When James Brown roared unforgettably, "This is a man's world," his words bit at the heels of reality. But the godfather of soul was quick to mitigate his assertion with reason, "But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl." It's undeniable that the majority of 2003 was pumped with more overemphasized brawn than a gym's weight room. From hip-hop beefs and their antagonized masculinity to frenzied 50 Cent hysteria, one could only wonder when the airwaves would soften or more aptly, Where da ladies?
Then, just in time for midriffs and booty shorts, four R&B wonders breeze in like the black Charlie's Angels, combating naysayers that believe pretty girls in strappy heels can't continually knock out chart-toppers with catchy music that smiles, neutralizes and, if they're lucky, also pops.
Check the fabulous recrudescence. The hair is finger-running straight, the legs have been oiled just right, and the happy cleavage is in full view. The hips have been rediscovered and are flexuously swinging any which way. The shackles of the cutesy girl image have been broken along with the binding restraints of superfluous clothing. The first-name songbirds are geared up for this summer's real blockbuster, "Full Frontal: The Road to R&B Diva," starring the buoyant Beyoncé and the sweetly seductive Ashanti with appearances from the undervalued Monica and the caramel-dipped Mya.
A glimpse at music videos from the Fabulous Four proves that this summer is being filled with more eye candy than a P. Diddy video. Oh, and lots of wet bodies too, as water seems to be the new favorite clothing accessory. History dictates that the sexier the star, the better chance at giant music sales, because hearing is directly related to vision. The theory being, if you don't like what you see, chances are you won't like what you hear. Regardless, it can be odd sometimes to see young ladies shift from riskless to risqué in front of the camera. Their lighter pop counterparts, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, abandoned their former girl-scout selves only to catch heat triggered by an industry with a bottom line dependent on blatant sexuality.
But this quartet's transition has been smoother, panning out like an extended music video. It isn't as shocking when one minute Monica is singing sweetly on rooftops as a teen-ager, to what seems like the next minute lounging in white Frederick's-like lingerie, exposing the mysterious tattoo in the video for her single, "So Gone." And it doesn't catch audiences too much off guard, like Bow Wow's sudden drop in voice octaves, when Mya arrogantly testifies in her new single (her album "Moodring" dropped July 22) that her body, with an added emphasis on her ass, is like "wo." (Not "whoa" or "woe," but "wo.")
Finding the balance between expressing natural sexuality and sexing over the top can be difficult, especially on the eve of womanhood. Finicky audiences, pressures from a sexual hip-hop culture and the demands of ravenous music executives all combine into a Catch-22 that requires a sound strategy or a sound body. Thus, the new-school diva is tempted to use or abuse her sexuality much more than ever before.
Beyoncé Knowles, 21, and Ashanti Douglas, 22, seem to excel in their own ways at methodically using what they got to get what they want. With their new releases, they have begun a noticeable -- yet refined -- shift toward a more unfettered femininity and an unabashed sex appeal. They are paradigm R&B heirs, representative of hip-hop's profound impact and exhibiting direct lineage to Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans. Beyoncé and Ashanti epitomize the wifey type men boast of: beautiful, sweet, the kind of lady you can take home to Momma, with hints of a bedroom bad girl that is only remotely suggested in their music. And the two represent for the ladies -- with rhythmic nods of feminine independence and vulnerability -- the joys and pains of being a woman.
More importantly, Beyoncé and Ashanti are marketing powerhouses who work ferociously to diversify their offerings and build themselves as individual brands. Between the movies, TV specials, books and countless awards and honors, their name recognition proves that they are transcending any pithy dreams they once had as little girls. As full-blown women who can fully capitalize on their sexuality, don't expect outright chaos because Mathew Knowles (Beyoncé's father) and the two Tinas, Tina Douglas (Ashanti's mother) and Tina Knowles (Beyoncé's mother) aren't too far behind, orchestrating what strings will and will not be pulled. So far, so good.
With a fiery sound, emerges the unaccompanied Beyoncé, who wants the world to know she's been drinking her milk and exercising between albums. From the time you pick up "Dangerously in Love," it screams, "Look at how wonderfully I've grown!" with a cover that has her adorned in a revealing jewel cloak that leaves little to the imagination. The album has already sold nearly a half-million copies since its June 24 release, much of that fueled by her workout video, "Crazy in Love" in which she is moving like she has never moved before. The video functions like a rite of passage: an official strut in high-heeled red pumps across the womanhood threshold in distinct diva style, topping it off with an inaugural summertime booty-shaking dance. And it doesn't hurt her to have rumors circling that she is on the arm of Jay-Z, one of the more elusive bachelors. Beyoncé's debut is adventurous, with that perfectly calculated mix of dance hits and balladry, and her executive producer credit makes it all seem that much more authentic. Even if the "I need you boy" and the "I need your body" themes aren't moving, the production makes them good enough to move to.
Coincidentally, one week later, the proclaimed princess of hip-hop and R&B dropped her eagerly anticipated sophomore effort. Her debut, "Ashanti," sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week, not too shabby for the shy girl next door whose Gladys Knight look and accompanying gangsta pips won over chicks and thugs alike. Perhaps it was her lyrical and quintessential simplicity that forced her songs to permeate minds and invade charts. So the second time around, "Chapter II" sticks to the old adage: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Her first single, "Rock Wit U," features multiple uses of her favorite word, "baby" (she really should get a thesaurus and find a replacement) and is so signature Ashanti you think there is an easy-bake recipe for her hits. Even so, it's as catchy as a cold during winter, mimicking the ever-so-unforgettable "Foolish." And the video complements a matured Ashanti -- with sleeker hip gyrations -- who shines radiantly without appearances from her distracting, slightly incestuous big brothers, Irv Gotti and Ja Rule. Unfortunately, the album isn't equally more mature artistically, and it rarely deviates from the mélange of reminiscent, yet tired, tracks that pervaded her first effort. Her voice is sharper, leaving room for vocal experimentation and, without any boisterous Ja appearances, her sound isn't overshadowed and pushed into the background.
But many of the songs run into one another, and in the end, the pileup doesn't seem worth the ride. But who has the audacity to tell the winner of the "Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year" award that she could benefit from mixing it up? Obviously not the buying public, who are projected to gobble this dose of Ashanti the same way they did the first.
Even amid success and fame, focus should remain on the real nemesis facing the R&B sensations: time. What separates the Whitney Houstons and Chaka Khans is timelessness; true divas are infinitely classic, no matter the wardrobe. So while Beyoncé and Ashanti (not to mention Monica and Mya) are oiling up and adjusting cleavage for their next concert, they should remember that time is not on their side. They need to leave some substance for sequels.