The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, September 23, 2002
WHAT IS TRUTH – AND WHY SHOULD IT HURT?

One could be very cynical about Truth Hurts. The fact that her debut album Truthfully Speaking is executive produced by Dr Dre would inspire the cynical thought that Dre was looking for his own means of filling the gap left by Aaliyah. Certainly the sleeve would appear to confirm that to the cynic – note the inside cover pose against a blood red/orange background, exactly like the last Aaliyah album. On the inside back cover we see the Truth Hurts symbol emerge from a painted-on tear falling from the left eye of Shari Watson, the singer/songwriter who is to all intents and purposes Truth Hurts. But the “truth” isn’t quite what you’d expect. Thankfully, more Baudrillard than Locke.

From both the pouting photos and the single “Addictive,” we are ready to expect another in the long line of post-Aaliyah dispassionate, impartial, uncaring “soul” voices. Functional and giving absolutely nothing away.

The introduction “Push Play” would seem to confirm this still further. It begins with her declaring that she has to “get my shit together” over a gospel electric piano and backing vox. She is desperate for “the truth” to “be told.” At 1:07 the rhythm suddenly comes in, distant string synth climbing and fluttering down like MBV. A sample of KRS-1 from “I’m Still #1” (“niggers can’t handle the truth – in fact, they scared of it”) is introduced and subverted (“to all your R&B bitches” – replies Watson, “yes I AM”). “I’ll drop. Your shit. Put mine. On top,” Watson sings in stiletto staccato reply.

“Addictive” follows, about which you already know. Set against an irritatingly familiar but uncredited Bollywood sample (see ILM for an extended discussion on what it is), Watson sets out her idea of passion and the perfection of the Other necessary to fulfil it. It is unclear whether this is an actual man or simply an imagined desire. Enter Rakim, still thinking of a master plan, and employed of course to evoke the “Paid In Full”-Ofra Haza interface of 15 years ago. He sounds as though he has just been cryogenically defrosted. The relentless minor key undertow of the Indian song implies that this ideal isn’t going to be fulfilled.

Next, the seduction, or need for it: “Next To Me.” “It’s not just sex to me…It’s something like a drug for me/If you’re not next to me, I need Ecstasy,” Watson pleads against a vibraphone/acoustic guitar-dominated ethereal jazzfunk groove, her voice ceaselessly floating over bar lines; the passion taking precedence over measured rationality. Is she quite as strong as she makes out, or only as strong as she wants to be made? This track is the equivalent of the opening chord of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia; a perfection which can be glimpsed once but never quite recaptured.

A shaft of reality then blunts her dream; “Jimmy” reveals that her Other was a scrub masquerading as a saviour and is now in prison. It also reminds us that all songs with telephone calls in the middle are automatically brilliant. She starts by lamenting his absence and missing him, but then realises that there is doubt (though there are still hidden tears – hear how she weeps a dozen syllables out of the word “go”). And it’s a doubt which is explored in some depth over the succeeding three songs, “Grown,” “This Feeling” and “Tired,” which really constitute a single track; an extended dissertation on what sort of a person she is, what she wants set against what she isn’t given, how she views herself and how she wants herself to be reflected, what role love has to play in her life. Stylistically this again shows a debt to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which is clearly a much more influential record than was generally assumed at the time of its release. “Grown” reflects her emotional obstacle course by the fact that the drums seem to be limping reluctantly behind the bass. “If I feel disrespected, that should be respected.” In “That Feeling,” she is practically berating her Other for being so much – “are you trying to make it harder for the next man?” and then rails against “that same old regular bullshit – ‘cos it’s something when a man knows how to be unselfish/He can make a woman feel free.” She then rhapsodises in praise of the Other. This is what Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” SHOULD have said. This is where founded uncertainty triumphs over unfounded arrogance. An extraordinary performance. “That’s real,” she reveals the “truth” at its signoff, almost as a cast-off afterthought. In “Truth” she is no longer sure who she is except as a reflection of other people’s reflections, be it “the man I love who thinks we gotta compete” or “the prejudiced sales lady thinkin’ I’m a thief.” “Somebody tell me who the hell I’m supposed to be.”

(Welch again – “I’ll send a letter/don’t know who I am”)

A piano tinkles this sequence to an end before we segue into the Gaye-style funk of “I’m Not Really Lookin’” where she is searching more for herself (or convinces herself that she is) than for another Other. The attempt to make her time good founders, inevitably – DJ Quik guest-raps as a man getting away from his wife and the “nappies” - and she ends with a muttered, “Oh fuck it, where’s my drink?”, more alienated than ever.

From the crowd noises into the isolated rain (“does it hurt yet?”) which underscores the devastating “BS,” a soul ballad for which Alicia Keys could excavate her innards for the next half-century and still be incapable of imagining. “Bullshit pours down like rain,” says the chorus. “I don’t care what they say/’cos the TRUTH won’t change,” she replies in a scream. She is still some distance away from finding it. Big Rube guest-raps a conscience warning about being dressed to impress and being unloved, as one backing vocal wanders into disordered atonality behind him. When he growls “bitch nigger,” she is of course growling to herself.

In “Queen of the Ghetto” she turns her attention to the mechanics of even exposing this sort of soul searching on this kind of a record. One “Cita” from “Black Entertainment Television” starts deconstructing concepts of truth over the post-trip hop backing – “this industry is based on the ultimate bullshit and real life ain’t far behind,” going on to attack albums in general – “only one song is worth listenin’ to, and even that is shit Dre did six years ago!” The punchline of course being that the character of “Cita” is as unreal as anything else which exists (in fact is “virtual”), which she herself acknowledges by concluding that “truth is as real as they come, baby, it’s the fuckin’ truth, and it hurts!” All signifiers with no signified.

Appropriate, then, perhaps, that the song on this album which is actually entitled “The Truth,” is masterminded by R Kelly, who on the intro Watson hears knocking, but will not let in. There is no need to comment on the attendant irony of using R Kelly as a scapegoat for the failings of man. Her “truth” is that the Other is, to her, unattainable, and there is no satisfactory compromise. KRS-1’s original comment that “niggers can’t handle truth” is recycled and turned around at this song’s climax.

The next two tracks, alas, are surplus to requirement. Timbaland is on hand for the track “Real,” but disappointingly lets the side down with a barely concealed recycling of “We Need A Resolution” and “Get Ur Freak On.” A good job that “Work It” has confirmed that he still has some new ideas. Similarly, “Hollywood” is a rather redundant rant against the biz, with Dre unleashing a standard moan against everyone who is not he.

The ballad setting of the finale “Do Me” might suggest a conventional wind-down ending for this album, but in many ways it’s the most disturbing, and yet the most logical, song on the record. Bereft of the touch of the Other (either asleep, or tired, or more likely absent) she has no alternative but to satisfy herself. In contrast to the playfulness of Tweet’s “Oops,” Watson here realises the “reality” to which the journey of this record has led her; the most hurtful truth of all, that to subscribe to the R&B template of “loving me,” of “depending on me,” you are finally left with no one to love you except yourself. Thus does masturbation become a lament, a substitute, rather than emancipation. Self-satisfaction can have no other ending. Grief can sometimes afford no other recompense.

It ends: “I’m alone.”

April Wheeler, about to terminate three lives, arrives at the same conclusion, albeit in a far bloodier fashion:

“But she needed no more advice and no more instruction. She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
(Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road)


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