Saturday, September 23, 2023

"How Did Love Find Me" by Asa (2014)

The cover art to 2014's Bed of Stone,
which is Asa's third-studio album.

Have you ever heard a song or piece of music that spoke directly to you, one that seemed to understand your deepest feelings and emotions, even when words couldn't express them?  That's the power of Aṣa.  Her art speaks to the human experience in a way that transcends culture and language.  Asa's songs have a universal appeal and the power to move and inspire listeners around the world.

Though she was born in Paris, Asa grew up in her parents' homeland of Nigeria, and her music reflects the influence of both localities.  I got to know about Asa during a visit to my cousin's hostel, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria in 2015.  He had her whole album and would play the tracks one-by-one, 'til I even had some lyrics in my head. I fell in love and downloaded every one of her songs to date, and I'm still downloading them.  Asa's music explores themes of love, loss and self-discovery, and her unique blend of soul, pop and folk has earned her critical acclaim and a loyal following.

Asa has acknowledged that her musical style
is influenced by her international background.

There's just something about her style that relates to the soul.  Maybe it's the blend of cultures.  I don't understand the Yoruba language, but trust me when I tell you that I can sing every one of her Yoruba songs, word-for-word.  There's no doubt that her sound is unique, and for fans like me, it's something we can't get enough of.  With her soothing voice and heartfelt lyrics, she's a true maestro when it comes to connecting with listeners.


How Did Love Find Me is a musical masterpiece - from Asa's third studio album, Bed of Stone (2014) - that delves into the complexities of love and related introspection.  Her lyrics are like puzzle pieces that gradually unveil to form a beautiful picture of vulnerability and the search for love.

As you listen to How Did Love Find Me, you'll notice how the melody mirrors the ebb and flow of our own emotions.  It starts gently - like the tentative steps we take in romance - and then builds into a crescendo of feelings.  Asa's voice is the guide on this emotional rollercoaster, taking us through the highs and lows of love's journey.

Can you do this for me,

whisper a prayer?

Something's happening.

I'm so scared.

What I waited so long for is finally here.

Why does it feel so wrong?

Why the tears?

I always gave love,

never thought I deserve

to be the one to get love.

Oh no

One of the song's most profound elements is its vulnerability.  Asa doesn't sugarcoat the uncertainties and fears that come with opening your heart to someone.  She acknowledges the doubts and insecurities that often accompany this profound experience.  It's a reminder that we're all human, and it's okay to feel susceptible.

Asa is not just a singer; she's a storyteller.  With How Did Love Find Me, she weaves a narrative that feels deeply personal yet universally relatable.  It's like listening to a friend pour out their heart, and you can't help but nod in agreement, because you've been there yourself.  And as we listen to her melodic narrative and self-examining lyrics, one can't help but wonder, "how did love find me?"  It's a question we all grapple with, and her music helps us find solace in the search.

This track also reminds me that love can be unexpected and that it often finds us when we least expect it.  It also highlights love's power to change us and make us see the world in a new light, and as someone who has experienced love and also loved, I connected well with this track.  How Did Love Find Me celebrates the mystery and magic of true romance, which can be overwhelming. 

And if you enjoyed this song, you might also appreciate some of Asa's other works, such as 2007's Jailer, Fire on the Mountain and Bibanke, which are similar in style and emotion.

Monday, September 18, 2023

"Better Day (Ghetto Girl)" by 702 (2003)

The cover art to Star (2003), 702's third and presumably final studio album.

It felt bug earlier tonight reading that Irish Grinstead, homegirl from 702 (who's standing in the middle of the above pic), passed away at the age of 43, because I've actually been listening to a lot of 702 lately.  I won't go as far as to say that I was fan of this group during their heyday.  But some years later I came across the "CN Remix" of 50 Cent's In Da Club, which is interlaced with a track 702 dropped titled No Way (2003), and it instantly became like my favorite Fiddy song, largely due to the girls' vocals:

So that prompted me to later seek out the original version of No Way, which I ended up enjoying even more than that remix:

One thing I'll give to 702 is they have the sweetest voices of any R&B act that I can readily think of.  The problem, in my opinion after listening to more of their songs, was with their production.  The lead singer, Kameelah Williams, has a really nice voice but not a lot of vocal range.  So their songs tend to sound better at times when Irish and her sister, LeMisha Grinstead, are backing Kameelah up.

That's the strategy that their production team should have utilized throughout most of their tracks, like they did on No Way.  But instead, they seemingly relied more on the traditional formula of letting the lead singer go it alone in the verses, with the backup singers only really representing in the chorus, which sometimes worked for 702 and sometimes didn't.  But that said, these days whenever I feel like listening to music with a girlish sound this is the act I gravitate towards since, as stated earlier, they were really good at harmonizing while sounding distinctly female.

Also the latter part of their album Star, beginning with track #11 No Way and concluding with #15 Jealousy, is actually a pretty good listen.  And that's where I found this hidden gem, which is called Better Day (Ghetto Girl):

Usually, I'm not a big fan of these smile-in-the-ghetto type of songs.  I feel that the message should rather be more along the lines of 'get out of the ghetto'.   But the lyrics do sorta conclude that way, with the final chorus noting that the "little ghetto child", the one who has gone through all types of depression and BS (as most clearly illustrated in the second verse), did successfully 'turn her life around'.  And I understand the overall value of songs like these, as positivity thinking tends to be advantageous no matter what type of setting you find yourself in, or something to that effect.  And also, we can all use an infusion of faith from time to time.

This track follows that same traditional music-group formula mentioned above, the type that I argued doesn't always fit 702's strengths.  But what really makes this track exceptional, outside of its message (as opposed to 702's usual romantic fare), is its instrumental.  And here's something really interesting - Better Day was co-produced by Faith Evans, aka the widow of Biggie Smalls.  The other producer is a New Yorker by the name of Buckwild, who's a long-standing member of the Diggin' in the Crates Crew alongside the likes of Fat Joe and Lord Finesse.


Star is actually 702's most recent studio album (out of three in total), also presumably being their last.  So these days, the only time you hear about 702 is on gossip sites or when something like what transpired today happens.  It was both sad and shocking reading about the death of homegirl.  But maybe her passing will bring about a renewed interest in 702, an act that never really achieved monumental chart success but was an intrinsic part of the 1990s' R&B scene nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

"All This Love" by DeBarge (1982)


There are three main ways to classify a classic song.  First is the type that instantly makes you think of a certain era, due to being amongst the most-popular tunes of its day.  A good example of this phenomenon, as far as an American song goes, is I'm a Believer (1966) by The Monkees.  It's like as soon as you hear the hook of that track, you think of the 1960s.

The second type of classics are those which effectively and entertainingly speak to a timeless concept.  One modern artist who was a master at putting together those types of songs together was Bob Marley (1945-1987).  His classics are not only acoustically pleasing but also usually possess a spiritual dimension which allows them to withstand the test of time.

Then there are songs that are classics because even though they came out so many years ago, usually via an artist that's no longer poppin', still, if it had just been released today, people would feel it.  I believe that out of all forms of African-American music, no genre has accomplished that feat as consistently as R&B and more specifically that without a hip-hop influence.

All This Love is the title track of DeBarge's
sophomore studio album.

One of the songs I can think falls into the category, as verified by the most-popular comments currently on its YouTube page, is All This Love (1982) by DeBarge.  This is about as perfect of a love song as you're going to get from back in the days that doesn't sound aged, and achieving such a task is not an easy feat.  For instance, there's another DeBarge song that came out the following year called Stay With Me (1983) which has become sort of a classic.  But there are certain instrumental elements of the track which would not appeal to 21st century music fans.


Officially, DeBarge was only extant for a decade, from 1979 to 1989.  Within that time they dropped five studio albums and afterward sorta participated on a gospel LP called Back on Track (1991), which is credited to the entire DeBarge Family.

In other words, DeBarge was a family act that consisted of siblings.  Throughout the years the group had seven members, though the siblings, in total, number 10, all born to the same mother and father.

Bunny DeBarge is the oldest of them all and one of only two females her parents, the late Robert DeBarge Sr. (1932-2009) and Etterlene DeBarge (née Abney), had birthed.  Most of the DeBarge children are still around, with the exception for Bobby Debarge (1956-1995) and Tommy DeBarge (1957-2021).  Tommy was never part of the DeBarge, though Bobby was but only for a couple of years near the end.  However, both were more notably down with another R&B act from that same era known as Switch.

DeBarge's biggest hit was Rhythm of the Night (1985), which was associated with The Last Dragon (1985), one of the best "Black" films ever made.  However, All This Love has aged a lot better than that song.  Rhythm of the Night was really trending during its day, being one of the best music videos out at the time.  That was back in the days when like music videos were only played at night, and that clip could wake you up from a slumber, like a cup of coffee.  But you're not likely to come across somebody singing it these days.

Contrast the cover art above to that of Bad Boys
Debarge's 1987 album.

Perhaps due to being a family act, you can say that DeBarge was destined not to last.  Amongst the issues that broke the band apart were Bunny and El, i.e. the only female and the lead singer, getting the star treatment from Motown while everyone else got the boot.  Besides that, some of the brothers had drug problems, and a couple, Bobby and Chico, even did time for trafficking.  You're not likely to look at a picture of DeBarge and be like 'these are some bad boys', but Bad Boys was in fact the name of their 1987 album.  That was around the same time, after Rhythm of the Night, that DeBarge fell off.  


No disrespect to El DeBarge, who wrote All This Love, but the lyrics aren't what makes this piece outstanding.  As with many, if not most other love songs, the singer sets out to illustrate that his life is so much better with his boo-boo by his side.  But one way these lyrics are different is that said sweetheart actually went about initiating the relationship with the singer, not vice versa, as is usually the case.  Perhaps, due to the fact that his mind was plagued with "some problems", El's thoughts weren't really on romance.  But now that she does have him open, he's willing to give 'all that he has', i.e. 'all of his love', to his sweetheart.

I never knew the lyrics of this song possessed those intricacies until I just read them, because it's really DeBarge's delivery that makes this song, not its wording.  And you have to give credit where credit is due.  For instance, to be totally honest El DeBarge doesn't have much of a vocal range.  But what he does have is a very smooth voice which was seemingly made for songs like this.  And also keep in mind that this track came out during the post-disco 1980s when falsetto singers, such as Michael Jackson and Prince, also had to be a little sweet.  Like you couldn't sing falsetto back in those days - especially as a Blackman - and come off as being super-masculine.  So that reality likely influenced El's style also.

But what I really think makes this song stand out are its latter segments, i.e. the bridge and the outro.  And with the outro especially the rest of DeBarge - and apparently Bunny in particular - do an excellent job of backing El up.  Like it's kinda rare that you come across a song whose most exceptional part is its outro.

Besides Bunny, all of the members of DeBarge could play at least one instrument.  On this song, both El and James played keyboard.  But here's an interesting fact.  The guitar solo that's played between the second and third verses is held down by José Feliciano, aka the writer of Feliz Navidad (1970).  And the other instruments on the track were also played by musicians who were not part of DeBarge.

What's also interesting is the fact that El produced the song with Iris Gordy, i.e. the daughter of music mogul Berry Gordy, with Iris apparently being a VP at Motown at the time.  And according to Wikipedia, Berry himself was also involved, serving as the executive producer of the song, which probably means he had the final say on whether it was released or not.


A number of prominent artists have put their talents to All This Love.  At the top of the list, in terms of notoriety, would probably be Boyz II Men, who did so in 2007, when they were a trio instead of quartet.  It can easily be argued that Boyz II Men are better singers than DeBarge.  But still, the original is better.

Johnny Mathis dropped a smooth, jazz-sounding rendition in 2008.  His cover does a good job of illustrating how versatile a composition All This Love is, as in how it can be effectively covered by different singers.

Further back in the days, in 1996, Xscape also gave it shot, in the name of their cover being featured on New York Undercover, i.e. that cop show that was hot for a minute.  And theirs is actually the best of the lot, instrumental and all.  But you know, they still can't see El.

Patti LaBelle also dropped a cover in 1994.  I've never been a big Patti Labelle fan, but mom dukes loves her to death.  Her rendition, unlike the others on this list, was actually released as a single and therefore has its own music video.  In fact, it seems that even the original doesn't have its own video, which is understandable considering how long ago it came out.


DeBarge didn't sell a whole lot of records.  The 1980s was the decade in which music videos, i.e. visual imagery, really became an all-important part of marketing musicians.  And my argument is that they just weren't showy like that.  But either way, they did get around to dropping at least one genuinely-timeless hit, an achievement that most musicians can't really boast of.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Whiteboy Wednesdays: "Arthur's Theme" by Christopher Cross (1981)

As a student of anthropology, I learned that whenever two cultures meet certain standards - i.e. knowledge, practices and ideas - are inevitably exchanged and if in contact long enough, intermixed.  This is something people have understood since time immemorial, considering that one of the subthemes of the Old Testament revolves around that awareness.  And the reason I'm bringing that up is because even though this is the "Black arts review", sometimes I feel like writing about non-Black artists also.

Even if you are Black and prefer the music of your own people, by all means you're going to have a favorite White musician as well.  Well actually, I may not have a favorite White musician per se.  But I do have a personal favorite song headlined by a White artist, which would be 1981's Arthur's Theme by Christopher Cross.  So the purpose of this post is to research that track as the first installment in what will be dubbed the "Whiteboy Wednesdays" series.

The cover art from 1981's
Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)


Arthur's Theme is a very unique song, because the lyrics are based specifically on the plot of a movie but are also a lot more general.  For example, the word "Arthur" is not found anywhere in the track.

I spent a good portion of my life living in New York City, and my favorite place to chill during the evenings was at the Brooklyn Pier, blazin' a phat one while gazing at the bright lights of Lower Manhattan.   This was pre-9/11, when the skyline from that angle was graced by the Twin Towers, which definitely looked cooler at night.

I did return to the Pier a couple of times after the towers were destroyed, and the feel just wasn't the same.  Without the Twin Towers (and before Freedom Tower), Lower Manhattan looked a city from the 1920s.

But the point I'm trying to make is that there is something magical about New York City - the Financial District, Times Square, Madison Square Garden, etc.  NYC is one of the top tourist destinations for a reason.  And I now understand that Arthur's Theme is romance based, but I always interpreted it more as being about falling in love with New York City itself.  It's just you, the moon and NYC, with the former being representative of the beauty of nature and the latter, the best man has to offer when we all work together. 


Christopher Cross does his thing, but the vocals aren't mind-blowing.  Nor do they need to be, considering that he's backed by what I would call one of the best instrumental performances ever rendered in a mainstream song.  So I actually want to use the bulk of this article to give a shoutout to the individuals who played those instruments.

First would be the two which I think standout the most - keyboard and saxophone.  The former is rendered by Michael Omartian, who actually won a few Grammys alongside Cross.  Christopher Cross was pretty hot stuff during the early 1980s, and one of the biggest contributors to his success was obviously Omartian.  So evidently, them putting a quality song together wasn't like a fluke or one-time occurrence.

Ernie Watts (Saxophonist)

As for the impressive saxophone playing, the credit goes to Ernie Watts.  Watts possesses a lengthy discography, having worked with all-time greats such as Marvin Gaye, Dizzy Gillipsie, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Cher, Paul McCartney and innumerable others.  He even contributed to the soundtrack of Roots (1977), whose musical side was helmed by Quincy Jones.

A device built by Michael Boddicker (Keyboardist)

Meanwhile, the synthesizer is held down by Michael Boddicker.  He has a Grammy also, from a song he participated on as a writer, which is Imagination (1983) by Laura Branigan.  He's also won numerous other awards, especially during the first half of the 1980s, due to his skills on this instrument.  And if you look at the contraption displayed on his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he was heavily into his craft.  So now we see a trend developing, in that Christopher Cross clearly enlisted top-notch musicians to participate on Arthur's Theme.

Paulinho da Costa (Percussionist)

The percussion on the song was handled by Paulinho da Costa.  Being from Brazil, he's the only non-American to pop up on this list.  He's also worked with some big names, such as the late Michael Jackson.  In fact he played on all of MJ's albums from 1979's Off the Wall to 2001's Invincible.  And we know that Michael didn't joke around when it came to those he employed on his projects.

Steve Lukather (Guitarist)

Dave Hungate (Bassist)

The next three instrumentalists on the list are Steve Lukather, David Hungate and the late Jeff Porcaro (1954-1992).  They respectively played guitar, bass and drums on the track.  The reason I'm putting them all into one paragraph is because at the time, the trio belonged to a band called Toto, who were a multi-platinum act when this song came out.

Last is Marty Walsh, who served as a second guitarist.  His Wikipedia isn't as extensive as some of the others, but like them he did collaborate with A listers such as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, ABBA, etc.

But even without knowing the histories of these instrumentalists, the proof is in the product, and all you need to do is listen to Arthur's Theme to appreciate how good they were in their prime.  And the fact that all eight of them have their own Wikipedia pages says a lot, because with most other songs, even smash-hit singles, that's usually not the case.


I got around to watching Arthur awhile back - or at least as much of it as I could tolerate.  I was surprised to find out that it was one of the biggest box office hits of 1981, harping back to a day when superhero films weren't as dominant as they are now (though Raiders of Lost Ark and Superman II did outperform it).  The movie is actually pretty entertaining, with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli offering noteworthy performances (and Moore being nominated for an Oscar).  But it's also over an hour and-a-half long and starts to lose steam once you get about halfway through.

The truly amazing thing about the lyrics to Arthur's Theme is that besides serving as a beautiful ode to New York City, they also encapsulate the character of "Arthur" as portrayed by Moore. I guess that's why the song actually has two titles.


When the movie starts, "Arthur" a childish womanizer living large off of his family's wealth.  So they give him an ultimatum, that he has to marry a woman of their choosing who comes from the same class or be financially cutoff.  But instead he ends up falling in love with Minelli's character, "Linda", who comes from a much humbler background.

And that's the exact same thing that the first verse and chorus of this song seem to be saying, that "when you get caught between the moon and New York City", it's as if you can't really help who you end up falling in love with.  Of course, being unexpectedly smitten is a phenomenon which happens all around the world.  But the movie itself is set in NYC.  And to reiterate, Christopher Cross is also speaking to allure of nighttime Manhattan.

Ted Ross, who played "Bitterman" in Arthur.


Since this is the Black Arts Review, I wanted to use the opportunity to give a shoutout to Ted Ross (1934-2002), the actor who played "Bitterman", the main Black character in Arthur.  I knew I saw his face somewhere before, but it seems he's appeared in so many 1980s' sitcoms that I can't remember exactly where.

"Bitterman" is a chauffeur - albeit an entertainingly-solemn one whose mood contrasts Arthur's loose spirit - the quintessential loyal Blackman whose life is dedicated to looking out for an aloof White, sorta like Robert Guillaume's Benson.  Some may argue that his role was based on a racist stereotype, an idea that holds strong merit since the only other Black character I remember from Arthur was a prostitute.  But even to today honestly, most of the movies I come across seem to have Black people playing servile roles.


Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) deserved the Academy Award it won and then some, being one of the most cleverly-written and masterfully-composed songs ever.  I always enjoyed this tune from an audio perspective and knew that Cross was backed by quality musicians.  But only after doing this research did I discover that he really did use some of the top talent of his day.

And in terms of the writing, which he achieved alongside Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach (1928-2023) and Peter Allen (1944-1992), I've studied countless songs that were written for movies.  But none have done a better job of encapsulating the specific plot of the film while simultaneously boasting a larger, generally-appreciable sentiment than this one.  And since New York City is not really a major plot device in Arthur, whoever came up with the idea of associating this love song with the Big Apple really thought outside of the box.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

"Summer Soft" by Stevie Wonder (1976)

Stevie Wonder is my favorite music-industry artist of all-time.  He's been active for over 60 years now, and honestly speaking, I don't know if I'll ever get around to listening to his entire discography.  However, I have heard most of his studio albums, and I don't think that many people realize how dominant Stevie was during his heyday of the mid-1970s.

For instance, he won Grammys for Album of the Year three times within of four years (in 1974, '75 and '77) which, as far as I know, is a feat that no other musician has ever replicated.  And from what I can gather, it wasn't one of those situations like nowadays when someone wins a Grammy, and other musicians start beefing like they don't deserve it.  For example, it was the legendary Paul Simon who took home Album of the Year in 1976 for a project he dropped called Still Crazy After All These Years.  And in accepting the award, he actually stated "I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn't release an album this year."

The cover of 1976's Song in the Key of Life,
Stevie Wonder's signature work.

That 1977 Grammy that Stevie won was for Songs in the Keys of Life, which is unanimously considered to be his signature work.  It is also a double LP, and all things considered there are other songs from it that would have been a lot easier to research.  But I decided to go with a relatively-obscure track found therein, Summer Soft, as sometimes I feel like it is my favorite Stevie Wonder song.  Actually, it is so obscure that - combined with the fact that Keys of Life came out a good time before the internet age - information on it is basically nonexistent.  So what I'm rather doing in this post for the most part is celebrating it.

What is readily known fact-wise is that Stevie wrote and produced this track himself and also played about half of the instruments.  And that's one of the reasons why no one could f*ck with him back in his days, because he could not only envision a deep song but also, largely by his own hand, bring it into existence.  And one other participant on the track who at least has his own Wikipedia page is organist Ronnie Foster, who dropped a studio album (Reboot) as recently as 2022.

The reason I like Summer Soft so much is because on the surface it sounds like a love song.  But if you listen to it enough times, you'll realize that it's actually a war song.  Or, have you ever heard that saying that 'all's fair in love and war'?  To me these lyrics, in addition to how they are relayed, depict the similarities between those two phenomena, how the euphoria of being smitten can be effectively counteracted through the pain of abandonment.

As far as the title goes, it alludes to the fact that Stevie uses references to the seasons to get his point across.  Or as interpr by Genius, this "song captures the fleeting feelings of love and excitement as embodied by the changing seasons of the year".  I've heard other musicians try the same thing, i.e. using the seasons as metaphors, but none come close to doing so as effectively as Wonder does on this track, though Lil Wayne, an exceptional lyricist in his own right, did an admirable job on Mr. Carter (2008).  But I don't want to delve too deeply into the lyrics Summer Soft, as I'm hoping that you'll listen to it yourself and derive your own appreciation of it.

Stevie receiving the Gershwin Prize in 2009.  Fortunately, the audience
was treated to an effective rendition of Summer Soft.

In the meantime, here's a video of India Arie performing it in front of Wonder, President Obama and other dignitaries (including future-Prez Joe Biden) inside the White House itself, when Obama awarded Stevie with the highly-prestigious Gershwin Prize in 2009.  Arie is of course a well-known Stevie Wonder fan herself.  And I absolutely love this clip, like the visuals and everything.


I know how it feels to fall in love, and I also know how it feels to be forced out of it.  And to me these lyrics capture that in-between feeling, when you don't really know whether the other person (still) loves you or not.  And the reason I call this a war song is because if you listen to the way the chorus and outro rendered, they are done so with force - frustration if you will - as opposed to tender emitting of the verses, thus representing both the potential joy but conclusively the emotional pain of being emotionally dependent on a disinterested romantic interest.