x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Teedra Moses heading out of the artistic wilderness at speed

The New Orleans R&B singer/songwriter has signed to a new label and the mixtape Luxurious Undergrind holds out the promise of vindication for the loyalty of steadfast fans.

When the New Orleans R&B singer and songwriter Teedra Moses played a one-off show at London’s 229 Great Portland Street basement venue two years ago, it was poorly promoted and so shakily set up that the singer was beset by technical difficulties as soon as she took to the stage. None of this prevented the gig from selling out, nor the crowd from receiving Moses with rapt adoration. When she sang, her audience sang back to her in the kind of way that one does almost unconsciously, with words that come unbidden because of how deeply embedded they are. Not just the words, either; almost everyone in that crowd knew every breath, hesitation and vocal trill.

It’s now been seven years since Moses has released any official material. TVT Records, the imprint on which her debut album, 2004’s Complex Simplicity, was released, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008. The rapper Pitbull, one of Moses’ former label-mates, has recently spoken about the ways in which TVT inhibited his commercial potential through restrictive contracts and limitations on collaborations. For his part, Pitbull took advantage of being freed from TVT to head straight for chart ubiquity, hopping on every trend and bandwagon to do so, a path that would have been unimaginable to Moses.

Instead, she sank into the low-key obscurity that she had never quite emerged from in the first place. Even her songwriting credits for other artists – which had proved fruitful a few years earlier, with Christina Milian’s Dip It Low (2004) and Trina’s Here We Go (2005) becoming Moses’ biggest hits – appeared to dry up. For most artists, that would be that; the elephant’s graveyard of R&B is full of former divas whose careers were briefer than expected. Few sustain a loyal cult audience in the way Moses has. The occasional free mixtape kept them happy, of course, and this year came the news that Rick Ross, the rapper whose Teflon Don album last year consolidated his status as a heavyweight in the genre right now, had signed her to his Maybach Music label. The long-awaited follow-up to Complex Simplicity is, officially, in train. In the meantime, Moses celebrated with another mixtape – and Luxurious Undergrind is one of her best yet.

As might be expected, Moses’ voice is magnetic: it doesn’t overpower the listener, but instead cuts to the core of what she sings. She sings with clarity, both in terms of her high, pure vocal timbre and in the way she conveys precise emotions, whether giving in wholly to a feeling – the comfort in yearning of 2004’s Rescue Me, for instance – or, more often, exactly nailing down the experience of being caught between two conflicting ones. Over her material, Moses constantly returns to the theme of conflict between the head and the heart – giving in to sexual chemistry with a lover she feels nothing for on Backstroke, forcing herself to subsume the love she still feels into a breezy kiss-off on So Kool.

It’s a subject she articulates with poise, perhaps the characteristic that most defines her as a performer. Rarely, even when she’s singing about “going out of my head”, do you feel that Moses genuinely loses control, certainly not with the raw passion of a Mary J Blige or Keyshia Cole. Rather, she uses her songs to regain her grip on ambiguous situations or to luxuriate in the sheer pleasure of feeling.

These qualities all contribute to the very specific – and lonely – furrow that Moses has ploughed over the years. These days, she calls it “champagne soul”, defining that to Vibe as “grown, exquisite, kind of eloquent and luxurious but it’s raw at the same time”.

This places Moses in a lineage that includes figures such as Sade and Maxwell: she doesn’t sound like either, per se, but shares similar aesthetic values: smoothness, sophistication and a certain classiness of presentation, but without holding back or remaining on the surface lyrically, a stance that separates Moses from the more matriarchal neosoul artists out there.

The balance Moses strikes is between the sophistication of her sound – to which the aforementioned poise is crucial – and the frequency with which she delivers no-frills real talk. On the gospel-inflected a capella Wish U Were Here, she curses sweetly, twisting the knife on an ex-lover with aplomb; on To Hell With It, she sleeps around to overcome heartbreak. Moses is invested in ideas of classiness for sure, but entirely on her own terms.

Luxurious Undergrind is about the most appropriate title for a Teedra Moses product imaginable, then. The opulence is found most obviously in the sound. Beats splash like water being poured into a glass and ­liquid synths ripple in the backdrop behind Moses’ silky voice. The mixtape opens with a 13-second jazz intro that segues seamlessly into a classic hip-hop beat, A Tribe Called Quest’s Excursions, a juxtaposition of refinement and rawness that seems to encapsulate Moses. Repurposing the menace and funk of Excursions on Another Luvr to underpin an elegant kiss-off, the bass line’s swinging hips are set off by cool, collected backing vocals, its motion keeping the track moving even as Moses keeps herself moving on in her narrative.

Falling 4 U finds her in her most comfortable position as a lyricist: overthinking, weighing up and analysing a potential love affair from every angle, dissecting her own heart with both a scientist’s accuracy and an artist’s passion: “I want to run cuz I’m scared cuz I’m into you.” She revels in the sheer pleasure of intense feeling, but Moses’ innate caution seems to win out, and she seems content to let the liaison reside in her imagination for now.

The reverse is true on The One, on which she second-guesses her lack of emotion to cogitate on the attainability of romantic fantasy: “Everyone tells me that love takes work and time,” she muses. “Maybe that’s real talk, but I need someone that gets me high.” Even the outright seduction of Invitation comes with a warning: Moses promises potential, a love that will “cool your summers, warm your winters”, but underpinning the track’s tactile delicacy is her whispered reminder at its start that “if you really think you wanna, you’re really gonna have to get it right”. Without an element of internal conflict, both Moses’ songcraft and delivery seem to become less remarkable: the more straightforward Special, for instance, sounds lovely but lacks the emotional heft found elsewhere.

Moses may seem self-involved, but at no point does her music suggest navel-gazing: the uncertainty that recurs in her material is relatable above all, and if her reverie is such that she seems to be singing half to herself at times, it is only a reflection of her audience’s concerns.

She remains vague on the release date of her second album, though her signing to Maybach Music is a promising sign. As an artist, Rick Ross’s elevation to heavy commercial hitter seems to have come about by default; it’s certainly little to do with his skills, either lyrical or performative (he is resolutely unimaginative, and half a decade into his career still has the breath control of a novice rapper). But what has been apparent of late is his own fondness for combining “luxe” and “hood” signifiers, setting financial braggadocio to lush, sweeping arrangements. Teedra Moses’ role as Maybach ­Music’s first lady, then, seems oddly appropriate.

 

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.