The Amazing Women of R&B (Part 1 of an Occasional Series): Nivea

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I recently realised that I'm warmly disposed to the vocal style of almost every female contemporary R&B singer I can think of. This may make me appear dangerously uncritical, but in my defence, I do like them for different reasons. With Teedra Moses, it's the unmannered, youthful clarity combined with a slight Southern accent, Teedra expressing timeless wisdom ("Mama said be young while you can be young") played out in a new modern setting. With Mya, it's the feathery slightness of her breathy, high-pitched voice, which can convey girlish adventurousness and aching pain with equal precision. With Nivea, it's that deliberate lack of style, the sweet and slightly raspy, lusty yet tender unrehearsedness. Nivea is the girl next door who was only too happy to play doctors and nurses, who looks astonishing when she dresses up but rarely does, who's punched you once or twice when you've said fucked up shit, who's listened to you complain about your boy/girlfriend and dispensed practical, no-nonsense advice you wish you'd followed. Who's always followed that advice herself with some difficulty.

How gloriously sweet and considered she sounds on "Laundrymat", which she begins by announcing "You's a lying, cheating, son of a...." The soap-bubble soaked groove is irresistible enough, but it's Nivea's calm skewering of an unfaithful, useless lover (R Kelly fooling no-one with his protestations of innocence) that keeps me coming back. In retrospect it's this kind of R&B (as opposed to the rigorous groove workouts of "Don't Mess With The Radio", "Run Away" or "Okay") that Nivea excels at: simple and intimate, right up close to your ears but never claustrophobically exotic - maybe that's why her often quite filthy sex rhymes tend to remain endearingly domestic, the love throes of the suburban bedroom (see the sticky molasses crawl of "Touchin" with R Kelly, a loose sequel of sorts to "Laundrymat").

On a debut album that in retrospect looks like an unacknowledged hit factory, my favourite track may be the gorgeous "25 Reasons". Like "Don't Mess With The Radio", "25 Reasons" is a list, in this case of all the things that make Nivea love her man, over casual, cozy drifts of comforting guitar and soothing backing vocals. It's an odd list that intersperses the usual subjects (roses, beauty inside and out) with random personal details that sound as if they had only just been remembered in time for inclusion as the tape rolls ("the way you don't trip on me when I'm in the studio real late, like right now"). Half way through the list, during a chorus, Nivea interrupts her backing vocalists with a sudden "Wait a minute!" (all goes quiet) "I don't need no backgrounds to tell you the rest, baby!" Doubtless it was the plan all along, but I'm charmed and convinced nonetheless - won over by her manipulative pretense at spontaneity.

Although sometimes I don't quite know what she's saying, such as the grand/impatient final gesture, which appears to be "And to close it out: 16 through 25 is for all the chicks you could have eat...but you didn't because of your love for me." Is Nivea really thanking her boyfriend for not going down on 10 girls? After the next chorus, we hear what sounds like a stifled sigh, and then an explanation: "I had to catch my breath for a minute, because so many emotions are coming out in this song." This delivered so perfectly: a rushed exhalation that runs entirely against the rhythm of the music, a framing gesture for all that has gone before it, an awesome rejection of "classic song" formality. It's a delicious authenticity trap, which is all the more effective because so many would call it out as being cheesy or obvious or unbelievable.

Nivea's second album Complicated has yet to be released in Australia, but I adore last year's second single "Parking Lot", the most oddly compelling and perhaps the best thing Nivea has done to date. Falling into that post-"Ignition (Remix)" category of simultaneously languid and bouncy guitar-driven songs that Jermaine Dupri in particular has made his own (see Usher's "Confessions Part II", Mariah's "Shake It Off"), "Parking Lot" allows her to sound sweetly unstudied while secretly pulling off a career-best performance, switching from near-spoken sections to sudden, rhythmically awkward melodic runs that R Kelly himself would applaud (her measured invocation "Get crunk! Get crunk!" a deliberate homage to Kelly's "bounce bounce bounce"). It's an infidelity tale of unusual urgency: "My man's in the bed out cold/calling you on the phone/three, four times in a row....My man is at the house so/meet me at the McDonald's parking lot."

Has there ever been a booty call in R&B so desperate and so desperately unglamorous? No poolside splendor, no VIP area, not even the familiarity of the surbuban bedroom - no, Nivea is arranging a hook-up with her bit on the side at that most undistinguished of bottlenecks of proletariat socialization. And this is not merely a rendezvous point: "I'm at the drivethrough/right beside you/ready to take your order/take you right here in the parking lot." Leapfrogging the concerns and quandaries of other R&B singers (to give in or not to give in? how can something so wrong feel so right?), Nivea arranges her infidelities without ever pausing to consider what they mean - but this is not, one feels, the result of some general thoughtlessness or superficiality on her part; rather, this is the brave new world on the other side of all that moralising self-castigation, a world of clinical encounters and fold-back car seats, and a woman's right to satisfaction where and how she sees fit.

But if Nivea appears to be the merciless orchestrator of these clandestine meetings, there remains the disquieting feeling that there is one thing she can't govern: herself. In the song's most touching moment, her voice almost breaks as she admits "I can't help it, I'm gon' meet you here tomorrow night." How can this pained confession be made in the same breath as her tantalizing offers of total sexual gratification? Perhaps Nivea is telling us that sexual addiction is, like most addictions, not something you can ever fully reconcile yourself to: it remains always a complicated patchwork of compulsion, denial, repression and desire, sedimented under the weight of a process of repetition which both dulls guilt and weakens resistance.

Repetition is the key, and it is this which "Parking Lot" captures so beautifully: the chorus's constant reiteration of the best route to the rendezvous point is like a code, a charm which Nivea must first weave around herself so as to silence the recriminations in her head, until finally her car seems to follow it's own path even as in her mind's eye she imagines returning home and playing the faithful girlfriend. The quiet urgency of the song is, ultimately, less to do with a desire for sex than it is with this ritualized process of submission to oneself: don't think, just do it, again again again again again again again again...