by Barry Michael Cooper
I'm in a two-door
I'm in a new lane
I'm countin' new money
I need a new name
(I know what you want)
Cassie, "I Know What You Want," from RockaByeBaby (2013)
"I'll never get used to anything.
Anyone that does, they might as well be dead."
- Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Before she became Holly Golightly, I'm sure Lula Mae Barnes -- that fantast, backwoods Texas-teenage-bride-turned-fabulous-New York-fabulist -- dreamed of dinner at the Four Seasons (and an even more improbable Breakfast at Tiffany's) -- each time a rooster or one of her babies screamed at the crack of dawn. Lula needed a new name, too; she was a moonshine girl powered by champagne dreams and jet plane schemes; dreams too big to crash and burn in the backyard barbecue pit of her small town's southern-fried discontent.
At least those are the lines I read between the lines of Truman Capote's (and Blake Edwards) 1961 paean to reinvention, self-discovery, trickin' and love (or at least an approximation of love), in the midst of Space-Age, ratchet wretchedness.
Like Holly Golightly, model, actress, and Bad Boy Entertainment recording artist Cassie Ventura, reinvents herself on the truly impressive mixtape RockaByeBaby, as a hip hop/electro-pop gangstress, whose Giuseppe Zanotti's reek of jet fuel while speeding down the fast lane of the good life, before ascending into the rarefied skies of the great Louis Vuitton-yonder. Cassie's recording persona channels Keisha -- the fearless gun-woman I created for my 1991 screenplay New Jack City -- on the 13 tracks largely produced by the Portsmouth, Va., phenom Rob Holladay and executive produced by Sean Diddy Combs, Matty Rich, and Cassie.
I'm not gonna front; had I not received an email of the promo clip of RockaByeBaby -- which smash-cuts between the scene of Vanessa Williams as Keisha putting one into the dreaded rasta head of the drug dealer Fat Smitty on 116th and 7th Avenue, underscored by Al Payne's Gee Money Vincent Price-ing his maniacal "Byow! In broad daylight! HaHaHaHaHa!!!," and Cassie blowing a nimbus of cheeba out of her mouth in slo-mo--I may have never listened to RockaByeBaby at all.
However, RockaByeBaby might just be a classic, in the manner Mary J. Blige's What's The 411? and Diana Ross's Diana were classics. I site Mary J. as an example, because Sean Combs--the man who invented hip hop's Ghettofabulous cinematic form and function--scripted 411 like a music film; the tale of a young woman who bench presses the dysfunctional weight of life in the hood to become a strong, soul survivor.
Diana Ross's Diana comes to mind, especially in the way the talented duo of Nile Rogers and the late, great Bernard Edwards wrote and produced La Ross's biggest selling album ever, while orchestrating her 4XL ego and life into an 1980 operetta of love, fame, despair, and triumph.
What knits all three women together, is the resilient, feminist thread of self-definition as self-empowerment. Rockabye--like Diana and 411 did in their eras--is a woman writing and interpreting her own narrative. Cassie spins the yarn of a young woman's psychic immersion into hip hop's luxe pool of excess, access, and narcistic nihilism (a life sometimes adorned with chalk outlines and yellow crime scene tape). Some may not understand RockabyeBaby's ill-fated travelogue among a grotesquerie of nouveau riche day-trippers and night crawlers, but the mere fact that Cassie is eloquent enough to describe her character's journey with no apologies, makes this a trip worth taking.
Combs, Holladay, Cassie, and Company--including marquee emcees like Fabulous, Rick Rozay Ro$$, Wiz Khalifah, French Montana, and Pusha T--paint a Francis Bacon-like portrait of the sexy beast with three heads--celebrity, money, and power--and window mat that sonic frame with a post-millennial, savage beauty. Combs directs Cassie into a performance that rings with a conviction nestled somewhere between erotic warmth and frosty detachment. There are even moments when RockaByeBaby feels like auto-tuned Sade' and that's not a diss, but a tip of the hat. Cassie has established herself as hip hop/electro-pop's new chanteuse in a musical Westworld populated with swag-bots; interchangeable and indistinguishable, digitally enhanced singers.
On tracks like I Know What You Want, Numb, The Sound of Love (featuring the r&b singer Jeremih), and the title track, Cassie executes with an fluttery, breathless rush--sometimes accompanied by her own skillfully adroit, staccato sing-rap--of diamond butterfly vocals that span across the valleys of shame and salaciousness, grief and exhilaration. Lullabies written in a nightmarish key. Like: Okay, money can't buy love nor mend a broken heart, but a black card can buy some really expensive and gorgeous bandages...and I can live with that.
No modern hip hop/electro-pop album would be complete without rap's perverse retrofit of epithets that become anthems. RockaByeBaby answers the call with Bad Bitches (written by and featuring the mega-talented Ester Dean), which could be this year's Niggas in Paris. Which begs the question--at least it does for this middle-aged man who has seen hip hop's four-decade trek from Smalls Paradise on 135th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem in 1977, to the VIP Room in Cannes, France in 2012--if Nino Brown and Keisha had a daughter, would she think of herself as a bad bitch? Would she be similar to the young sex bomb Cassie and raunchy Oakland rap legend Too Short describe in Do My Dance? Young women lamented by Yeats in A Prayer For My Daughter; women who consider beauty a sufficient end, young women who would do anything, just to get them ends? Women so turnt up (with mollies, Krug, weed, money, and sex) in the blindingly shiny abyss, that they don't realize the are about to drop off the cliff into the edge of night?
Or would the twenty-something Keisha keep it one-hunit--just like her Momma and her Daddy? Maybe the 2013 Nino Brown and Keisha's daughter--Cassie's Keisha--realizes that modern day gangstresses are just like the suffragettes of 1920, because they understand that both the commerce of politics and the confluence of power, are achieved by either the ballot...or the bullet.
Barry Michael Cooper's debut anthology of street journalism from the 1980s (and more current essays), "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," is available on Kindle/Amazon. Click here to go to the Amazon site.