DeepSoul: Teena Marie - "Square Biz"

"Lady T's" talent and love for soul transformed her into a modern R&B pioneer.
  |   Comments

Call her "Vanilla Child" or "Lady T," but most can agree that Teena Marie was a pioneer through her unique brand Teena Marieof funk. Her powerful voice and obvious love of R&B enabled her to transcend cultural and racial boundaries to become one of soul's most admired vocalists. While Marie recorded numerous memorable tracks, "Square Biz" stands out for its bass-popping beat and Marie's surprisingly convincing rap break.

Marie first arrived at Motown in 1977, and was eventually paired with labelmate Rick James. James, who became her lover as well as mentor, wrote and produced her debut album Wild and Peaceful. The 1979 LP spawned a hit duet with James, "I'm Just A Sucker for Your Love," but tellingly did not feature Marie's picture on the cover. Supposedly Motown executives were concerned that urban audiences would not purchase an album bearing the image of a white performer. After the album sold well, her followup, 1980's Lady T, featured a glamorous closeup of her face. If her appearance surprised audiences, it hardly affected sales: the single "Behind the Groove" quickly became a solid hit. As her confidence grew, she blossomed as a songwriter and producer; both were in evidence on her third album, 1980's Irons in the Fire. Dancefloor burners like "I Need Your Lovin'" proved that she need not rely on James for creating seriously funky songs. Irons in the Fire became her highest charting R&B album and her first to crack into the Top 40. But she would flourish on 1981's It Must Be Magic, where she took full charge of writing and songwriting. Tracks like the jazzy and sultry "Portuguese Love" remain quiet storm classics, but the other major hit, "Square Biz," shows her gift for wordplay.

"Square Biz" embraces early hip hop in addition to funk and disco. Like much old school rap, Marie brags of her singing prowess: "I'll hip you to the Tee that is/ I got the best, the most, baby, from coast to coast/ And I don't wanna boast, but I love you Square Biz," she chants over chugging drums and bass. Horns sharply punctuate the strong beat, which Marie rides easily with her vocals. Throughout the song she continues experimenting with language, likening her love to composing music: "Bombs burst, fireworks, big production thing/ I'm talkin' horns and string, orchestration is my love."

Up to this point, "Square Biz" exists as a catchy slice of early '80s funk, albeit with some hip hop tropes. However, she startles the listener by launching into a rap. Think back to 1981: rap was far from being a staple on radio, and had yet to make a significant dent on the charts. In addition, few whites ever ventured into the genre. Yet Marie fearlessly dives into this relatively new form, demonstrating that talent knows no cultural boundaries. At once humorous and reverent, Marie delivers some lines worthy of any rapper boasting about his abilities: "I've heard a boatload of others ladies' raps/ But they ain't got nothin' on me," she brags. Clearly aware of her unique position in R&B, she explains that she has been called "Casper, Shorty, Lil' Bit" and "Vanilla Child," but "you know that don't mean my world to me/ 'Cause baby, names can't cramp my style." Declaring her allegiance to African-American culture, she announces that "{I love chick-icken} And Buff's collard greens/ A little hot water corn bread." She equally enjoys "spirituals and rock" and name-checks diverse figures such as Sarah Vaughn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni. Obviously Marie convincingly argued for credibility, as "Square Biz" became a major club hit and remains popular on R&B radio.

Marie would finally achieve massive crossover success with the 1984 single "Lovergirl," but never reached that pinnacle again. Nevertheless she continued recording quality albums such as 1988's Naked to the World, which contains the heavily sampled "Ooh La La La." She took a hiatus from recording for much of the 1990s, eventually returning in 2004 with La Doña.Clearly she had not lost her golden touch, as "I'm Still in Love" instantly became an urban radio standard. A year after releasing 2009's excellent Congo Square, she unexpectedly passed away in her sleep, abruptly ending her musical comeback.

Marie may be gone, but her considerable legacy remains. She broke the racial barrier for future crossover artists such as Mariah Carey, Lisa Stansfield, Joss Stone, and Christina Aguilera, all of whom have achieved acceptance from various audiences. As Marie sings in "Square Biz," "everybody get up" and pay tribute to a modern soul pioneer.

DeepSoul will be on vacation next week, but will return with more R&B gems!