PPP [Platinum Pied Pipers]: “Abundance”
When DJs Waajeed and Ssadiq dubbed themselves the Platinum Pied Pipers, they donned what is surely one of the most awkward, stupid names in all of hip-hop. In 2008, they shortened it to simply PPP, which isn’t much better– shorter, but just as silly and arguably just as awkward to say. Mercifully, they’ve finally gotten the hang of the name game for the release of their 2009 record Abundance. Brimming with imagination and creative verve, this fifteen-song set is a treasure trove of vision and artistry that bounds from one killer song to the next. Abundance is right– in terms of bang for buck, this smokin’ hot LP is the absolute motherload of R&B gems.
A lot has changed for these Detroit natives since their last set, the rap-flavored Triple P, not the last of which is that they’ve had to look on with horror as the tribulations of the auto industry has put their home city at the forfront of America’s economic crisis. Not surprisingly, then, Abundance is, as much as anything, a Valentine to Detroit and a celebration of the city’s rich musical heritage. The set’s opening trifecta rolls Detroit’s past and presence into one kick-ass, no-prisoners burst of energy and inspiration, opening with the hard-edged, guitar-and-drums rocker “Angel” before kicking into the high gear of the organ-fueled rave-up “Smoking Mirrors.” It’s an explosive opener that flirts with perfection– and it turns out to be nothing more than the warm-up lap. The PPP duo unleashes their full array of powers on the third cut and first single, the swaggering Motown sing-along “On a Cloud.” As if reclaiming their city’s legacy from the recent swathe of retro-minded R&B belters, Waajeed and Saadiq turn recent pop trends on their side with a thrilling full-band arrangement, while vocalist Karma Stewart brings both cheery good humor and come-hither sexuality in a performance that sounds like Beyonce if she ratcheted up the soul factor by another 10 points. It’s a dynamite single that packs more heart and hooks into its four minutes than Amy Winehouse’s entire first album.
Their territory sufficiently marked, PPP blows the roof of the joint and charts a course straight for outer space with the remaining songs. It’s like a mixtape of the greatest R&B songs you’ve never heard: There’s a sweaty, club-ready jam (“Go, Go, Go”), a white-hot blast of Latin jazz (“The Ghost of Aveiro”),a dub-inflected electro-rocker (“Countless Excuses”), and a hilarious story-song that gleefully exploits hip-hop cliches (“American Pimp”). The middle of the album serves up a couple of silky-smooth ballads– the only place where the record’s rollicking energy dips– and the final tracks exlode into a kind of sci-fi funk that provides the perfect cap for the most exploratory, forward-thinking R&B album in recent memory– a giant slab of funk and fun that brings to mind the most visionary classics from Parliament or Funkadelic.
The group’s twin masterminds aren’t exactly attention hogs– they work mostly behind the scenes, with songwriting and production– but they deliver a bravura performance here. They sustain a kinetic energy throughout the album, which flows seamlessly from one song into the next, and their sense of pacing and sequencing is unimpeachable. They maximize these productions for drama, depth, and, most importantly, hooks; a track live “Luv Affair” is as memorable for its killer melody as for the moment where the drums kick in and lock the groove into place, or for the layering of the synths and guitars. And they invert the entire concept of the retro– so popular in the pop and R&B of the late 2000s– by splicing old and new sounds together with no discrimination, which means that this music exists totally outside of trends or even history– it’s timeless R&B that has one foot in tradition and the other in the future.
As for the folks out front, PPP have roped in the perfect troupe of vocalists to give these songs their heart. Coultrain is the male presence here, the embodiment of charisma and attitude, while Karma Stewart is all smoldering sexuality and aching soul. Neco Redd brings winking humor and broad theatricality to “American Pimp,” and Jamila Raegan is simply a great pop singer who finds the emotional meat in what could have been mindlessly hooky tracks like “Go, Go, Go.” Each singer has a distinct personality and brings something special to the table, much like the songs themselves, which alternate between giddy humor and mature, grown-up reflections on love and relationships. PPP proves equally adept at applying professional sheen and letting their little quirks and foibles shine through, which means that the album takes some trippy detours without ever seeming to veer off course or break from its ruthless groove.
The term tour de force is one of the most overused critical cliches in existence, but Abundance is one of the rare albums that actually deserves it. It’s an utterly epic album that seems to run the entire spectrum of R&B sounds and styles, bringing a fresh creativity and big heart to each one, all the while never seeming to break a sweat. Indeed, the PPP posse never misses a beat or makes a fumble; its scope is sweeping, its craft flawless, its vision impossible to deny. Mainstream pop and R&B haven’t seen an album so inspired or inventive in years, and indeed, in its forward-thinking innovation, it’s technically as impressive as any recent offerings from the world of indie rock and pop. It doesn’t buck genre conventions so much as it completely owns them and uses them for its own purpose, and the only reasonable response is to give into its grooves and submit to its mind-melding celebration of song and style.