Teddy Riley was the ambassador of New Jack swing in the late '80s but
his uncanny sense of rhythm hasn't escaped him in this decade. He was
partially responsible for the first six songs on Dangerous
(1991), Michael Jackson's most mindbending, jagged sequence of boogie
ever. Then there was the porch-swung funk of the 1996 smash "No Diggity"
with his harmony group Blackstreet. And now the best tracks on
Blackstreet's finally released Finally demonstrate that the party
is not over.
From the very first track, you can hear how Riley imbues his grooves
with as much invention as any Timbaland disciple. "Can You Feel Me"
builds off the galvanic funk riff from the Jacksons' "Can You Feel It."
But the beat kicks in much slower than you anticipate and it's laid over
with a disorienting, cartoonish drone on top. It hits you right in the
foreground and it takes a while to adjust to the attack. The funk riff
in the Janet Jackson showcase "Girlfriend/Boyfriend" chit-chat-chatters
in the foreground as well; it's a thing, a living and breathing organism
that demands you take as much notice of it as you do the voices --
perhaps even more. And, most enticingly, "Yo Love" works its magic
subtly at first until you realize that it's a slowed-down version of the
New Jack swing Riley pioneered with Guy. Spritzed up with an array of
odd sound effects, the slower pace allows the listener to practically
take up residence in the familiar beats and melodies as if Riley were
offering a laid-back tour of his beat-crazy past.
It's not the po-mo referentiality that's so striking about these cuts
(The Tamperer, featuring Maya, made better use of the "Can You
Feel It" sample on last year's dance-floor smash "Feel It," anyway);
it's the largo strut of the rhythms. Time has spun out of control at the
end of the century and Riley seems to be telling us that it's no longer
enough to simply pillage the past in order to better understand our
present. We also have to stop for a moment and reflect carefully, even
meticulously upon what's being pillaged. It's the same kind of lazy,
bemused impulse you can hear on Sonic Youth's A Thousand Leaves,
and they stare contentedly at the hoarfrost or Parton,
Ronstadt and Harris' Trio II as they stare dazed at the
rocketships after the gold rush.
But all that means is Riley is very much of his time. I won't return to
Finally as often as I will A Thousand Leaves or Trio
IIbecause Riley's rhythm tricks overwhelm every other aspect of the
song. It's like buying such an outrageous shirt that you have to buy
plain slacks to go along with it because the shirt is the outfit.
Not only is it near impossible to get a sense of who Riley and his crew
are from these songs -- it's also really difficult to hum even the best
of them in your mind's jukebox. So if rhythm overwhelms all else on your
album, my suggestion is to make sure the ballads don't overwhelm the
fast ones next time out.