21 . . . WAYS TO GROW


In most genres coming-of-age records are somewhat rare (rock’s proliferation of coming-of-middle-age records doesn’t count), but in R & B they’re a staple. Typically the COA recording signals an artist’s move beyond the influence of their Svengalis or their childhood selves into a realm where they can put their own spin on the music. Many such recordings are classics: Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Janet Jackson’s Control, Teena Marie’s Starchild, Jody Watley, Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison, and Stevie Wonder’s 1972 double dip Music of My Mind and Talking Book. But lately the COA record is taking a beating–at least judging by the two recent releases by Aaliyah and Shanice, both highly contrived and ultimately unconvincing announcements of maturity.

The crass and pointless Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number was produced and written entirely by R. Kelly, the teenage singer’s lone contribution being the vocals. The boast in the album title is far better left for Tina Turner and the handful of other women of her age and glamour. The premise of the lead single “Back & Forth”–in which the 15- or 16-year-old (she plays coy about her age) croons about the joys of sex–is supposed to be scandalous. Yeah, right. Sadly enough, it’s not that uncommon for girls that age to be pregnant, or even mothers. And Aaliyah undercuts her own ploy with some of the most passionless singing about sex on disc. I only hope she fakes it better than she sings it. The song’s redeeming facet is Kelly’s production. In much the manner of acid jazz, he sandwiches layers of mellow vocals and smooth Soul II Soul-ish rhythms around jittery, frenetic beats and samples.

Were it not for the often inspired production and surprisingly solid songwriting, the album would be utterly without merit. Aaliyah twice claims the jazz mantle, but her knowledge of that genre is evidently limited. She equates the term with soft and melodic, displaying little of the jazzy phrasing that might raise her vocals above the level of generic. Perhaps the most curious part of the record comes in an interlude where, asked to freestyle, she sings “This is for the jeeps, for the jeeps, this is for the jeeps.” No, it’s not; not without a remix at least. The record is far too casual for cruisin’ road, its tone is at best a good fit for a stoop. Perhaps by the time she grows up a bit, she’ll learn the difference.

Shanice is much more earnest about her themes, but she can’t pull it off either. 21 . . . Ways to Grow is a marked improvement over the cloying girl-next-door attitude of her 1991 release, Inner Child (though I have to admit her 1992 hit “I Like Your Smile” was an ideal guilty pleasure). Shanice is all grown up now and ready for a modest attempt at the multiformat hit. Among the ten production teams–yes, ten, on 13 tracks–are Babyface, Jermaine Dupri, and Jam and Lewis proteges Lance Alexander and Prof. T.

This approach is a recipe for disaster. The recording starts out feebly, with two gauzy, formless interludes (yo, girl–interludes are usually preceded by something). Shanice’s voice has deepened a bit, but not enough to keep her producers from layering her vocals with all kinds of shimmering effects. Nevertheless the album’s most natural-sounding tracks are the best. On “Somewhere,” “Ace Boon Coon,” and “I Like,” all written by Shanice, she sounds self-assured and determined to elaborate her priorities. But this brief outbreak of maturity doesn’t last, and on the final six tracks she is straining just to be likable.

Ordinarily a COA recording offers shining proof of the validity, authenticity, and power of R & B. These records do exactly the opposite. In their embrace of artifice, complacent mediocrity, and willing corruption of form, they play right into the hands of R & B detractors who claim the music is inauthentic and mindless. In these two cases, the detractors are right.