When it comes to fussing, fuming and finger-pointing in black pop music, it’s usually the women who are stirring things up. Gwen Guthrie’s current, tough-edged hit single, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent"--in which she warns all unemployed would-be suitors to keep stepping--is only the latest example.
Isaac Hayes, Barry White and Richard (Dimples) Fields are among the many male artists who have used rap/monologues on their records. But they’ve always set out out to charm or seduce the women, not lambaste them for their flaws and indiscretions.
So, along comes Oran (Juice) Jones with “The Rain,” one of the biggest--and most surprising--black radio hits of the year.
The record begins innocuously enough, sounding like nothing more than a falsetto-laced, love-gone-wrong ballad in a silky Smokey Robinson vein. But then it lunges for the jugular as Jones tells his philandering honey that he was tempted to “do a Rambo” when he caught her cheating on him.
Instead, this wronged suitor (who observes that he bought his love “silk suits, Gucci handbags . . . I gave you things you couldn’t even pronounce”) retaliates not with a karate chop--but by cutting off his woman’s credit cards.
About the record, Jones, 28, said: “The timing was just right for that male viewpoint. I visited a friend of mine in the joint (prison), and everybody was into the record. It was like, ‘Yeah, when I get out, heads will roll!’ Men can relate to it.”
But isn’t that rough image portrayed on the record just that--an image?
“Oh no,” Jones said easily, speaking by phone New York, where the Texas native has lived since the age of 3. “If I was really in love with a woman and she crossed me, I’d take the gold fillings out of her teeth with a pair of pliers.”
Though you might expect a laugh after that remark--to reassure you that Jones was just kidding, there was no laugh. He didn’t appear to be joking.
While gracious on the phone, Jones reveals a steely, inner-city toughness in the monologues on his debut album, “Juice.” Like “The Rain,” songs like “Curiosity” and “It’s Yours” lure you in with a deceptively gentle, man-to-woman premise, but end on a take-no-prisoners stance.
“Remember those movies ‘The Mack’ and ‘Superfly’?” he asked, referring to the ‘70s so-called blaxploitation films about, respectively, a pimp and a drug dealer.
“Well, that was the real-life environment I grew up in. I still live in Harlem because I feel safe there. But it is a concrete jungle. In my music, I try to put some humor in it. At the same time, I’m portraying a hustler attitude and image that I know is real.”
It’s an attitude that’s gotten him some negative feedback from women. He recalled a recent encounter with one who asked him, point-blank: “Do you have a thing against women?”
“That threw me for a loop,” he said. “She used some psychological terms with me, trying to imply that I had a hatred for women. . . . I wanted to smack the taste out of her mouth.”
Signed to Def Jam, the Columbia-distributed label headed by his long-time friend Russell Simmons (who manages such rap stars as Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Whodini), Jones has a singing style that is a throwback to highly melodic ‘70s soul artists like Blue Magic and the Delfonics.
“I am not a rapper,” Jones said. “I wish I was, because they make a lot of money.”
Justifiably modest about his vocal skills, Jones said, “I’m no Luther Vandross or Philip Bailey. It’s not the uniqueness of my voice that’s selling my records. It’s the feel. I’m trying to recapture something that’s gone by.”
Born in Houston and raised in Harlem, Jones grew up with neighbors like rap artists Kurtis Blow and Lovebug Starski. After chugging down “three or four bottles of Wild Irish Rose,” he and his buddies would hang out at 140th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and harmonize to the latest R&B; hits.
Jones soon noticed that songwriting “released the tension in me,” so he began writing material for Blow. Estimating that he’s written “well over 200 songs,” Jones later nabbed his own contract with Def Jam Records “after I noticed the vast difference between Kurt’s royalty checks and mine.”
Not surprisingly, “The Rain” has also spawned several “answer” records from female artists on independent labels.
Observing that the world “has its soft sides and its harsh realities,” Jones is philosophical about the incongruities of his music. “It’s OK to walk barefoot on the seashore with your girl,” he said, “to build a little camp fire and roast marshmallows. To sip champagne and watch the waves. But spare me. . . . Life’s not about walking in the sunshine all the time.
“I mean,” he said, referring to Gwen Guthrie’s record, “I will pay the rent. But if you do wrong I will take back everything: the house, the jewelry, the furs, the credit cards. Everything! I’ll even make your dog find a new place to live.”