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Get Big or Go Home

Brooke Valentine's innovative major-label debut posted numbers any indie would kill for. So who wants to put out her next record?

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Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad could serve as a template for pop R & B success. Comely, limber, light-skinned artist who'll look good on the album cover? Check. Cameo by famous rapper on the single? Check. Two or three tracks produced by Timbaland? Yep. Songs about sex, shaking your booty, loving your good man, and dissing your no-good man? Got 'em. Now just spend an obscene amount on promotion and get ready to rake in an even more obscene amount of cash. Since it came out in June, Rihanna's album has sold close to 1.4 million copies worldwide.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Whether you're talking about roots rock, bop, 60s soul, or metal, genres are formulaic--otherwise they wouldn't be genres. Good Girl Gone Bad has great songs and superb production and has spent weeks in my CD player. Rihanna is simply a traditionalist rather than an innovator--Otis Redding rather than Sly Stone, High on Fire rather than Khanate.

Contemporary R & B has its innovators too. But compared to innovators in other genres, they don't get much recognition for their efforts, and their careers are circumscribed--especially if they're front women instead of producers, who in many ways are the real stars these days. Pharrell and Timbaland can do pretty much whatever they want, regardless of whose name is on the CD. But Kelis had to retire her Afrocentric pose and water down her alt-rock attitude to break big, and even then her success was short-lived. And Brooke Valentine's career trajectory has been even more painful.

If you just asked "Brooke who?" . . . well, yeah, that's the thing. The Houston native's full-length debut, Chain Letter, came out in 2005 and peaked at number 16 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart that April, but since then she's released only a handful of underperforming singles. She appeared on the album's cover wearing a cropped tank top emblazoned with a big-winged bat and holding a pen topped with a fake eyeball--a mild display of quirky humor that, by the fashion-shoot standards of pop R & B, qualifies as willfully eccentric. One of the booklet photos--Valentine standing in front of a gigantic wall of LPs--is just as odd. Everybody knows divas spend their money on shoes and bling--we're supposed to believe she collects vinyl?

Yes indeed. Chain Letter is one of those omnivorous, wide-ranging albums, like the Beatles' Rubber Soul or OutKast's Stankonia, that turns a genre inside out--R & B becomes the world, and the world is swallowed by R & B. Valentine's producer and cowriter, Deja the Great, is a hyperfertile genius; every song has unexpected twists, layered bridges, and gimmicks on its gimmicks; you can listen to the album a dozen times before you fully appreciate the tinkling music-box fade-out on "Tell Me Why? (You Don't Love Me)." On "Cover Girl" Deja and Valentine channel folk rock through Stax; on "American Girl" they bash Prince-inflected funk into riot-grrrl punk, with lyrics that suggest the two genres are bound together by an affinity for pop-culture detritus ("This Disney World's your underworld / Try to escape it / Just face it, you American Girl").

As a singer, Valentine doesn't have the firepower of someone like Beyonce, but she uses what she's got with enthusiasm and imagination, breathily harmonizing with herself on "Laugh Til I Cry," rapping like it's 1979 on the discofied "Taste of Dis," and yodeling over the loping Texas groove on "Pass Us By." She wails like a gospel air-raid siren on "I Want You Dead," which starts from the same man-hating stance as Rihanna's "Breakin' Dishes" but promptly vaults into a gleeful horror pastiche worthy of Danzig: "I'd rather see you in the cemetery, gagging, boxed up, full of maggots . . . hopeful thinking never hurt anyone." Even when Valentine is just extolling the virtues of the boogie, her brain stays in touch with her butt. "The junk in this trunk'll put a bump in your pants," she sings on "Taste of Dis," boasting that "even the girls are lookin'"--and you can stay in the damn closet if you want, R. Kelly.

Did I mention the entirely gratuitous and seemingly endless spoken-word dis aimed at Valley girls and their sleazy bimbo ambitions? Or the demented duet with Ol' Dirty Bastard, complete with burping organ accompaniment? Eclecticism in R & B has plenty of precedents--even Rihanna makes a foray into Avril Lavigne pop-punk on "Shut Up and Drive"--but snide goofiness is usually the prerogative of male rappers like Ludacris. "They think it's a dude, but it's me they see" goes the chorus to "Million Bucks"--Valentine knows R & B girls don't get away with this shit.

And in fact she hasn't. "Girlfight," the track she released to preview Chain Letter, peaked at number 23 on the Hot 100 on the strength of guest spots from Big Boi and Lil Jon, but "Long as You Come Home," the record's other single, didn't even make it onto that chart. "D-Girl," released in May 2006, sounds gothic and stoned, with a head-nodding beat, ominously surging keyboards, and a sample from N.W.A.'s "Dopeman" that patters over the Sturm und Drang like a whispered threat. It stiffed, as did "Pimped Out," which followed in November.

Those two most recent singles were meant to promote Valentine's second album, Physical Education, which was originally supposed to come out last summer--a year later it's still in limbo, with no formal release date announced. Virgin distributed Chain Letter, and on her MySpace blog Valentine blames the new record's delay on the label's merger with Capitol Records. There may be some truth to that, though the merger wasn't announced till January--but it's also true that if someone at the label thought the album would sell, it'd be on the shelves already. In a blog update last week Valentine said she's finally managed to get released from her Virgin contract, and she's no longer on the artist roster at the label's Web site.

It's not as though Valentine doesn't have a fan base: Chain Letter sold 340,000 copies, small potatoes by major-label standards but still an awful lot of records. I've seen lots of people online bemoaning the delay of Physical Education, and I've read plenty of reviews from hipster critics who think Chain Letter is amazing.

Problem is, for a pop R & B performer with merely decent sales, there isn't a way to translate critical approval into career momentum. If Valentine were a white rocker or a male rapper, the fact that her material was smart and distinctive and that she wrote almost all of it--her integrity, in short--could give her a way to connect with an audience. It wouldn't be money in the bank, but it could help her get established as a respectable, influential indie artist, selling maybe 100,000 units an album for the long haul.

Valentine was first signed by what's essentially an indie: Deja the Great runs Subliminal Entertainment, a Houston label that distributed her through Virgin. But compare Valentine's fate to Rihanna's and it's clear that it's a lot better, in the pop R & B business anyway, to be signed directly by a major without an intermediary--at least that way the people holding the purse strings are likely to have more invested in you. And if you don't have any major-label connection at all? Well, before Subliminal lost its Web domain to a company selling "hardwood audio/video furniture," the label's site announced that one of its artists was having his album released direct to ringtone. Good luck with that.

There is a viable indie R & B scene, but it's mostly devoted to neosoul--a subgenre with a lot more cred. When pop R & B artists like Nivea or Kelis have trouble making it in the majors, they don't move to small labels--they go overseas, where black American music automatically has the cachet to pull an audience. Kelis's second album was released in Europe, Asia, and Latin America after the lead single tanked in the U.S., and Nivea's third album came out in Japan last year. Both have yet to see release in the States.

On these shores, rockists--that is, music fans who salivate at words like "integrity" and "authenticity"--aren't especially interested in chart-chasing dance divas who dress like sluttier Cosmo models. Meanwhile popists--music fans who love Madonna and Ciara--are busy exploring, as Kelefa Sanneh put it in the New York Times a few years back, "a fluid musical world where it's impossible to separate classics from guilty pleasures." More power to them--but chasing the next hit doesn't leave you with much energy or motivation to go back and unearth a shoulda-been classic like Chain Letter. Even if--or especially if--it rocks. America loves its pop stars and its indie rebels. But when you're not clearly one thing or the other, no one knows how to market you. And that means you, and your fans, are screwed.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brook Valentine.

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