– This is the first article in a new column by contributing author, D’Andre Carr.
I don’t know if I want to characterize it as forgotten or unacclaimed or an under-praised voice, but it needs to be said and I’m going to say it—the contralto vocal performance is the heart of R&B. And my aim is not to create tension between altos and sopranos, even though that will result as unintentional byproduct. I also don’t want to discredit any phenomenal performer’s accolades, especially those who’ve made timeless contributions to the genre. I simply aspire to shine light on people’s mendacity, and that mendacity being—we, especially in the black community, tend to over emphasize the vocal ability of sopranos. Usually, I’d be ok with it. We tend to gas and over embellish a lot of things. However, to do it at the expense of other great talent, and the great necessary talent, is almost unforgivable.
I hypothesize that sopranos’ glory rose out of Protestant churches (particularly Baptist) in predominantly black communities. No training ground was better suited to be the foundation of what constitutes a “strong vocal performance”. I actually can’t think of any great singer (at least according to my singing rubric) who didn’t start in the choir. But sopranos would largely get the solos, often hitting very high notes providing a unique accent to the testimony in the song, largely resulting in eruptive praise from the congregation and church goers being called to the altar. That’s cool, but while the soprano’s are hitting high notes and doing more ad libs than Beyonce on a Destiny’s Child record, the altos were there with other soprano and tenor sections, adding the rich texture to the harmony, leading me to the reason 1: Alto’s know how to hold down a situation in a group setting.
We without doubt can say the 90s was R&B’s golden era. When we think about the awards won, albums sold, videos shot, R&B emerged victorious crossing all racial, ethnic, and cultural borders. I think of the 90s as “ the era when talent was a prerequisite for success” and the talent was beyond abundant. The 90s ushered in a new R&B dialogue about the highs and lows of relationships. It taught us love comes with challenges and a lot of times heartbreak in conjunction with a wide array of precarious predicaments we can find ourselves in. And always, the husky, weighty, and rich timbre was the champion of this narrative.
This leads me to reason 2: The Altos are our relationship passports. For example, think of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down”, “Brokenhearted”, “Almost Doesn’t Count”. Also, can we forget Monica’s “Before You Walk Out My Life”, “Why I Love You So Much” and of course her timeless duet with Brandy, “The Boy Is Mine”. And of course we cannot forget the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Ms. Mary J. Blige. Till this day, we salivate for her painfully-drenched vocals on “Not Gonna Cry,” “I Can Love You,” and “Everything.” Last but not least, and anyone who knows me knows I can’t forget the incomparable texture and hypnosis-invoking vocals of Toni Braxton. I remember the first time I heard the dark chapter of relationships in “Another Sad Love Song” and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” and the pulsating love attached to “Breathe Again” and “You Mean The World to Me”.
Lastly, our 90s contraltos are true vocalists. Now the difference between a vocalist and a singer is highly subjective and often a contentious point. For me, a vocalist is an individual who uses the uniqueness of her tone and pitch to cultivate new sounds and push the art of singing forward. The truth of a contralto is an effortlessness in her low notes and Toni is the perfect exemplar. Brandy’s unique vocal qualities lies in the ability to execute complex vocal runs, which possess an airy quality perfect for layering. Monica’s strength comes from a dark place that has a consistency across registers. These women have never fallen short vocally and have often transformed simple lyrics into phenomenal records.
These women also have the accolades to support their superiority! Actually, when looking at Grammy Award recipients for Best Female R&B Performance (the ultimate recognition for the SANGERS) between 1990 and 1999, the winners were all contraltos except for Erykah Badu and Patti Labelle. Anita Baker with 3, Toni Braxton with 3, Chaka Khan with 1, and Lauryn Hill with 1.
So, please recognize game.
– D’Andre Carr is a second-year at the Yale School of Management