”You can‘t see me,“ MCs like to say. ”My skills lift me up above your mortal sense,“ they mean to say. Joi, an R&B singer with an MC’s sense of entitlement and balls, has been literally invisible for most of her career. If you enter the name ”Joi“ at Amazon.com today, you‘ll find albums by house singer Joi Cardwell (not her) and an Asian Underground dance group called Joi (not her either) before you find an entry for The Pendulum Vibe (EMI, 1994), which is by our Joi but out of print. Album No. 2, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome (Freeworld, 1997), was never released, but we’re hoping Star Kitty‘s Revenge (Universal) will actually come out on March 19 like The Man says it will.

Star Kitty is the only one you need. Pendulum Vibe was Instance No. 3,401 of Interesting Singer Stranded by Trendy Production. Even though the beats + diva template of Soul II Soul had peaked as a production aesthetic in 1991, American producers kept on movin’ through much of the ‘90s in search of the properly mild beats under the right not-too-black vocals for that stay-at-homehit-the-clubs commercial ver$atility. Producers Dallas Austin and Diamond D. were just 1994’s contestants, rubber-cementing R&B and hip-hop together to no significant end. Problem 2: Joi doesn‘t write songs in the traditional verse-chorus-hooks-lyrics sense, which shifts the burden of Being Interesting to personality (appealing but not distinct enough in ’94), vibe (see above) and concepts (mild feminism, slightly less mild bisexuality, vague self-affirmation). Perfect for buying socks at Banana Republic.

1997‘s Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome is a step up from Pendulum. Austin teamed with Fishbone to recast Joi as the new Betty Davis. An openly sexual singer with a famous black musician boyfriend (Big Gipp of the Goodie Mob, now her husband), unafraid of rock music, Joi had the credentials for the job, and delivered more goods this time around. You get Funkadelic-style black rockers, slow-burn ballads and even a Prince cover, all pretty successful. But Joi waved her freak flag a little too high and encountered Instance No. 7,800 of a Singer Screwed by Label Fearful of Dominant Trends. ”Time To Smile“ is exactly the kind of feel-good retro pabulum that Macy Gray would take to The Gap a few years later, and an aggressive promo department could have cast her as some female D’Angelo type. But it was not to be.

Many singers would have said uckfay this ish and gone home. Which Joi did, sort of. ”I just got married and had a baby and had a man and had to nurture my family and reinvent myself,“ she explains in ”Alright, I‘m Back,“ Star Kitty’s intro. But Atlanta, R&B and hip-hop have changed since Joi was counting herself lucky to work with a top dog like Austin. Her husband Gipp‘s crew, the Dungeon Family, is now on a first-name basis with the Top 10, and producers like Organized Noize and EarthTone III (a.k.a. Andre 3000) are leading Deep Southern hip-hop aesthetics. Splitting production between Austin, Sleepy Brown of Organized Noize, Raphael Saadiq and Joi, Star Kitty lands squarely in the middle of Now and gives Joi her best platform yet.

Electric basses through envelope filters, keyboard burps and backward hard-drive flotsam keep the sound spacious and bubbly, equal parts Neptunes and ”There’s a Riot Goin‘ On.“ To make the connection explicit, Joi quotes a melody from Sly’s ”Runnin‘ Away“ on ”It’s Your Life.“ But her guru this time is Bootsy, a fact made more explicit by the cover of his ”Munchies for Your Love.“ The P-Funk ballad is a natural for Joi‘s slack sense of time, organic freakiness, and tendencies toward concepts and away from chord changes and anything but the most rudimentary lyrics. Each track feels relaxed but well-placed, like she thought about a song for a long time and then recorded and mixed it in a day with her ”people.“ Her charm comes front and center, especially in the spoken interludes and the intro of ”Munchies for Your Love,“ where she coaxes Big Gipp into singing with her.

The front half of the album trucks mostly self-affirmation and sex tales; ”Lick“ is an ode to head powered by a slowed-down sample of Laid Back’s ”White Horse.“ The back half is a Sunday-morning hangover, with Joi chewing out cheating females (”You‘re a Whore“) and absent men (”He’s Still a Nigga“), then dropping back to pay tribute to her father (”Jefferson St. Joe“) and her 4-year-old, Keypsiia (”I‘m Gonna Love You Forever“). How you’ll feel about her stance as a strong woman after hearing all of this will depend on how much dialectic you can stand before you cry ”False consciousness!“ Either way, it‘s a blast of fresh, cold air hearing an artist whose first job isn’t getting us to like her.#

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