It's a sound that's swiftly showing up everywhere, like a suddenly trendy drink embraced by the masses as the perfect tonic for the times. A bracing mix of tough and tender, sweet but street, that somehow makes everybody feel ar-right in these strange, uncertain post-9/11 days.
Switch on the radio, and there it is: the sweet, breathy female voice cooing reassuringly that she's "always on time," sexily declaring "I'm real," or simply asking with concern, "What would you do?" Then, jarring us out of our complacent love vibe like a slap upside the head, comes the gruff-voiced, thuggish male rapper, letting us know this is one tough world where sentiments like "all you need is love" are so September 10th.
"What's love got to do with a little ménage à?" bellows Fat Joe between new R&B buzz girl Ashanti's melodic proclamations of "It's about us, it's about trust."
"I know you got issues," interjects the rotund rapper. "But you need to understand that you got sumthin' wit you."
Flip the dial, and there's J.Lo singing gently, "Maybe we can be friends/La da da da da da," while her pal Ja Rule eyes her famous derrière and growls, "If it get any fatter, man, the Rule gonna have to get at her!"
It's a he said-she said interplay worthy of its own UPN sitcom. Archie and Edith, hip-hop style. We roll with MC Arch's bleepin' rants on world issues and horny R-rated solutions to every problem, knowing Lil' Edith is coming back in the chorus to serenade us with more sweet nothings that somehow become more essential after each rough rap from her world-weary man.
The rocky marriage between rough-edged rapper and refined soul songbird is popping up on remixes and album tracks by everybody from R&B divas like Janet and Toni Braxton to newcomers Alicia Keys and Tweet. And the sound has already produced its own star in the form of 21-year-old Ashanti Douglas, the angelic-voiced Glen Cove, New York, beauty who's made a name for herself providing standout melodic relief on the choruses of rap hits like Ja Rule's "Always on Time," Fat Joe's "What's Luv" and the studio-resurrected Pig Pun's "How We Roll." Her first solo single, "Foolish," has skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart with help from a video casting her as a married-to-the-mob moll in a GoodFellas send-up co-starring some of her raucous Murder, Inc. label mates. And while every word the soothing chanteuse sings on her debut album, Ashanti, is wholesome enough to work as background music on Disney's Proud Family, the CD earns a PMRC warning sticker thanks to the raunchy rhymes of her gangsta guests and a couple of spoken skits that crank up the dramatics between the good, fine woman and the big, bad man.
Not surprisingly, the formula has struck a nerve. Originally booked as a mid-concert filler between headliners Naughty by Nature and the Miss Hawaiian Tropic models at this Saturday's decidedly non-diva-worthy Phat Fuzion Car Show and Concert at the Peoria Sports Complex, Ashanti has already blown up as a star too hot for second billing.
"I wanna see Ashanti -- and all them other cool people she's playing with," bursts a sassy young female caller hoping to score tickets on local hip-hop/R&B station Power 92. "But Ashanti's my girl!"
In danger of being overlooked -- again -- at this car-bopping hip-hop fest is New Jersey's teenaged R&B trio 3LW, cast in the unenviable position of following Ashanti on the handful of radio promo concerts they've been doing together. Last summer the group was both blessed and cursed with the opening spot on MTV's TRL Tour, casting the threesome as aspiring little sisters to headlining glamour girls Destiny's Child. This time out they're performing with a refueled Naughty by Nature, riding high on the success of their hit together, "Feels Good," but already overshadowed by Ashanti's breakout popularity.
Not coincidentally, 3LW has been getting teamed with gruff-voiced rappers, too, in the remixes and soundtrack songs that have kept them on the charts since their self-titled debut album peaked last year. The remix of their single "Playas Gon' Play" featured a guest appearance by rap heavyweight Jay-Z, and "Feels Good" is currently sitting at No. 1 on Billboard's rap chart. Their second album (due to drop in mid-September) is being produced by the king of remixes himself, rap mogul P. Diddy. And the album's first single, "Close to You," set for release next month, features a cameo by fellow Bad Boy rapper Loon.
It makes sense: If mixing ice-grill scowling rappers with sweet-voiced soul singers is the secret sauce spicing up today's hits, ain't nobody sweeter than 15-year-old Kiely Williams, 17-year-old Naturi Naughton and 18-year-old Adrienne Bailon -- the "3 Little Women" of 3LW. And with P. Diddy at the helm, there'll surely be no shortage of testosterone-pumping freestylers lining up to work with the blossoming beauties.
But is 3LW too sweet to get crunked up in the current wave of girls-with-gangstas? This is, after all, the same trio of high schoolers heard on the theme song to the Nickelodeon show Taina and whose hits "No More (Baby Ima Do Right)" and "Playas Gon' Play" have already earned them lifetime heavy rotation on Radio Disney. Their wholesome image has even been tapped by the Office of National Drug Control Policy for a series of public service announcements. Can P. Diddy get these girls to party with his Bad Boys buddies without landing in court, yet again, for contributing to the delinquency of these adored minors?
"It is a little different," admits Naturi, speaking from a cell phone on the group's busy tour bus. "Because we do appeal to really young kids. But I'm sure people like Nelly and Eve do, too, and we were really cool with them on the TRL Tour."
While their new album, A Girl Can Mack, will reportedly find Kiely, Naturi and Adrienne addressing more grown-up issues ("We can't isolate ourselves and be like, 'Oh, we really don't think about this,'" Kiely recently told MTV. "We really do. It's normal. We're teenagers"), it's also clear these normal teenagers are in no particular hurry to grow up and, in fact, already seem to miss some of the simple joys of adolescence they're missing out on.
"I do feel a little different than other kids, of course," says Naturi. "I mean, I'm not in regular school, I'm not participating in, like, cheerleader squads and stuff like that. But I'm pursuing my dream," she adds, beaming, "a dream I've had since I was little. And it's worth it."
Not that Naturi and the girls are falling too far behind in their studies. "We do have a tutor on the road, and we're still learning and getting our education." Youngest member Kiely (who, with her decidedly youthful, nasal rap style, is poised to take over the void left by the loss of TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes) is even getting an advanced education of sorts by being grouped with the older girls. "Sometimes I think our tutor forgets that I'm not in the same grade as them!" she chimes in. But the trio surely would have needed remedial education if they passed on the opportunity to live the pop dream in favor of trying out for the pep squad.
"I must pursue what I've always wanted to do: singing and dancing," Naturi insists. "And it's such a blessing that I can continue school and do what I've always loved."
As for spending so many months on a tour bus, Naturi (the name is pronounced Na-tour-ee) shrugs off any complaints. "It's not that bad, actually. Because it's a long bus ride between most cities, so you get to get so much sleep. It's actually better than a normal kid's schedule, where you have to get up early every day."
3LW's fans identify so strongly with the trio's regular-girl vibe that, when word leaked out on a fan site that Epic Records had plans to make over the girls as another tough "street group" for their second album, the group's message board on the label's Web site became flooded with so much angry e-mail they finally had to shut it down. An Internet campaign initiated on one fan site even posted the phone numbers of label execs and publicists and urged fans to deluge the "high paid pimps" with calls demanding they keep 3LW sweet and innocent.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Apparently, those fans have little to worry about -- at least for the time being. While Naturi and the girls have already worked with such mature-audience rappers as Jay-Z and Nas, the guest gangstas have so far treated the girls with "lots of respect," she says. Naughty by Nature's party-loving Treach calls the girls "our little sisters." And the raps that have been added over 3LW's tracks have so far managed to keep the girls' ages and image in perspective.
Fugee refugee Nas put it proper in the rap he added to his remix of "No More," admitting a wild attraction to the girl in the song but cautioning, "Shorty jail bait, might get me five to life. Place school, study law," he advised, "I'm a pay your tuition/Come on campus, buy you books/Do your babysitting." He finally wrapped up the intro with a line that perfectly summed up the odd marriage of "fly, thuggish ballers" and the sweet-voiced beauties who add melody to their hardened views of the world.
"See, now you was unaware that this thug had affection," he raps. "Let me be your angel and I'll be your protection."
If the former Puff Daddy now in charge of 3LW's sound just manages to keep his girls' rap-spouting suitors showing them that kind of respect, he may actually distill that perfect mixture of affection and protection we've all been craving for so many months.