Oh hai there.
So…r n’b. I’m not a popist or anything, but I’ve crawled out of my hate hole far enough to appreciate (and even OBSESS OVER) some of the neighborhood dudes n’ divas. Usually it’s the hit single, or whichever-album track-Rich Harrison-produced jams that shine through (you know: “1 Thing,” “Ain’t No Other Man,” every Ciara single ever, “Gotta Make It,” “Let Me Love You,” etc.) I’m not, like, pouring over Keisha Cole b-sides or anything, but its worth taking the collective finger off the mute button if you like pillowy synths n’ shit.
Considering all that, it’d be really really tempting to file Cassie neatly under “had one great track due almost entirely to its pansy/pounding production” (“Me & U”) like a lot of the highlights of contempo r n’b, but GUESS WHAT the album is actually pretty fuckin’ good!
First oddity out of quite a few: production consistency. R n’b (and rap, largely at this point) production tends to be all mercenary style (*guys in suits at Arista* “let’s get Scott Storch, Jazze Pha, Timbaland, The Neptunes and seven guys no one has heard of and add one reggaeton remix as a bonus track”). Which is fine n’ dandy and usually produces 1.5 good singles or so and then a lot of cookie cutter stomps and DRIPPY BALLAD CRAP. On Cassie, Ryan Leslie has produced just about every fake snare hit and vocal burp. At the risk of insulting all the Golden Age nerds, it’s an easy comparison to the Bomb Squad/Public Enemy or Primo/Gang Starr days when there were simply variations on ONE sonic palette. Obviously this dude isn’t Dr. Dre or something, but Ry Ry proves enough of a unique MIDI keyboard knob twiddler to make Cassie swing.
If there was any confusion, SONICS is mostly what I’m eyeing here. Cassie herself is basically a breathy alien supermodel. Which could be pretty compelling, but mostly is just kinda servicable here. The “lyrical themes” or whatever are boilerplate ’00s r n’b: “Look at me I’m hot, u want me, LOL”, etc. If anything, I occasionally daydream about how many imaginary points better this album would be with Ciara singing/monotoning all over it. The important VOID that Cassie shares with Ciara, though, is a total lack of show-offiness, which means no buzzkill wonky melisma (see: Mariah, Xtina ballads). YES, it might be because she just doesn’t have the pipes for it anyway, but, ummmm, THAT’S OKAY.
In any case, Cassie the SINGER is not really why we’re here, I’ll try and stick to the plot from here on out, starting with the most immediate slug-in-the-chest thing about the album: the SYNTHESIZERS.
The thing about the synths on Cassie is, it’s not just synths-as-keyboards. EVERYTHING is synthesized. The bottom-end of “Me & U” (a complete monster) is a synth’d CELLO. Elsewhere you’ll hear some processed harpsichord. Normally such upfront THIS MUSIC IS SUPER FAKEness might be a red flag for cheesedickery, but there’s something about the depths plumbed here that sells me. I mean, this album actually heavily features FLANGER. And it sounds GOOD! Every surface is polished and cold; it sounds mechanical, but it’s still FUN, which is pretty miraculous, indeed.
With all the processing, it’s a bit of a surprise that there’s such a MINIMALIST feel to a lot of the production, particularly the percussive elements. It’s lots of syncopated odds n’ ends – snaps, claps, shakers, TRIANGLE fer chrissakes. It all sounds super SHARP and clipped; there’s basically NO reverb. The production on Cassie sits way outside the Harrison/Just Blaze/Timbo axis of cascading snares/big horns/funk samples/etc. I kinda hate myself already for saying this, but the production here is the Suicide of contempo r n’b. Maybe a little less repitition and, like, cyberpunk-ness and whatnot.
In any case, the first five tracks on Cassie are immediate standouts, especially the ones with goofy r ‘nb spellings (“Me & U,” “Long Way 2 Go,” “Call U Out”). The second half dip dangerously into “No Scrubs”-y lite-ness. There are some neat sonic moments (fake dulcimer and harp on “Not With You”) and the songs never hit ballad rock bottom, but some of Leslie stretching his stylistic wings here falls flat. Thoughts:
Cassie ends with the Basement Jaxx Jr. of “Miss Your Touch” – a funkier moment than any other on the record. It’s not a revelation or anything, but it’s a fun, flitty ummer bounce and its a decidedly welcome flittiness after an album of Big Dark Sounds.