In 1990, Salt-N-Pepa walked onto the Hollywood set of “The Arsenio Hall Show” ready to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS. The men in the audience were fervently doing the signature Hall bark well beyond the call of the show. The Queens trio—Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandy “Pepa” Denton and Deidra “Spinderella” Roper—were there to promote their spot in a fundraising traveling tour of Heart Strings, a new musical about AIDS and HIV featuring Cher and Magic Johnson, where they would perform their PSA-rework of “Let’s Talk About Sex” titled, “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” Maintaining its message that if you’re having sex, you have to talk about “all the good things, all the bad things,” the alternate version fine-tuned the song so that its focus on sexual health was more explicit.
But it was hard to tell who in the audience was there to hear Salt-N-Pepa and who was just there to look. “We’ve talked about the image of female rappers in the past,” said Hall. “Your image is a lot more lady-like. Do you think that’s the reason for these guys?” A clearly frustrated Salt responded, “We’ve gotten a lot of flack about that.” She looked exasperated. “I’ve heard people say we’ve gotten over on our looks. First of all, I ain’t know I look that good. To get over for six years on your looks? We’ve been around for awhile and if it’s just looks, then that’s messed up.”
If their fan base included dudes who just had crushes, they only made up a sliver. The rest were there because S-N-P were spearheading a movement toward take-no-shit femininity that didn’t require them to dress like B-boys. “We’re not soft, we’re not hard,” Spinderella explained it to Arsenio. Salt lifted her Docs over his coffee table and told him their style was all lipstick and combat boots.
So much of the first decade of Salt-N-Pepa forged a path for women to follow for the next twenty years, both in rap and pop music, as well with social and sexual mores. The whole map of their conquest is laid out on their 1993 album Very Necessary. The confidence of “Push It”—which Pepa has insisted is about dancing, not about sex—and the emotional intelligence of “Let’s Talk About Sex” are present, but the womanly conviction here is far more plentiful than it had been in their music before. It was a palliative to the hyper-misogyny spewing from their male contemporaries. If Snoop Dogg and friends were going to harangue hoes, then in Salt-N-Pepa’s world, words like “hoe” and “hooker” were just as applicable to men. They maintained their themes of sexuality and empowerment—and were in good company with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” and TLC’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”—but it got a new look. Whether in combat boots or pum pum shorts, their message was still clear: women need to have agency over their sexuality and, if she’s safe, she can express it however the hell she wants.
The album’s lead single “Shoop,” in particular, is unintentionally prescient about the contemporary inverted misogyny so many feminists engage in now, in jest or otherwise. In the video, Pepa tells Salt and Spin about her weakness—“men!” they chant in unison—while she scours guys on Coney Island playing dice. It is reverse catcalling, a playful way of leveling the field of objectification.
In a 1995 conversation with Mary Wilson of the Supremes for Interview, Salt conceded that the perception of the group changed once they started talking more frequently about their own sexuality instead forecasting what goes on behind other people’s closed doors. “When we get raw and sexy some people say, ‘Why do you have to go there?’ I feel like, as long as you’re letting the world know that you're intelligent and you're to be respected and you have a mind of your own and you're taking care of business, ain’t nothing wrong with showing off what you got, especially when you work out almost every day to get it. Of course, you have to show it with taste and with class. It’s about having an attitude of your own.”
Part of that attitude was putting men like the ones in the “Arsenio” audience squarely in their place: sometimes women get to do the barking and no one gets to judge them for it. Very Necessary is packed with anthems that are unafraid to look at men with the same ogling eye and do not accept being told it’s unladylike. “None of Your Business,” the album’s third single, denounced slut-shaming before it even had a name and is stridently dedicated to pushing a message that no matter how desperately you want to judge women, it will not matter to them. Spinderella calmly raps, “How many rules am I to break before you understand/That your double standards don't mean shit to me?”
Just as combative, “Somebody’s Gettin’ on My Nerves” is one of the album’s finer (and fiercer) points. Salt-N-Pepa make club records, but this track shows off they fare just as well when the bars are the focal point. Salt raps with a sober precision that only comes with a particularly refined and potent fury (it is not dissimilar to Ice Cube’s bite on N.W.A. diss “No Vaseline”). It is also the perfect playground for knockout punches like Pepa’s “You rolled up on me in your man's Beemer/And I could look at you and tell you was a meat-beatin' daydreamer.”
Some of this ferocity is bolstered by the production handled by Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. While quips like, “Get off my bra strap, boy/Stop sweatin’ me” are part of S-N-P’s power, the track’s menacing bass is what keeps it ice cold. Azor had been mentoring the group since he put Pepa and Salt together as the duo Super Nature in the early ’80s. He had seen them through their four preceding albums, but after relinquishing production control to Salt for the Coltrane-sampling single “Expression” from their 1990 album Blacks’ Magic and a toxic romance between Salt and Azor ended, the women wanted more say in what went into Very Necessary.
A 1994 New York cover story reveals that Azor found “Shoop” uncompelling and that he wanted the group to take an even softer approach. Despite how much of a hand Azor had in the album production, Salt-N-Pepa's interest in keeping it more "street" endured. Songs like “Nerves” and “None of Your Business,” do have the trappings of the gangster rap that was populating the charts, its toughness mainly comes from the take-no-shit vocality delivered by the group. The album’s textures are as sundry as the city they are from: Opener “Groove Me” is indebted to the outer boroughs’ West Indian populations; “Break of Dawn” lifts the ecstatic sax from the J.B.s’ James Brown-produced “The Grunt” and takes Joe Tex’s funky “Papa Was Too” and pounds them into Queens Boulevard brashness. Public Enemy may have been the first to use “The Grunt” on their 1988 track “Night of the Living Baseheads,” but Salt-N-Pepa were in good company, as Wu-Tang Clan and 2pac both used the same sample in that year.
On top of the beats, it was Salt-N-Pepa’s relentless campaign for social and sexual agency that drove the album. “Sexy Noises Turn Me On” may sound a little bit dated in 2017, but the frankness with which the women express their needs is anything but. It is the precursor to so many Foxy Brown one-liners and songs like Rasheeda’s “My Bubble Gum” and Nicki Minaj’s “Get on Your Knees.” There are calls elsewhere on Very Necessary for reciprocity, like when Salt raps: “You’re under my control/I got your heart and soul/Go down and take your time” on opener “Groove Me” but they were pushing to do even more than just smash the insidious taboo that women can only perform oral sex, not receive it that many of their descendants have rallied for (see: Lil’ Kim’s entire 1996 debut album Hard Core).
This attitude bleeds through to tracks like “Step,” which uses a hefty sample of Hank Crawford’s jazzy “It’s a Funky Thing to Do” and comes off optimally unbothered. “Somma Time Man” is reproachful of male promiscuity (just like their 1986 Otis Redding-interpolating song “Tramp”), but so much of the critique is about infidelity and the lack of safety. Ultimately, Salt-N-Pepa’s mantra when it came to AIDS was, “If you don’t get it, you can’t spread it.” It is their entire ethos: sex is happening everywhere and it cannot be ignored because like all other thrills there are risks—risks you take with your heart and risks you take with health. If you’re doing it right, there’s no shame attached to it. It’s why they wrote “None of Your Business,” but also why they spent many of their television appearances talking about how easy it is to put on a condom.
Pepa and Salt appeared on “Charlie Rose” a year before the album was released to talk about their activism. “Some guys don’t think it’s macho, some girls are insulted if you ask to use a condom,” Salt told Rose. Pepa offered, “It’s not macho to get AIDS… You have to wear condoms like you put on a jacket when it’s cold…” With many fans confiding in them their own diagnoses with HIV and AIDS, they felt it was their responsibility to keep the conversation going. Very Necessary closes with a skit unlike almost any that has ever appeared on a pop album. Titled “I’ve Got AIDS,” the sketch is a harrowing performance from two members of the multicultural peer education group WEATOC from Boston, Massachusetts. The script is bold and stark, featuring a female member, distraught, explaining to her boyfriend that she has just come home from a clinic where she was told she was HIV positive. Her partner then accuses her of being with other men because, even though he is untested, he couldn’t possibly have HIV. To close it with something so dark is to remind your audience to take care of themselves and that committing to your cause means using your platform to disrupt. Their fearless outspokenness has been unrivaled in the mainstream, conscious rappers be damned.
Salt-N-Pepa, however, do not explicitly call themselves activists or even feminists. In the same interview with Mary Wilson from the Supremes, Salt also said: “I think we’re feminists to a certain degree. But I have no problem with the man being the man, as long as the man knows how to be a man.” The biggest song of their career, “Whatta Man,” is a paean to good-looking respectful guys. Peaking at No. 3, the track united the trio with En Vogue, who were still riding high off of their star-making sophomore album Funky Divas, released the year before. Although the song’s ballast may be “good men are hard to find,” the use of Linda Lyndell’s classic “What a Man” and Spinderella referencing Whitney Houston deep cut “My Name is Not Susan” in her verse still keeps it a celebration of womanhood. The video co-starred Naughty By Nature’s Treach, Pep’s IRL man at the time, and remains one of their fluffier offerings. In the context of the album, however, it rounds out the robust portrait of women’s romantic interiors: Not all love is fleeting and when it is good, it is so good.
That lyrical flexibility made Salt-N-Pepa so versatile. Like their contemporaries Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, the group was interested in exploring their own world, from quotidian romances and jealousies to the ever-present threat of AIDS, as well as gang violence and drugs. This panoramic view of not just personhood but womanhood paved the way for someone like Nicki Minaj to be a pop superstar while still sticking to her Smack DVD roots. Whether they were thinking about it at the time, their output has always been about giving women opportunity to express themselves.
In a recent interview on BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, rapper Remy Ma noted that because it is a genre that clings to youth, its legends get brushed aside. The acclaim dwindles and no one graduates to become like the Who or the Rolling Stones. Salt-N-Pepa were celebrated at VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors in 2016, but the event was specifically about female MCs and the celebration was a catch-all including so many artists for whom they were the forebears. They are classic enough to have toured with both the Fat Boys and N.W.A. (who were the women’s openers!) but are now relegated to ’90s nostalgia package tours, top-billed with people like Vanilla Ice. Instead of being canonized for their contributions to the genre, they are playing side-by-side with someone whose one hit song made a mockery of it. But that’s the thing about Salt-N-Pepa: There is so much more there than what you see on the surface.
The valences of “pop” and “weird” have become increasingly compatible in the last half a decade—Miley Cyrus eschewed her post-“Hannah Montana” trend-hopping for an album co-written by Wayne Coyne, PC Music traded in their outsider art status for an imprint deal with Columbia, and member Danny L Harle released a track featuring vocals by Carly Rae Jepsen. But the mainstream has always cherry-picked from the underground and alternative artists have always had pop proclivities. (Remember The Whitey Album, Sonic Youth’s tribute to Madonna?) Nothing about this overlap is particularly shocking or rebellious anymore—from albums to playlists and beyond, the monoculture always finds a way, and everyone will someday inspire Kanye West.
Sound designer and producer-turned-musician Katie Gately falls into the Avant-Garde Goes Pop category. She works with found sounds and meshes those odd samples with pristine vocals to create more than just tokens of her findings. Her debut full-length Color, out on premiere outré label Tri Angle Records, is certainly exploratory pop but adheres to certain sounds of the mainstream at its core. Gately’s work may not be mistakable with Katy Perry’s, but what sets her apart from the avant-pop pack is that her constructions have the sublime polish of Top 40. Her songs are infectious the way pop should be but without perfunctory lyrics, and they stick to you because what Gately creates ends up sounding just so very big.
Gately benefits from sound design know-how from her film production MFA studies at USC and her professional experience. This skill set benefits the intricacies of her beat constructions—harmonies built on tweaked vocal samples to bolster her own voice (“Sift”); cello and garbage-can percussion eloquently melding to make something reminiscent of grunge, but still reflective of current electronic trends at its core (“Frisk”). But Gately’s work is more in line with Lady Gaga’s theater-kid tendencies than, say, Grimes. Her work is likely to be compared to Holly Herndon and Björk, particularly because of the Haxan Cloak’s involvement with Vulnicura, but its forebear is really Madonna’s Ray of Light (save its sugarcoated title track). That album may not sound particularly revolutionary in 2016, but in 1998, the meshing of ambient, trance and electronica for a massive mainstream audience has helped pave the path for the last 20 years of pop music. Gately, working alone, somehow takes the dark tones of that album, bolds the colors and makes it sound even more expensive.
It’s both something old and something new for Tri Angle. Despite having previously housed artists like How to Dress Well and AlunaGeorge, the label’s name tends to evoke abrasiveness —the deconstructed club destruction of Rabit; Lotic’s silvery violence or the blistering funeral procession led by the Haxan Cloak. Its recent signees, R&B-classical hybridist serpentwithfeet alongside Gately, signal a push away from the acerbic that is still able to straddle the label’s interest in anxiety.
This is what makes Color so remarkable. It boasts the sort of large-scale electronic compositions that can often feel monolithically lonely, and she does it all by herself. And yet the album sounds and feels collaborative, as if it were the product of multiple viewpoints and inputs. It seethes with so many sounds and ideas that it sounds like a conversation, rather than a monologue.
You hear that particularly on tracks like “Sift” and the album’s lead single “Tuck,” as it twists through global influences—some of which are maybe a little bit questionably appropriative, similarly to Madonna’s exploration of celebrity-style Buddhism—that invoke the presence of others. Sometimes those shifts don't always land; “Sire” climaxes with too much distortion, and “Rive” utilizes an orchestra that sounds more demented than inventive.
Tri Angle releases tend to point toward the future, and with Gately’s album, it means that lo-fi pop is bounding for more gloss. But the ultimate takeaway from Color is not just another unconventional vision of what’s to come, it’s circling back to the label’s origins. Despite the gloom or brutality of Roly Porter or Evian Christ, it still has a Lindsay Lohan tribute album in its history. Granted, that mixtape, 2010’s Let Me Shine for You, is comprised of erstwhile witch-house covers and remixes by the likes of Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, but it portended so much of the composite dance music to come. Gately’s effort is not just a blockbuster of a debut, it is the next stage in Tri Angle’s obsession with pop music as an influence - and the first that is primed to have the world pop world return the favor.
Major Lazer's image has always been a bit slippery. Having gone through a number of member and affiliate changes since UK producer Switch—one half of the founding production team, along with Diplo—jumped ship in 2011, their ever-evolving mission has been confusing, sloppy, and not entirely easy to nail down. Their debut album Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do was a singular artifact of Diplo's fascination with global dance music, for lack of a better catchall, for which he is often called out as an appropriator. Despite the fact that he and Switch worked on the album in Kingston and recruited dancehall bona fides for every track, from icons like Vybz Kartel and Mr. Vegas to up-and-comers like Brooklyn bashment luminary Ricky Blaze, it was still sticky with an undercurrent of tourism.
But with all of the pitfalls Major Lazer has faced since its inception—solo Diplo's hypeman Skerrit Bwoy's departure for religious pursuits; mismatched guests like Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend for sophomore album Free the Universe—Peace Is the Mission finds the group finally emerging from their cocoon. What helped to pierce them out of a murky, genre-blurring funk, it turns out, was the confidence (and perhaps the notoriety and resources) to cash in and go full pop.
Even though Diplo already had work with major pop stars on his CV (namely, Beyoncé's "Pon De Floor"-sampling "Run the World (Girls)" and on Madonna's recent Rebel Heart), it was Major Lazer's inclusion on the Lorde-curated soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 that truly marked this sea change. Their contribution, "All My Love" featuring Ariana Grande, maintained their penchant for dancehall-inflected festival dubstep and worked in a winky interpolation of "Lollipop (Candyman)" by Aqua (yes, the "Barbie Girl" group), all with a much slicker sheen. The song could have been just another paycheck, a chance to go for polish on a non-album project while staying esoteric with their own work, but lead single "Lean On", a collaboration with Danish upstart MØ and DJ Snake of "Turn Down for What" fame, indicated that they were sticking to this new refinement.
These tracks also illustrate what Major Lazer excel at: crafting intricate, innovative EDM for honey-voiced singers that pushes boundaries people like David Guetta and Calvin Harris seemingly refuse to touch. Album opener "Be Together" with Chicago sibling duo Wild Belle combines breathless yearning and skittering percussion in a way that sounds new, while the warbled soul of "Powerful", featuring vocals from Ellie Goulding and reggae artist Tarrus Riley, swoons in a way we don't expect from the production trio. With his performance, stripped of patois and giving every Top 40 pretty boy a run for his money, Riley offers the album's best example of Major Lazer's ability to synthesize their influences. Where the previous two full-lengths tried to mesh opposing forces, here, they are finessed into no-nonsense stadium rattlers. Riley can master an EDM power-ballad, while the menace of a rapper like Pusha T meets its match with dancehall vet Mad Cobra on "Night Riders". Even a refreshed "All My Love" benefits from additional vocals from soca singer Machel Montano.
"Lean On" and "Powerful" will likely end up the big hits of Peace, but tracks like "Too Original" with Jovi Rockwell and Swedish singer Elliphant, "Light It Up" featuring a guest appearance from R&B-reggae duo Brick and Lace's Nyla, and Chronixx-featuring "Blaze Up the Fire" also show a group locating its footing. They accomplish the, well, mission the group has trained its sights on since its genesis—and it's because they've linked with artists who also deal in fusion. They're not forcing it. There is no doubt Peace Is the Mission will suffer some criticism from dancehall purists, those exhausted by EDM and people who hate Diplo (a hate that he has certainly worked overtime to earn), but their maturation is palpable across the album's nine tracks. In the process, they've made a great pop record through uniting some of the globe's most exciting and celebrated pop artists.
Wale’s alignment with the Top 40 rap crowd never felt like a healthy fit. Since his 2011 alliance with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music, the D.C. rapper has found success but has never seemed comfortable with it. And the critical failure of his last album, 2013’s The Gifted, must have shaken him to his core, because at first blush, his latest effort, The Album About Nothing, screams "return-to-form." Its title nods to his 2008 "Seinfeld"-referencing breakout The Mixtape About Nothing, a freebie hosted by Fool’s Gold impresario Nick Catchdubs. This was around the time when the first wave of "weirdo" nerd guys like himself, Charles Hamilton, a pre-pop B.o.B and Kid Cudi were springing forward—emotional, obsessed with melody, ambitious, accessible. Wale promptly eschewed that sensibility for guest verses on songs like Waka Flocka Flame’s strip club paean "No Hands" and Ross’ my-cum-tastes-good commercial "Diced Pineapples". Through it all, he struggled to exude palpable confidence. So what does it mean that after all of this push-and-pull, his fourth studio album finds him gazing back towards his origins?
The Album About Nothing begins by holding a mirror to Wale’s past, which reflects some of the trappings of his more-famous present. The intro is informed by go-go, D.C.’s signature reworking of funk, and a sound he used frequently early in his career. And once again, the voice of Jerry Seinfeld acts as commentary, stitching the tracks together thematically. But Wale doesn’t have to rely on audio clips from "Seinfeld" anymore: He has Jerry, himself (the two are friends, and Jerry even name-dropped him as one of his "top five" in Top Five) providing the sound bites. On "The Helium Balloon", one of the more interesting songs on the album, he laments his reception as an artist, adding "Still know what my core needs/ So fuck who ignores me." What follows isn’t so much the diligent fan service all this promises, though, so much as a muddied collage of attempts at current trends and a lot of sour disaffection. In other words: a Wale album.
Wale clearly remains frustrated with his inability to ascend to the top tier, and on Nothing he presents himself as a rap-industry antagonist. He burrows into the background of "The Middle Finger", revealing his discomfort around other rappers and making a hook out of "Fuck you, leave me alone." On "The Glass Egg", he opts for cleverness over anger, upending Groove Theory’s "Tell Me" and flipping its lyrics ("I’ve been doing my own thing"; "Tell me if you are for real") from their original incredulous-about-a-crush context into the cry of an outsider. It works so well that it’s almost surprising no one has done it before.
Nothing is a long album, with one cut coming in over the six-minute mark, and when it is sludgy, it is exhausting. The most unfortunate moment is "The One Time in Houston", an amateurish attempt at the city’s signature syrupy screw sound. "The Girls on Drugs" cleverly samples Janet Jackson’s house party celebration "Go Deep", but isn’t packed with enough of Wale’s dour thoughts to sound like he’s doing anything more than cribbing Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late flow. For someone who spends so much time decrying other rappers’ lifestyles, it’s a wonder why he is pantomiming at all.
Interpolation is one of the constants of Nothing. "Balloon" concludes with a pseudo-dancehall coda loosely riffing on Ini Komoze’s crossover "Here Comes the Hotstepper". "The Success" borrows from the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". "The Body" fully rips "You Remind Me of Something" by R. Kelly, who might not be the best guy to pay homage to in 2015, but when you have Jeremih, an heir to the Chicago R&B throne, on the hook, it’s a little easier to take. "The Body" is the last of five romantic songs on the album, most of which fail to captivate: Only on his Usher collaboration "The Matrimony", and on the tender "The Bloom (AG3)", where he reminds us how good he sounds rapping over a live band, does he sound alive.
Wale remains intent on dismantling the public’s sour perception of him, but he doesn’t seem to know how. He wants us to know he’s "Lil Wayne meets Wayne Perry/ Bad brains from the go-go" ("The God Smile") but he’s loaded his album with the opposite: There are no lyrical acrobatics à la Weezy in his prime, and his reference to Wayne Perry is a head-scratcher because Wale has never purported to be a gangster. He waxes political on the J. Cole-featuring "The Pessimist" about the negative perceptions of black America, through the lens of police brutality or "Love & Hip-Hop", but is missing the punk fervor of the Bad Brains he namechecks. While there are clear themes throughout the record (love, black experience, a rapper’s malaise), The Album About Nothing is mostly about fear. Fear of becoming an outsider projecting a false hatred of the inside, fear of pushing musical boundaries to nurture one’s own creativity, fear of being vulnerable and, thusly, denying his listeners access to himself. If Wale could only shatter those walls and deliver an album where he no longer sounds like a caricature of himself—it’s no wonder he loves "Seinfeld"—he might finally get back the amnesty he has been so desperately grasping at for the past five years. All he has now is Nothing to lose.