Giant Step’s Resident: The City, The Sounds, The Soul Part 4

photo of Janelle Monáe at Spotlight Live © Sian-Pierre Regis

By Mawuse Ziegb

A while ago, the R&B Live series at Times Square venue Spotlight, hosted an evening featuring “Diddy and Friends.” Now, he of all-blinding bling and refined cheesecake tastes is fun to watch on the TV but was not who I necessarily felt like spending an evening with. Apparently, I have poor taste in mogul-hosted events as Janelle Monáe was one of the “friends” who performed and wrecked it. Janelle’s space age, cartoony soul was the last thing I expected from the night and I later remembered that the ingenue had recently signed to Bad Boy. Like many, I first saw Janelle with her two scoops of afro puff in the zany clip for Outkast’s “Morris Brown.” Prior to that, Janelle dabbled in off-Broadway plays, gained popularity in the Atlanta college circuit and was signed to Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label. Janelle’s southern pedigree and left-of-center appeal fits all too well with the ‘Kast’s playground-on-Jupiter aesthetic. But um, where amongst the sky-high boots and voluminous weave pieces of Danity Kane, the infuriating ineptitude of Cassie and the brittle, derivative soul of other middling Bad Boy acts would Janelle’s sunny, spacey music fit in?

It’s not that Diddy doesn’t have an eye for talent, he’s got an admirable sense of what makes someone a star. However, time and again, his eye for moolah tends to blind his eye for developing and nurturing artists. Diddy has signed countless acts who showed promise but were eventually banished to artist development obscurity when they didn’t come with a shake-n-bake marketing plan. Remember Fuzzbubble? Yes you do – they thrashed guitars and drums on the rock remix to Diddy’s 1997 hit, “All About The Benjamins.” Remember Dream? Yeah those nominally pubescent starlets who made forgettably sweet numbers like, “This Is Me” a while ago. Remember Black Rob who came out the gate with “Whoa?” I could go on like this but Diddy’s track record does not bear well for artists he signed after 2001. Faith, 112, Biggie, Total are still the flagship Bad Boy artists as no act since has been able to capture and grasp the attention of the fickle public (and perhaps their own label CEO). Even on their hit show, “Making The Band” Danity Kane has to beg Diddy for a just a smidge of his time.

Perhaps this diatribe is a bit unfair. Artists get signed, dropped and languish in obscurity everyday. Many labels have niche audiences that simply make it easier to market a certain type of artist. And even if it doesn’t work, I guess we should give Bad Boy props for being progressive and at least attempting to expand their repetoire. Apparently, her deal gives her some autonomy and allows her to continue work with her Wondaland Arts Society label. She could easily stay indie (reports say her album Metropolis has sold over 10,000 copies independently) and make it. I’m not telling her how to manage her career but in the myopic major-label shuffle I see her going the way of Imani Coppola and Kelis. Singular female artists who always brought an undeniable uniqueness to the music scene who are now working the indie circuit.

One very important thing about Diddy, that perhaps bodes well for all us snooty armchair critics is that he doesn’t really set trends so much as he validates them. If Janelle represents Bad Boy’s future, she represents music’s future. When the white rapper thing was all the rage, Diddy was armed for battle with Kain, who could have competed against Eminem and Bubba Sparxx. And Dream was Sean’s response to the huge pop bubble of the early 2000s when N*Sync, Britney, Christina Aguilera and The Backstreet Boys were blowing up CD scanners around the world. And tell me Danity Kane isn’t a multi-hued approximation of Destiny’s Child. In a music world where Jill Scott and Lupe Fiasco are handily outselling Chingy, Bow Wow and Omarion (Lupe even has the #2 video on BET’s hysteriafest 106 & Park), Janelle may really be what’s hot in the streets.