released on Soundcloud that mostly harped on 90s nostalgia (with an updated “Never Lie”), but of course failed to beat the peak they hit in ’94. Playtyme Is Over is an excellent album that stands up against almost any 90s R&B release.

Listen to Playtyme Is Over on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Timex Social Club’s The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1 (2019)

Lo-fi production has a special resonance with music nerds like me. Whether it’s Ariel Pink’s early material (recently re-mastered and re-released), or an obscure gem like Otis G. Johnson’s God Is Love ’78, various genres achieve a special luster when they sound like they’re recorded in a trash can.

Timex Social Club never really made it big. Formed in Berkeley, California in the early 80s, they reached an apex in 1986 opening for Run-DMC while simultaneously hitting #8 on the Billboard Charts with their single “Rumors”. “Rumors” is a glossy, goofy song in the vein of New Edition or Alexander O’Neal. It’s good, but not remarkable amidst a swarm of similar 80s R&B singles. Plagued by infighting and a suit from Timex watches, the group broke up shortly after their hit. Member Michael Marshall would go on to sing the hook for Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” and have his own solo career. Founder Marcus Thompson currently operates as a DJ and performer under the Timex Social Club name.

In 2019, Thompson released The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1. These songs were recorded in the mid-80s and sound drastically different from “Rumors”. Recorded on a 4-track and truly lo-fi, these Lost Tapes are gritty, weird, minimal R&B jams. The killer, unfinished “Coke Life” envisions a world of beepers, plastic baggies and pistols, while “Driving With Dee-Dee’s” employs sounds of screeching tires and laughter over an anxious beat.

As far as I can tell, Thompson as bandleader sings every song here. Of the bizarre ballad “Green Tears” he writes, “Michael [Marshall] was supposed to come and lay vocals, but he never showed. I thought he might not come because he never liked the song” (How Do Rumors Get Started: The True Story of Timex Social Club, 74). The desperation heard in synth-laden ballads like this and “Heart Like Mine” recalls the outsider romantics of Lewis Baloue. “Heart Like Mine” has a little bit of “Betcha By Golly, Wow” in its noodling background synth melody, but none of the lush nature of classic R&B is shared here. These songs are stark and strange.

It’s not all great. “I’m In Love” is the misstep: it’s simply way too long. But things end on a cute note with “Loving Angelina”. This tale of puppy love is full of fake handclaps and a humming Kurzweil K250 synth.

It’s unclear how much other unreleased Timex material Mr. Thompson has in his possession (I assume much more if the Vol. 1 is any indication). For now we have a worthwhile curio that, at its weirdest, is more Night Dolls With Hairspray than Michael Jackson.

Listen to The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1 on Spotify.