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Black People, We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Black people, if you’re reading this, we need to talk.

We need to discuss something that often goes unmentioned in our community. Actually, there are two things we need to talk about: mental illness and suicide. I don’t know how, why, or when we began treating these two issues as taboo, verboten. But it has to stop, for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with the Washington Post article that was published earlier this year stating that, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among black children in the U.S. under eighteen are up 71 percent in the past decade, from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016, while suicide among children thirteen and under rose 114 percent those ten years. (In the same period, the suicide rate among all children also went up 64 percent.)

The article also mentions how researchers are unsure what has fueled this rise, citing either racism toward high-risk black children or the black community itself for continuing to ignore suicide as a major issue. It can be both those things. When it comes to bullying, children of color often get hit — physically and verbally — the hardest. It isn’t even always white kids who are the ones slamming black kids with damaging taunts and epithets. The worst abuse can often come from your own kind, as in the flashback episode from the recent season of Atlanta, where a young kid gets ripped to shreds by other black kids for allegedly wearing a fake FUBU shirt — and that young kid ends up taking his own life.

I certainly remember how, as a kid going through middle school hell in the late Eighties, I was often picked on by my fellow black classmates for the usual stuff: looking broke, being too dark-skinned (back in my day, being called “Shaka Zulu” was a major insult), giving off a “homo” vibe. Sadly, even when we become full-grown adults, those are still things that continue to plague black people. As Huberta Jackson-Lowman, Ph.D., president of the Association of Black Psychologists, told the Atlanta Black Star last year, “The issues that black youth and children bully each other about are those issues about which we as black adults have unresolved and [conflicted] feelings and which are also viewed negatively or with great ambivalence by the larger society.”

African Americans have to embody strength even when it feels like our legs are about to give out from how much we have to carry as a culture. If you’re seen exhibiting vulnerability or emotion, you’re considered weak or — dare I say it! — gay! We don’t talk about our feelings or none of that bullshit! We’re the descendants of men and women who were taken from their land and forced into slavery. Whatever problems you got ain’t got shit on what they had to deal with! You can’t off yourself just because you’re going through some stuff — suck it up, goddammit! And, besides, suicide is a white-people thing!

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And there it is. In African American culture, suicide and mental illness are regularly perceived as issues that mainly affect the Anglo-American populace. Once again, I don’t know where this came from, but it’s something that has made black people distance themselves from psychiatrists, therapists, or any other mental-health professionals. (To quote a Chris Rock line, the only way black people are going to see a therapist is if the court orders them to do it.) There are black folk who also prefer to confer with religious folk and “pray away” their mental troubles instead of getting proper treatment. Not to knock anyone’s religious beliefs, but pastors aren’t medical experts. Then again, since African Americans are often mistreated and neglected by our healthcare system, it’s easy to see why going to a person of faith would be seen as an acceptable substitute.  

It doesn’t help that famous African Americans with mental health issues rarely discuss their problems, especially after they’ve had a very public meltdown. Seventeen years ago, Mariah Carey appeared on Total Request Live, schlepping around an ice cream cart and freaking out the audience and host Carson Daly with her erratic behavior. This led to her getting checked into a mental facility a few days later, amid rumors that she had attempted suicide. It wasn’t until this year that she divulged in a People cover story that she struggles with bipolar disorder.

A few years before that, Martin Lawrence had a notorious breakdown on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, cursing and screaming at cars (with a gun in his pocket!) until he was taken away by police and hospitalized. Several years later, in his concert movie Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, he chalked up the experience to smoking bad weed. The whole incident is reminiscent of when Richard Pryor set himself on fire in 1980 and later used the trauma as comic fodder in his concert movie Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, saying he exploded due to a potent mixture of milk and cookies. (He later fessed up in his semi-autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, when the titular character, played by Pryor, pours alcohol all over himself and flicks a lighter.)

In recent years, people of color in the public eye have finally been coming clean about having mental health issues and/or contemplating suicide. Unfortunately, their pleas for sympathy can fall on a few deaf ears. When rising r&b singer Kehlani attempted suicide in 2016, after she was accused online of cheating on ex Kyrie Irving with Canadian musician PartyNextDoor, Chris Brown reminded everyone why he’s an A-1 douchebag when he went on Twitter to call her out. “There is no attempting suicide,” he tweeted. “Stop flexing for the gram.” Stay classy, you asswipe.

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But more recognizable people of color, whether it’s Wentworth Miller or Jada Pinkett Smith, have admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and that is a good thing. It lets African American people know that their feelings of hopelessness aren’t so exclusive.

Ironically, with our history — and what we continue to go through as people — African Americans deserve mental-health treatment and medication the most. Whether it’s black families constantly struggling to live above the poverty line or black men just trying to live every day without getting shot and killed by the police, black people need all the help we can get.

We need to stop acting like feeling depressed or sad or helpless is something you should be embarrassed about or ashamed of — and we definitely need to make sure children know that, so they’ll never have to consider killing themselves. No child should end their life before they’ve even started it.

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Eric Harland

At 36, prolific drummer Eric Harland has appeared as a sideman on nearly 200 recordings, bridging the rhythmic gap between Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, John Mayer, and Mariah Carey. He finally released Vipassana, his sophomore album as a leader. The eponymous style of meditation that lifts the veil of perception is apropos for an artist so attuned to the hidden pulse of all things, and he moves beyond category with Voyager, his band of genre-bending yogis he met along way. Guitarist Julian Lage, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and bassist Mark Kelley (of the Roots) make this Ayurvedic jazz hip-hop for the soul.

Tue., Sept. 2, 8 p.m., 2014

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Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande got her start on a children’s television, but the barely 20-year-old has a bubblegum voice that’s destined for a spotlight much bigger than Nick at Night. Her collaboration with Mac Miller, “The Way,” gave her some quick buzz, but the singer’s chops indicate that the hullabaloo isn’t for nothing. After all, she’s inspired by Mariah Carey and still pocketing fame and fortune from her TV appearances. Since Britney fell off, America’s been waiting for another full-fledged goodie two shoes pop star with an edge—Grande might just be it.

Wed., Aug. 14, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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Mariah Carey

Is it that Mariah Carey’s abnormally lucky, or that she’s got a career mojo that just won’t quit? Neither, I’d argue: Her career longevity is directly connected to her collaborative savvy, ability to nimbly surf pop trends, and the best cosmologists and stylists Daydream royalties can buy. Even with her trademark melisma succumbing to something huskier, Mimi’s still capable of convincingly co-selling a dewy summer trifle like “#Beautiful,” with Miguel. Here’s hoping she flounces and chirps eternally. Part of the Good Morning America summer concert series.

Fri., May 24, 7 a.m., 2013

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HO! HO! HO!

For those preparing to partake in Saturday’s SantaCon, in which hundreds of partygoers dressed as Santa and his helpers wander the streets of Manhattan singing raunchy carols, the Xmas Pop Sing-Along and SantaCon Pre-Party will surely give you something to feel jolly about. Enjoy $7 rum egg nogs, specialty drinks such as “The Naughty List,” and free milk and cookies all night as you sing holiday hits, with music videos by Mariah Carey, Adam Sandler, ’N Sync, and others shown on the big screen. Enter contests for the best and worst holiday sweater, best Santa costume, and for being the most naughty and most nice. At the end of the night, the SantaCon starting locations will be revealed, and there will be some “guerrilla caroling” outside afterward for those who want a little practice before the big day.

Fri., Dec. 9, 10 p.m., 2011

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‘Mr. Saturday Night’ w/ Mark E

When Birmingham interior designer Mark E moved into house music, he quickly made a name for himself by doing weird and wonderful things to samples from divas including Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, and, most memorably, Janet Jackson. He seems to have tired of edits, but the chopped-loop new tracks on his full-length debut, Stone Breaker (released not on his own Merc but on ever-dominant Spectral Sound), more than live up to the promise of his early work. With residents Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin.

Sat., Dec. 10, 10 p.m., 2011

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Tanlines+Nguzungu+Teengirl Fantasy+Sun Araw

Los Angeles duo Nguzunguzu might be best known for working with M.I.A, but they can more than stand on their own. The Fade to Mind co-founders’ sets bounce to juke, mainstream r&b, tropicalia, records from the Night Slubs label, and great bass lines from around the world. Also on the bill, Tanlines cast dance-pop winks toward Paul Simon, Teengirl Fantasy reworks Mariah Carey, and Sun Araw delivers massive slabs of psychedelia. With Physical Therapy.

Sat., Aug. 27, 2 p.m., 2011

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tUnE-yArDs Raises Her Voice

The first voice you hear on w h o k i l l is an old woman’s: “Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is . . . performing at the . . . ,” she says, stumbling over her words before being interrupted by the thump of a drum. Then comes the thump of a second drum. And on top of the second drum, a third: three drums, thumping in unison, quickly. Then comes Merrill Garbus, already kicking: “My country, ’tis of thee.”

Garbus, whose musical project is called tUnE-yArDs, is 32 years old, has an asymmetrical haircut, and carries herself with the tough but friendly confidence of a girl running the oven at a vegan bakery. She’s a yelper, a face-painter, and a schoolyard terror, 95 percent ya-yas, the kind of performer who would be more effectively introduced by something falling—a stack of dishes, maybe, or a bookshelf.

“Ladies and gentlemen” and “My country, ’tis of thee”: These are words you’ve heard hundreds of times that purport to belong to approximately 307,000,000 people. Garbus taking them and trying to make them her own—the lyrical equivalent of cupping water—is the first way she asserts her ambition.

And w h o k i l l is ambitious. Garbus’s sound—primitive in execution, but sophisticated in composition—spans ’90s-style bohemian grooves, soul’s inherent yearn, reggae’s bounce, and early hip-hop. The arrangements are all indeterminately tribal, heavy on bass, looped vocal chants, tom-toms and hand percussion. (A live video of “Bizness” from last year features three standing drummers playing very basic parts on very basic kits—an emphasis on communality, not division of labor.) Garbus mostly plays ukulele—for folk color—and saxophones fill in the empty space. The instruments all sound semi-distorted, bullying their way into the mix, but nothing overrides her voice, a redlining force that breaks from flutter to screech in the span of a bar. I’d think she must realize how cumulatively exhausting the album is—for most of it, she’s running.

It’s also an album of singular vision that sounds like it’s being narrated by 20 different people—a statement of radical individuality made by a kaleidoscope. The emotional and political scope reminds me more of an artist like Stevie Wonder than it does most of her peers, like she realized that writing from her own heart with her own voice also means writing through the hearts and voices of your friends and neighbors. (Even the “Ladies and gentlemen” routine echoes Songs in the Key of Life‘s opening shot: “Good morn and evening, friends.”)

w h o k i l l is a feminist album, or it’s at least an album whose primary perspectives are women’s. But where Laurie Anderson wrote cannily about issues like wage discrepancies between men and women on songs like “Beautiful Red Dress,” Garbus sounds more concerned with less institutional kinds of friction: “Would you call me naïve and an idealist,” she sings on “Killa,” “if I told you that I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?”

Well, I would, a little, except that she follows it by saying, “I cannot take it I’m so hip!” It’s the kind of quick but incisive societal portraiture that leaves a rock in my gut without making a judgment of any kind—and as if it wasn’t enough on paper, the lines play out over a brisk, propulsive bassline that sounds like the South Bronx, circa 1979: The cartoonish apocalypse of a Women’s Studies department descending on the b-boy battle.

All the album’s knots are tight, but some are tighter than others. On two songs, “Riotriot” and “Doorbell,” she professes lust (or something even more scarring) for police officers who have done violence to members of her family, invoking the feminized sway of island rhythms and cooing of ’60s girl groups—rhythms and sounds that suggest sexual magnetism and vulnerability. (Toward the end of “Riotriot,” the rhythms break down into a long, noisy passage interrupted by Garbus screaming, alone, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand, and like I never felt before”—all of a sudden, the girl who cowered in the doorway as policemen raided her house is out in the streets and throwing stones, ecstatic.)

These are long, complex stories condensed to five-line slogans written on freeway bridges in neon paint. w h o k i l l barrels ahead without water breaks, and its intelligence bears out in the way lines and passages bounce off each other, not the lines themselves—it’s about context and juxtaposition, not subtext. It’s violent in the way collages are violent, filled with visible stitches, jagged edges, and abrupt breaks.

But for all its ironies, w h o k i l l is a passionate record, not an analytic one. Just so Garbus isn’t mistaken for the kind of sociologist who forgets to account for herself (or the kind of hetero feminist who doesn’t acknowledge her own sexual instincts), there’s “Powa,” a torch song that passes through the line “My man likes me from behind” on its long ascension to notes usually left for Mariah Carey—left for the paradigms of pinups, earth mothers, and other kinds of women that make adolescent boys nervous. The tone of the songs is joyful and the themes are mostly related to togetherness. She isn’t just thinking about people, she’s sweating with them.

So much of the album—both in sound and in rhetoric—is what I guess you’d call “politically correct,” a term I forgot around 2000. Garbus plays the eclectic white liberal who burns to know what a girl’s to do if she’ll never be a Rasta (her words, not mine). It’s probably a pertinent question, but in 2011 it seems borderline corny, especially when your songs are spelled “Bizness,” “Powa,” and “Killa.” The occasional upright bass and scat singing don’t help. But Garbus tempers those impulses and deflates those perspectives so carefully—”I’m so hip!”—that she now joins a band like Vampire Weekend in seeming cool for confidently embracing styles and gestures that seem contextually uncool. (That’s how I read it at least, even though it makes my head hurt—the short way of putting it is that she seems artistically self-aware, which is always a good look.)

w h o k i l l is a gunshot, or a brick through a window. It doesn’t make room for its listener, but then again, that’s an offer tight-fisted and hard-headed artists often make: Take it or leave it. It won’t be admired for its subtlety, because it doesn’t have any. But it’s also pretty convincing in positing a world whose most interesting issues don’t play out through subtlety, but through friction and collision. Its situations are morally troubling but completely irreducible. How old-fashioned, you might think. But Garbus’s engagement is loud and hard to ignore. That she engages without despair is the part I find most admirable of all.

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On Mariah Carey’s Agreeably Bizarre Yuletide Sequel Merry Christmas II You

Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Not if Mariah Carey has any say! Hopeless nostalgia is to Christmas what It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmastime programming, but on Mariah’s second holiday album, Merry Christmas II You, she yearns for more than yuletides of old.

This sequel to 1994’s Merry Christmas harks back to a more complicated time in Mariah’s career. Opulently orchestrated with help from American Idol judge Randy Jackson and schmaltzmeister Marc Shaiman (who’s partially responsible for Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” among other cinematic shlock), it recalls an era when genre lines were as ambiguous as Mariah’s race, when her hitting as many target audiences as possible was the goal, when obsequiousness was the aesthetic. Post­-hip-hop Mariah doing an overly lush album of Christmas standards is the musical equivalent of Todd Haynes’s allegorically retro flick Far From Heaven. (She makes yuletide cheer gay, too, via the Salsoul Christmas Jollies–reminiscent “Here Comes Santa Claus/Rooftop Celebration” and a robotic house version of “Auld Lang Syne.”)

II You is as hilarious as the stilted Douglas Sirk movies that Heaven aped, starting with a title fit for . . . a Mariah Carey album. (Why just have something announce itself as a sequel when it can be a tiding of joy, as well?) The biggest laugh comes via the smooth, 808-bumped epilogue to her piano-and-voice reading of “The First Noel”: The “Born Is the King” interlude is pure baby-making music (apparently, even virgin birth is deserving of such). It’s also one of several medleys on II You, as if Mariah is such a festive entity that she simply cannot sing just one Christmas song at a time. She treats carols like potato chips and chews the scenery, her voice manically fluttering from an even belt to a clenched strain to a creamy whisper. Sometimes, the latter’s airiness sounds seasonal, and sometimes it sounds like a struggle. It’s always appropriately melodramatic, though—the aforementioned “The First Noel” is the sound of an eye filling with tears that have not yet spilled.

Of the four Mariah-penned new tracks, the Jermaine Dupri/Bryan-Michael Cox collaboration “Oh Santa!” tries the hardest, an antique kitchen-sink replica that manages to invoke a cheerleading squad, the Pointer Sisters, Mariah’s own “Loverboy,” and “Hey Ya!” Full of mumbling and cattiness, it’s difficult to sing along to, so its prospects of becoming a perennial favorite are dim. “When Christmas Comes” is a full-band Emancipation of Mimi retread, while “One Child” is a needless retelling of the night of Christ’s birth with nothing new to add (no surprise, coming from a non-historian). The only track that approaches the magic of her previous hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the exquisite “Christmas Time Is in the Air Again,” a sweeping big-band ballad that you’d swear was a cover from some Judy Garland movie you didn’t pay that much attention to once. Not even Santa himself has the power to conjure the spontaneous nostalgia found here.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” appears here, too, actually, in a remastered, “Extra Festive” version. Think of it as the stereo component to the mono-sounding original—the new version cuts the reverb, softens the bell-ringing, and introduces a giant kick drum. Think of it also as Mariah canonizing herself by remaking her own song, deserved classic that it is. It’s an eccentric move, and one that simultaneously caters to her ego and her audience. (You know your mom can’t be bothered to switch CDs to hear the song she really wants, and, since she’s part of a select group that’s still buying them . . .) The near-crazed desperation to please listeners for her own sake is all over Merry Christmas II You: A “gift” to her fans (or so she claims) that they, of course, must pay for, it’s her fascinating, career-long saga of self-obsession in a nutshell.

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The Brilliant Stupidity of The-Dream

“What rhyme with ‘asshole’? Asshole.” Thereby does Terius Nash, a/k/a deliciously absurd r&b semi-superstar The-Dream, deliver the best five consecutive words of 2010. A perfectly executed terrible joke—the hokey throat-clearing sound between the two “asshole”s seals it. And so it goes with the whole of “Florida University,” triumphant closing track to his third-straight deliriously triumphant solo album, the modestly titled Love King.

It’s a wantonly juvenile kiss-off, the song, a poppy frat-party trifle you’d despise if, like, LMFAO or Maroon Five or whoever, was behind it, particularly given the lyrics. The last line before the chorus is, “So forget you ever heard of me/This is short for ‘Florida University’ “; the chorus, designed to be shouted en masse, is “Eff you/Eff you/Eff you/Eff you.” Ridiculous. A fifth-grade sensibility at best—maybe fourth-. Plus it can’t help but remind you of Tim Tebow. No way. You know better than to find this song amusing. And yet in Dream’s hands it is profoundly amusing, and amusingly profound. The genius here lies in taking objectively terrible ideas—getting emotionally involved with this guy, for example, given his penchant for “Patrónin'” and general sexual profligacy—and making them seem like brilliant ideas.

This is the guy primarily responsible, after all, for turning the chorus “Under my umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” into a megahit. That, of course, would be Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which, along with J. Holiday’s (superior!) “Bed,” turned Nash and frequent writer/producer cohort Christopher “Tricky” Stewart into urban-pop tag-team royalty in 2007. Seriously, “Bed” is just staggering, sweet and lascivious and almost unbearably grandiose—the rare boudoir sex jam that also feels like a genuine love song. The template for Dream’s solo career was set, and it started immediately with 2007’s Love/Hate and continued with 2009’s Love vs. Money. The latter’s “Put It Down,” a bigger-budget “Bed” rewrite—more explosions, more CGI, more backup singers in the bed—gets at the essence of his power, perfectly fusing the sublime and the ridiculous. “I usually don’t do second verses,” Nash famously told the New Yorker, intimating, as David Byrne theorized in an admiring blog post, that after just one verse and the chorus, victory was assured, and afterward, you (not you, though) could sing whatever the hell came to mind, no matter how preposterous. The second verse of “Put It Down” starts like this:

And if they ask you, “Can he sing like Usher?,” say no
But I can make you sing like Mariah
And if they ask you, “Does he dance like Chris?,” tell ’em, “No”
But as much rubbing as we do, I could start a fire

Last year was otherwise only so-so for the guy. Beyoncé’s 2008 smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” yet another Nash/Stewart masterwork, lingered in the public imagination (thanks, Kanye!), but newer projects—Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, say—whiffed. (Don’t sleep, though, on Electrik Red, Dream’s dependably bizarre girl group, which released an album instructively titled How to Be a Lady, Volume One that consisted of audibly scantily clad women saying things that Nash apparently always wished audibly scantily clad women would say to him (“You don’t fuck us, we fuck you” and “I thought I wouldn’t really give a fuck/But now a bitch all in love,” for example). Meanwhile, Dream was huffily suggesting that Love King would be his last solo album, a threat he has mercifully rescinded, and here he is back at it, revitalized, grappling anew with the dualities of love and hate, love and money.

The latter first. “Make Up Bag” finds our hero in damage-control (and advice-columnist) mode: He’s been caught by his girl in the aforementioned act of Patrónin’, see. (Dream repeatedly hammers on the word “Patrón” as if he makes money with each repetition, which . . .?) The Make Up Bag, you understand, does not necessarily hold cosmetics. Ridiculous, brilliant. We follow that up with the bombastic “F.I.L.A.,” as in “fall in love again,” which blooms into a supernova slow jam immediately, as if you are joining a Super Bowl Champion Parade in mid-confetti-burst. “Sex Intelligent” (“I make every nigga irrelevant”) is slower, sleazier, surlier; “Yamaha,” which, from the metaphor on down, is as close you can get to remaking “Little Red Corvette” without just straight-up covering “Little Red Corvette,” details one such instance of sex intelligence. (It’s worth noting that Nash is married to Christina Milian; the Tom Ford boots he wore for the occasion are legendary. On “F.I.L.A.,” he insists that he’ll buy you both the house and the furniture, and doesn’t that just sum it up perfectly.) “Still got your name tattooed on my back,” concludes the glorious, multi-tracked “Yamaha” bridge of the one-time paramour whose actual name Dream never did catch, and you have to admit that he might not be lying about that tattoo.

For a world-class singles artist, Nash is admirably committed to the natural, elegant flow of a capital-A Album, and throughout King, we segue seamlessly from his ennui to his libido to his sexual/financial prowess and back again. “Nikki Part 2” revisits an ornery Love/Hate highlight, now softer and more reflective; “Abyss” is a moody, bitter, sumptuous kiss-off, as dead serious as “Florida University” is decidedly not. Only the seediest of the sex-god stuff fails here, as on the self-explanatory and ill-advised “Panties to the Side”: “Are you one of those that mean ‘go’ when they say ‘stop’?” and so forth. (Dream’s primary advantage over clear forebear and friendly adversary R. Kelly is . . . well, hopefully it’s obvious. He’d do well not to abandon that high ground.) “Turnt Out,” meanwhile, fares slightly better, if only for being a passable rewrite of Love/Hate highlight “Falsetto,” yet another track that ably sums up the guy’s appeal, with a still-unforgettable chorus wherein Nash, with the titular lightness of voice, impersonates the joy and abandon—”She like, ooooooh, oooooooh, baby“—of the women who deign to have sex with him.

The lesson here, as nearly always, is that Nash is at his greatest when taking himself the least seriously. Love King has an EP’s worth of digital bonus tracks, the most telling of which is “Take Care of Me,” which he pegged in an interview as his best song ever, and indeed sounds like someone trying to write his best song ever, essentially a stadium-rock power ballad (clear predecessor: Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”) that finds our hero bellowing “I will break you down” as if he’s trapped in the Thunderdome or something. You know what’s a better Dream song? “Cry,” which he allegedly wrote in under an hour—as close to freestyling as an r&b guy generally gets—for his Twitter followers in very late 2009. (No, seriously: “This is for my Twitter page,” it begins.) It’s repetitive and meandering and clearly half-assed and—you guessed it—fantastic. Let us conclude with perhaps the most romantic lines ever written:

‘Cause all the ones before told you they loved you
But I’m tellin’ you
I really fuckin’ love you, girl
And all the ones before have told you you were beautiful
But I really think you’re fuckin’ beautiful, girl

rharvilla@villagevoice.com