Let’s start with a definition, courtesy of Urban Dictionary:
1.To tell someone about themself (sic), mostly used by gay black men.
“That was a read honey!”
“Don’t do it honey, I will read your ass”
2.(noun). a taunt or mockery. A phrase or word used to mock someone in a humorous way.
When she said that you should have taken the receipt with your haircut, that was a read.
I start with this definition because read in this usage is not in my every day vocabulary, and also because there is probably no better word to use to accurately and precisely describe what Oran Jones did at the end of this video. I also confess that I am a fan of what I call “talking songs.” You know, songs in which someone decides to have a conversation or a monologue at the beginning, middle or end. There are so many great ones when it comes to talking on songs, including one of my favorites, “Woman to Woman” by Shirley Brown. She’s so superb that when she calls Barbara on the phone, you don’t even think about the fact that you never even hear Barbara talking. But then again, if Shirley Brown calls you up laying everything straight out like that, you probably would just be quiet and listen for a minute too. Doesn’t she just look and sound like a Shirley Brown? I honestly feel like people named Shirley don’t take no mess off anybody. Shirley’s man needs to be careful, because if she can keep it trill like this with the other woman, I think she’s keeping it extra trill in another way on her man. Shirley don’t play, bruh. This was your one chance and I hope you didn’t mess it up or you’re gonna turn up missing. Oh, and by the way, Shirley is to this day on Malaco Records. Some of you don’t really know what it means to be on Malaco Records, but I always think of hard drinking, smoking Newports, red light bulbs, playing cards, cussin’, fur coats as soon as weather will barely permit, gold chains, cleavage, women who are thick and women who are just thick enough, talking loud outside on hot summer nights, and everything else your uncle Roger used to do before he started going to church and was “out in the world.” As a matter of fact, Malaco is doing all that on Saturday night and still making it to church on Sunday morning AND singing in the choir, trying and failing to cover up the smell of Ripple and Pall Malls with a peppermint. Malaco is why your aunt and uncle are always vague about how they met. That’s Malaco to me. To be honest, I feel like Malaco will always be too grown for me, no matter how old I get. I mean, do yourself a favor and look up Malaco’s roster sometime. There is some late night red light on there for real (Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Marvin Sease, Denise LaSalle, Bobbie “Blue” Bland, Jean Knight) but there are some names that I don’t know but want to:Battman D.e. Ganna Banna, Da Minista, Lil Bob E Bling, and Jewman. Plus, a few classics have made stops there, including Roberta Flack, Heavy D., Jerry Butler, and the Drifters.
What Shirley Brown was to straight up keep it one hundred, Lenny Williams was to soul-shaking pitifulness. You’ve been there: in love, and you don’t care what it makes you look like or who knows it. And he had one of the best talking segments on one of the best songs….ever. I mean:
“One time things got so bad until
I had to go to one of my friends and talk to him
And I told him, I said, “You know
I’m having problems with the woman that I love
It seems that I call her on the phone and I just can’t get her to answer
And then I went to her house and I saw a car parked in the driveway
I knocked on the door, but still my knocks went unanswered
And then I went home and I-I watched television until television went off
And then I played my records until I just didn’t want to hear them anymore
Let me stop for a minute–do you hear how old school that is? “Until television went off.” Yes…television used to go off. Youngins, I mean they’d actually sign off for the night, thank you for watching, and conclude the broadcast day by playing something patriotic. And when TV goes off, you know you’re up way too late because you got work in the morning and you’re up here watching a Little House On The Prairie rerun that you’ve seen too many times and you don’t even like Little House On The Prairie.
And finally I went to bed, but I found myself waking up a few hours later
And the tears were running down my face
And my friend told me, he said, “Lenny,
You just oughta forget about her”
But I told my friend, I said, “You know
Maybe you’ve never been in love like I’ve been in love
And maybe you’ve never felt the things that I’ve felt”
But this is what I told my friend
I said, “You know, sometimes you get lonely
You get lonely, you get lonely”
Yes, you do get lonely. This is pretty close to hearing a man cry on wax. And this joint is still so manly. Right now, these dudes sing about how they don’t really care about their women, or how they’re going to “beat it up,” or about how many women they have. And these dudes are softer than baby thighs. Yet here’s Lenny, emotionally raw and vulnerable and singing in a falsetto and sounding more like a man than any of them. A real man has been through some things…and Lenny is clearly going through some things on this record. Kanye West sampled this joint for Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” but honestly, it’s hard to sample something like this for a song like that and not dilute so much of the soul–Twista’s virtuosity saves it, really.
As great as these songs are, the real beauty is that songs with these talking breaks used to be pretty common. And they would be talking about some real things. Very real things. You want to know how real? Listen to Oran Juice Jones’ read at the end of “The Rain” again. You know the parts where he talks about how he missed her so much he followed her that day? And how he was about to run up on her and the dude she was cheating with and flat blast them both except that he didn’t want to get any blood on his clothes? Yeah. Did you know that Oran Juice Jones was a sniper officer in the U.S. Navy until 1986? (And incidentally, he was the second African-American Brigade Commander in Naval Academy history.) Juice didn’t need to run up on you. He didn’t even need to follow you that closely. Like I said, real things. Very real things. Even though the his ex-lady ended up walking the street braless and with no fur coat on, all things considered I think she still came out pretty well. I always wondered what happened to the Hush Puppy wearing cornball? Why didn’t she go back to him? But I digress.
So what happened to talking songs? A quick survey of the past 20 years tells you that talking songs are in a pretty sad state overall, with a few exceptions. There was Boyz II Men’s “End of The Road,” but that little talking snippet really isn’t even in the same league as any of these talking interludes, although it’s critical to the song and “End of The Road” is a great song. Side note, I didn’t think “End of the Road” could be any greater than it was, but after Diddy made the Day 26 Hopefuls battle it out using that song on “Making the Band,” it really took it to a whole other level. Matter of fact, you need to watch this right now. Peep how the Brian’s whole crew spontaneously backs him up…it’s on some Black Men United Part II tip. Diddy is trying to keep the stone face, but he knows, and he knows that he knows, and he knows that he knows that he knows that Brian isn’t going anywhere after that.
So yeah, “End of The Road” is great, and the talking part adds to it…but it’s not on the level of the other three I’ve presented. Although, again, the Making The Band rendition makes me want to move it up in the rankings just off GP. I can’t lie, when I watched that happen live, I felt something. You can also look at Floetry, but I discount them because when the Songstress Marsha Ambrosius went solo you, didn’t really miss the Floacist so much. And when you think about a quality song with a talk break, the talking doesn’t just add, it’s essential to the song. “Woman to Woman” without the phone call? “Cause I Love You” without the breakdown? Oran Juice without the read at the end? None of those are the same song. Although, I must say, the Floacist really brought something nice to “Say Yes,” which is a G.D.T. All Star in my book. (I’ve got to do a future post on G.D.T. as a service to mankind. Don’t let me forget.) Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” is one of the better recent examples of the talk break. Personally, I think Alicia’s talking voice is incredible…innnnnnncredible. Whoever she’s talking to on the phone, it’s a wrap for them when Alicia and her voice say, “I look…a lot different outside my work clothes.” With that voice, it’s amazing that she even had to talk to him for that long, honestly. Also, I can give OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious” some love. Even though I don’t put it in the same category, it gets a nod because it’s only talking. No rapping, no singing, just telling a story over some collard green horns and a cornbread baseline. Until my boy dropped the science on me recently, I thought Andre 3000 was asking “now who else wanna f*** with Hollywood Cole?” I thought there was some bad dude walking around Southwest Atlanta named Hollywood Cole who was fighting people in club parking lots and sending them off in ambulances. Turns out, he said Hollywood Court, which was a housing project in ATL. At any rate, in my mind there still is some bad dude named Hollywood Cole who is not to be trifled with. Jill Scott does a great job of weaving spoken word into her songs, and we can give her some love for that. But there’s just not a lot of great talk on songs these days, which is a shame because when it’s done right, it can take a song to another level. So Words About Sounds implores artists…bring back the talking. Make it part of the story…no navel gazing, no talking about how you’re the greatest–in other words, no breaking the fourth wall. Because when you put the right words to the right sounds, it’s so soulful, don’t you agree?