Alexander O’Neal - Hearsay
n First Listen is a regular column that forces Stylus Magazine’s regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
I first heard of Alexander O’Neal in a Tribe Called Quest song. In 1991’s “Butter,” an affectionate remembrance-to-girls-past, Phife refers to himself as "all true man, like Alexander O’Neal." Since “Butter” shows the extent to which we model ourselves on the poses struck by our heroes, the irony of the simile redressed the loutishness Phife borrowed from the likes of Babyface, Heavy D, and Bell Biv Devoe.
But I learned this much later. As a Janet fan since Rhythm Nation 1814 enlivened a moribund Top 40 my sophomore year, I thought producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could do no wrong; even boilerplate work like Karyn White’s forgotten number-one “Romantic” possessed more muscle than anything on the college charts pre-Nirvana. Helming the third album by the wispy-voiced little sister of one Michael Jackson they saw this album, Control, change the face of contemporary R&B as surely as Thriller did three years earlier, using updated sonic tricks they learned from a mysterious elfin man named Prince, for whom Jam & Lewis served as henchmen in The Time. This band, designed as yet another outlet for Prince’s protean fecundity, instead proved that three’s a crowd and sometimes better than two. O’ Neal served, briefly, as The Time’s lead singer. Hearsay, his second collaboration with Jam & Lewis, proved that God exists: he assembled a phalanx of black musicians who played/composed/produced the hardest, softest music of its time.
Thanks to a deluxe veneer which conceives of a black middle-class ethos with a verisimilitude that puts The Cosby Show to shame, Hearsay has a gestalt that Jam & Lewis would not approach until the dubious social commentary of Rhythm Nation 1814. To wit: vocals and synth-strings interludes that become songs later. Spoken-word bits set in nightclubs. Real bass lines: thumbed, plucked, galvanic. These compositions are mini-musicals in which the singer hears affirmations, doubts, and resolutions seconded by a chorus of backing singers. This is an album about rumors (“Hearsay”) and innuendo (“Criticize”), about love-as-an-abstract (“The Lovers”), and succumbing to the real thing (“Sunshine”). Only after surviving these tests does he earn the complacency into which all lovers must sink (“Never Knew Love Like This,” the weakest song, of course). Hearsay provides every pleasure we expect from music, including a few we take for granted. It is a record with a surface as gleaming as parquet.
Hearsay foregrounds the dense, clattering backing tracks that would be a Jam & Lewis trademark until 1993’s janet., but, with apologies to Karyn White and Miss Jackson, it’s got what no money could buy: a frontman who can sing. O’Neal does it all: he groans, he slips into a deliciously unexpected falsetto, he coats his sincerity with a gritty lower register that’s like a fine layer of silt. Luther Vandross’ voice may have been the last quarter-century’s purest signifier of joy, but it lacked O’Neal’s demotic flexibility; O’Neal had the common touch, borne perhaps of hanging out with men of earthier pursuits like Jam & Lewis. When, on “Fake,” he needs to be hurt and nasty—a trick Janet would trade her cooch for—the results are, quite simply, show-stopping.
In addition, O’Neal-Jam-Lewis’ talent for rumination-in-crisis gives Hearsay a tonal complexity decidedly at odds with most of its peers; it’s almost, dare I say it, Continental. Only the Prince of Sign ‘O’ the Times came close—his “Forever in My Life” is a sort of second cousin to O’Neal’s “The Lovers.” Backup singers repeat the bromides (“the lovers win every time”) that O’Neal’s yearning plea (“In this world of mass confusion!”) is too pained to acknowledge. O’Neal is above all a fair man; he’s constantly responding to accusations. How ingenious to follow “Fake”—a tune so malevolent that one would think no hope could be salvaged—with “Criticize,” in which that awful jezebel he’s so hung up on is allowed her say! Jam & Lewis absorbed the best advice George Martin ever gave the Beatles (“Think symphonically”) and composed their own urban opera, with a big-hearted actor at its core.
Paul McCartney might have been proud of “Sunshine,” a song so—what exactly? Write it: the loveliest ballad in existence. As a rhythm track it’s another slow jam like “Human” (the anything-but-Human League’s comeback) and Janet’s subsequent “Come Back to Me,” but, oh, that O’Neal. This entry in the noble tradition of contemplating the beloved—a series which includes Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” New Order’s “Temptation,” and Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On”—is also buoyant enough to end the series for all I care. “Sunshine” is a delicate thing whose generosity and warmth encapsulates what we want from both singer and song: a symbiosis no less earned for being salvaged from kitsch. It was Jam & Lewis’ fortune to offer “Sunshine” to a singer that needed little stage direction.