Look Out, Miami, Here Freestyle Comes
Latin freestyle lives in the hearts of those who are still daring enough to rock fluorescent spandex, Jheri curls, and Scünci scrunchies. But for most of the population, there haven't been too many signs of the gaudy electro offshoot that peaked in the late Eighties and caught a second, more ornate wind in the Nineties. Sure, many of those who helped the genre achieve its cheesy greatness are still around Brenda K. Starr has a radio show in New York City; this year Joyce Sims released a Christian contemporary trance album (if you can believe it), A New Beginning; and George Lamond has had success in the field of salsa (he's rumored to be prepping a reggaeton album). Even better, acts such as Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Cynthia, Lisette Melendez, and the king of Miami freestyle (and maybe all of freestyle), Stevie B, are actively keeping the music alive with frequent touring and continual recording.
That said, in 2006 freestyle remains a niche, largely tied to nostalgia and far removed from what the kids are listening to. But for how long? With this decade's electro revival now popping its head out from underground (thanks, Ciara!), it would only follow that freestyle is due for a comeback and that might be sooner than you think. Following are three examples of recent pop songs that reek of freestyle revivalism. Well, it's either that or the sweet smell of Designer Imposters perfume and hair gel. Same thing.
"Lose Control" (LL Cool J featuring Jennifer Lopez): From its inception via tracks like Shannon's "Let the Music Play," Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's "I Wonder if I Take You Home," and Debbie Deb's "When I Feel Music" freestyle was necessarily anti-hip-hop. It was a genre that wondered, What if we had singers over electro beats, instead of rappers? LL's verses, then, in this Jermaine Dupri production based on the intro of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Looking for the Perfect Beat," don't apply to the comparison. It's all about Jenny Jen's choruses, which distill freestyle down to its basic element: clapping, metallic beats + nasal Latina = a party.
"Promiscuous" (Nelly Furtado and Timbaland): The rapped, male-female exchange of "Promiscuous" has drawn comparisons to Positive K's pop-rap classic "I Got a Man." However, the "promiscuous boy"/"promiscuous girl" binary of the chorus reminds us of another early-Nineties classic (of a different sort): Cynthia and Johnny O's intensely dramatic "Dreamboy/Dreamgirl." The fact that Timbaland's broken beats are just an 808 and BPM increase away from freestyle's boom-and-bang combo helps make the debt owed clear. And the synth that creeps up during the chorus? It's as fried-out as Stevie B's hair. Even if it's an unwitting tribute, "Promiscuous," like the best freestyle tracks, is a definitive summer jam. Behold, the power of sleaze!
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"Weekend" (Janet Jackson): In perhaps the most overt pop homage to freestyle this decade has seen, comeback hopeful Janet Jackson set heads scratching around the nation when, via her Website, she released a cover of Debbie Deb's 1984 gem "Lookout Weekend" this past May. The harsh track featured Janet's squeal stretched over little more than a bear-trap-slam of a beat. The song exposed her limitations as a vocalist; to put it bluntly, her voice sounded horrible, which meant she sounded perfect for freestyle. Barely anyone understood that, and within days the track was removed and Jan posted a note: "'Weekend' is not my first single nor is it on my album.... It was my gift to you." (Not that she would have complained if the song took off.) One step forward for freestyle, one step back.
The story has a happy ending, though maybe. Original "Lookout Weekend" producer, Miami's own Tony Butler (a.k.a. Pretty Tony), popped up on the niche-fueled, cheese-loving I Love Music message board (ilx.wh3rd.net) in the wake of Janet's leak. He claimed the attention the nonsingle generated had "very big artists" calling to collaborate. If so, expect things to get a lot more freestylish in the future. And even if Pretty Tony wasn't the person who posted the message, the fact that someone wants to be him is a sure sign of progress. Viva freestyle!
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