Mack Wilds' forgotten love story

September 11, 2017

 

Hip-hop and R&B's reluctant relationship has always been complicated. Thankfully, however, the push and pull of the two genres has ended in a fruitful union. Today, we see the two genres as one. And we're able to look back on the years of their contention the same way we were able to look back on Jamie and Fancy's courtship, once they finally tied the knot in the finale episode of "Jamie Foxx Show."

 

With the advent of hip-hop, clearly defined lines between the two genres meant acts like Luther Vandross, Prince and Chaka Khan had to sneakily incorporate the influences of the street culture into their late 80s and early 90s efforts. Black radio hosts had to defiantly cry, "None of that rap crap," to their listeners on-air. On the hip-hop side of things, sing-songy lyrics and hooks were a taboo that warranted accusations of "softness" from gatekeepers within the culture. Even though the genre was built from the instrumental breaks of funk, disco and soul singles, there was no room for a rapper to test his or her own vocal prowess until Biz Markie did so in jest.

 

Not until the 90s did the two genres finally found common ground. It was the "new jack swing" that made it okay for soulful artists to stow away the pianos and guitars in favor of hip-hop breaks. As both genres matured and the boom bap production style faded in popularity, acts like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Total, Xscape and SWV, continued the tradition to shape the less-percussive "hip-hop soul." It's exactly that sweet spot in the romance between hip-hop and R&B that is the basis of actor/singer Mack Wilds' debut "New York: A Love Story", released in the last quarter of 2013. Wilds dusts off the vibe of mid and late 90s rap radio to concoct an intoxicating retrofuture is effectively timeless as a result.

 

Where "New York: A Love Story" doesn't directly sample rap tunes, it interprets popular samples from staple songs in the genre. The technique is a lost art in the hip-hop soul genre, which has grown to mirror hip-hop's signature attitude more than its sound in recent years.

 

Wilds, a Staten Island native, begins things close to home, singing "Wild Things" over the incessant knock and finger snaps of "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F' Wit." Wu general Method Man even joins him for master of ceremonies duties on the song. Producer Salaam Remi aids Wilds along on the non-melodic skeleton of the beat by embellishing the composition's horns to become fatter and more convicted. Without causing too much of a clash, Remi adds orchestral notes of strings and woodwinds to the thumping street beat.

 

Remi is credited for production and co-production on each of the album's 13 tracks. It's no coincidence that the master beatmaker was able to blend the singular vision of hip-hop and soul, as made his name from hanging in a balance between both worlds. After all, it was Remi who sold Nas and Amy Winehouse the same beat in the early 2000s. Now, with Wilds, he closes the gap, taking breakbeats and polishing them with soulful instrumentation, forcing a square peg into the hip-hop circle.

 

Wilds and Remi snatch up inspiration from Jay-Z's "You, Me, Him & Her", Group Home's "The Realness" and Eric B. & Rakim's "Eric B. for President" before the affair is complete. When not lifting from rap's past, the two make a passionate ploy out of their original material. Most captivating is the slow-burning, "Don't Turn Me Down", co-written by Rico Love. Borrowing from Bob James' "Nautilus", a song sampled enough in rap to become passe, the trio slow the jazzy sample down to a sappy, sensual crawl.

 

Akin to his pursuits in the acting world where he's most notable for a part on HBO's "The Wire", Wilds plays the role of a young man in a naive summer fling on his debut album. "I'm all about creating the full story, and having it where when you listen to it, you're going through a whole journey, instead of taking little pit stops (to listen to specific tracks)" Wilds told Hot 97's "Ebro in the Morning" crew in June 2014. "When you listen to it from front to back, it takes you on a story." In spots, his advances in song can seem shy and sophomoric. It's appropriate, however, to the character he portrays on record. By the album's end he expresses his growth within what began as a common tryst, asking questions about love while looking ahead. He sounds his most adult and confident on the album's title track, one of the album's few songs that is performed sans-breakbeat. Wilds opts channel Stevie Wonder on the song, using vocal interludes to represent a conversation between him and his love interest about the legend's most famous work. It's a verbose song, perfect for the parsed down instrumental it came packaged with.

 

Two songs later, Wilds retreats into childish wonder, again. Sheepish and reserved, the singer stumbles around in a simulated drunken confession. "New to this drinking thing," he admits in the opening line's serenade. Wispy, haunting synth guides Wilds on the ride home to safety and sanity.

 

The natural resolution to a summer love is the pendulum swing back into contentment. Fittingly, "New York: A Love Story" ends with an epilogue that includes a cover of Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time." It's jarring to hear the song's lyrics from someone other than the King of Pop, but it feels less like an impression and more like a remix, as Wilds' version calls back the elements from Mobb Deep's "The Learning" used on his lead single, "Henny."

 

Wilds returned in 2017 with sophomore effort "AfterHours", abandoning many of the tools that made his debut feel like a gem rescued from the era of baggy Tommy Jeans jackets and processions of Jeep Wranglers. For that reason, his second album, much like his first, got shuffled into the bunch of albums released around it. His debut didn't deserve it, though.

 

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