Sinead O’Connor and Lil’ Kim might not seem to have much in common, other than a flair for offending churchgoers. Which neither of them has done in awhile; one of the more recent things they share is a certain downward career trajectory. (You need to be simulating exorcisms on the Grammys to turn the Catholic League’s head — more on Nicki Minaj later.) But both of them built those careers by defying expectations and using the full force of their often idiosyncratic personalities. And this week, they’ve both hinted at comebacks. Lil’ Kim very modestly, with the release of a new, Valentine’s Day-themed song, “If You Love Me”; and O’Connor, boldly, with an NPR stream of her brilliant, gorgeous new album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?”
In her spot-on write-up of “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?” (out next week), Ann Powers borrows some academic thinking to help explain O’Connor’s special power:
Here's a term that might not seem too musical: "immediacy behavior." Educators use it to describe the way a teacher acts to gain the trust of his or her students. Open body language, an engaging way of speaking, a warm, direct gaze — these cues, as much as any words uttered, forge the connection that makes learning possible. Immediacy behavior is crucial to making great pop music, too. Artists rely on it to get their points across. For some, it's an occasional stance, taken when the spotlight narrows and the spectacle falls away, as when Lady Gaga performs at her piano. Others make it the center of their creative process. It doesn't matter whether they're genuinely confessional or just good at weaving a story. We trust what they tell us … Immediacy behavior is Sinead O'Connor's métier.
Here we see O’Connor and Lil’ Kim in relief. Kim’s never been about warmth. If we had to name her métier, it would be standoffish sexuality — she is direct and in some ways (absurdly) intimate, but you never anticipate her full embrace. We’re thinking in particular of a song like “Not Tonight,” where she remembers “Jimmy, [who would] lay me on my back, bustin’ nuts all in me,” all as a way of setting up the chorus: “I don’t want dick tonight/Eat my pussy right.” That’s a rather literal example, but you get the idea.
Kim’s new song takes a softer tack, although the “if” in the title is a big one: The man to whom she’s offering her Valentine — and indeed, her dreams, of a family and a “house on a hill” — won’t say he loves her in front of anyone else. But what makes this track isn’t the conflict — that’s merely of a piece with Kim’s, you know, métier — or her rapping, which is muted, even half-hearted. The song is slick and compact, appealing in a “Drive” soundtrack sort of way, and while the rhymes may be lackluster, the whole package speaks of ease, even confidence. It helps — a lot — that she’s not attacking Nicki Minaj, whose new song, “Starships” (also released on Valentine’s Day), sounds almost desperately pop. (It changed our brain chemistry after the second listen, and now we love it.)
If Lil’ Kim has shown a little savvy, Sinead O’Connor is fully in herself, and the moment. So much so that a song like “4th and Vine,” a wedding ditty, seems to dare the future to go pear-shaped: “I’m gonna marry my love, and we’ll be happy for all time … we’re gonna have six children, and enough love for them,” she sings, effervescent world music cresting around her. If this is her way of positioning herself to once again offend those churchgoers, it’s one hell of a feint. (Although as Powers tells us, “Take Off Your Shoes” is a sort of message to the Vatican.) But make of it what you will — honestly, stream the album now if you aren’t already.