Saturday, Febuary 26, 2016, marks the funeral of Denise Matthews, known during her performing career as Vanity. Though she left that name and it’s negative implications for her behind almost a quarter of a century ago, the character that Prince crafted for her and she executed is still one of the most potent of it’s era. Prince took the beautiful biracial model, who most people thought was Latina, and made her the embodiment of sexually liberated freakieness. In truth, Ms. Matthews association with the funk was strong, even outside of the Artists direction, dating Rick James in the early days as well as doing album covers for Cameo. Today I want to honor the impact of her eternal, Prince composed and produced hit “Nasty Girl”, rcorded by the Vanity 6. “Nasty Girl” is one of the eternal dance funk classics. I recall being hypnotized by it’s Carribean, Afro Latin funk dance beat for as long as I can remember. Prince married an incredible funky rhythm track, highlighting a stop and start beat from his Linn Drum, with some steel drum type sounds providing a low, hollow bass line, with brief snapshots of his super funky guitar rhythms and New Wavey synths. It was the epitome of a feminine funk groove, one that seduced you instead of drove you, through means of it’s pregnant pauses and pelvic pops. On top of that Vanity spoke-sung a lyrical text that really couldn’t get any nastier and sexually frank, even if she added the obscenities that would become commonplace for female sex stars like Lil Kim and Nikki Minaj.
As the 2000s began and Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo came to prominence, I noticed that when they really want to give a female artist some funk power for the dance floor, their basic template is “Nasty Girl.” And who can blame them, as the record established a groove that still sounds fresh all these years later. I was hardly a Britney Spears fan when she came on the scene, and even less so when I realized her hit debut single, “Hit me Baby One More Time” was a very sterile, stiff attempt at a funky track. But when the Neptunes gave her this beat in 2001? I didn’t buy the record, no, but I surely enjoyed the video radio play when this one came on. “I’m a Slave for U” is our first of a three part tribute this weekend, celebrating the funky triumph of “Nasty Girl”, Prince, the Neptunes, and the late Denise Matthews.
“I’m a Slave for U” screams “Nasty Girl” from the first bar, opening with a clever milenial re imaginging of the classic rhythm pattern. The song begins with a drumbeat, a hard kick on the one setting off an unhurried funk tempo. Conga drums fill in the large spaces between the beats. On beat three in particular, two conga beats leading to beat four gives the track away as a clear daughter of “Nasty Girl.” But the Neptunes make sure baby girl has her own features, as the sampled sounding hi hats and the Neptunes abstract synth glisses take the tonality of the song far away from the Vanity 6’s tune, making use of a darker sound palette only implied in the steel drum bassiness of the original. After Britney’s spoken intro, the verse comes in, with Britney singing in a terse lower register and the Neptunes synths playing active rhythms in the mould of Prince’s rhythm guitar work. The keyboard sound has this guitar/clavinet vibe that was one of the Neptunes original sonic trademarks.
Britney was going for an independent vibe on this particular album, released in the year she turned 21. The lyrics play out a story of her going to a nightclub, possibly for the first time, with the intention of dancing and having a good time. She begins, “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl/well did you ever think it be okay for me to step into this world”. She ends up sprung off the dude she ends up dancing with, feeling like a “slave” to the lust and passion she feels. I must admit it tripped me out to hear a white singer sing about being a slave in an attraction/sexual context, but the lyric is also in line with Diana Ross classics such as “Love Hangover” and even “Upside Down.” The track behind her has the Neptunes classic pitch sliding bomb drops, and defined video game blips. They also make skillful use of a chord change to give the groove a different flavor during the refrain, and break the beat down to the Conga inflected beat with the haywire computer sounds accenting the rhythm. All through the chorus Britney is panting and breathing heavy, trying to match the sex appeal of “Nasty Girl” is her own Millennial way.
“Nasty Girl” has been viewed as somewhat of a song of female sexual empowerment over the years, because of the way The Vanity 6 boldly and witheringly spoke about their sexual needs, with ne’er concern for the male ego. It was fitting then that the Neptunes used Prince’s incredible track for a base to take Britney Spears into more mature adult subject matter. There was not much in the way of funky stuff I was excited about in the popular outlets in 2001, but this track hit me instantly when I heard it’s “Nasty Girl” update! The other songs in this weekend series, “Milkshake” by Kelis, and “Blow” by Beyonce, will highlight how Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams took “Nasty Girl” and institutionalized it in popular music as the heartbeat of female sexual outspoken dance music, even as Prince and Denise Matthews begged their Lord to forgive their youthful horny expressions!