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Playing Well With Others: On The Power Of The Musical Duet

Music
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

How Lera Lynn has redefined the duet

The image of the singer-songwriter in music is often a lonely one. A single voice on stage, the artist pouring their heart out, without anyone else to share the emotional burden. While great bands can distill the force of each member into a collective identity, songwriters are empires unto themselves, and letting anyone else in is something of a balancing act.

On Lera Lynn’s new album Plays Well with Others, she undertakes such a balancing act on each of the album's nine songs, all of them duets, with people like Andrew Combs, Dylan LeBlanc, and elder statesmen like Rodney Crowell. While the album sees Lynn take lead-billing, she simultaneously tries on a series of new identities: "Breakdown," with Combs, has a dirty, gulch-y, eerie undercurrent; "What is Love," with LeBlanc, classic and elegiac; "Wolf Like Me," with Shovels and Rope, cool and unusual, with a deep, rumbling organ sound padding out the whole song.

There’s a distinction in musical history between duets and, say, when a band uses backing singers, but should there be? "Midnight Train to Georgia" is as much about The Pips as it is Gladys Knight. Merry Clayton’s background vocal on The Rolling Stones’ "Gimme Shelter" makes that song what it is, but her credit is hidden. Lynn seems to be questioning that idea in the very opening song on this record, "Same Old Song," with Peter Bradley Adams. Rather than a back-and-forth between the two, Adams and Lynn sing the song in unison, almost in a whisper. If it had appeared on another of Lynn’s albums, it’d be surprising to refer to it as a duet.

But surprising might be what Lynn is going for here, as it feels like, with this album, she is trying to redefine completely the idea of duets. This is particularly interesting given country music’s history with a very classic, almost old-fashioned style duet. Think: Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers crooning "Islands in the Stream" in perfect harmony. Or: Johnny Cash and June Carter going down to Jackson, dancing on a pony keg. Even more recently, there have been examples of these kinds of duets between Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J (although the less said about "Accidental Racist," the better). Lynn is placing herself within the tradition, but also setting herself apart from it with the kind of choices she makes, particularly in the album’s closing track, a cover of "Almost Persuaded."

It’s telling that on an album where it feels Lynn is trying out a lot of new hats, she ends with something totally classic. "Almost Persuaded" is part of the canon of country. Written in 1966 by Glenn Sutton and Billy Sherrill, first released by David Houston, it’s gone on to be covered by George Jones, Merle Haggard, Etta James, Louis Armstrong, and countless others. In the song, a man becomes tempted at a bar by a woman, and as they dance together and she asks him to come home with her, he sees his wedding ring reflected in her eye, and he stops and goes back to his wife. 

Lynn, joined by John Paul White, flips the script. Coming in on the second half of the song, she switches up the pronouns of that verse. It’s now the man coming onto the woman, and the woman who is guided by her conscience, and says no. It’s a small decision, but a powerful one. Lynn gives a voice, and an agency, to a character who’s spent the last half a century of country music trying to take a man away from his wife. The narrative becomes far less clear-cut. It’s a reminder that these songs aren’t preserved in amber—they can be pulled apart, reshaped, and made to tell a different story. 

It’s not a million miles away from the kind of sampling that happens a lot in hip-hop. Tupac isn’t technically duetting with Bruce Hornsby on "Changes," but he uses his chorus from "That's Just the Way It Is" to help tell his story—the two songs are so thematically linked that they might as well be. On the other side, Dido’s "Thank You" is not in any way about a crazed stalker, but the mood she sets up in those opening verses of hopelessness and sadness is transplanted brilliantly into Eminem’s "Stan." You could even argue for Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ultra being an album of duets, taking full backing tracks and writing new songs over them—there’s only one person singing, but he’s in conversation with something else.

There’s a kind of jeopardy in duets. The idea of someone being pushed out of their comfort zone, or attempting something different, raises the stakes. This is as true of Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne as it is of Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. There’s the fear of being overshadowed, or being stifled, or even just the fear that collaboration on paper won’t have any chemistry in the studio. There’s also a small novelty factor. Duets are like crossover episodes. There’s something fun about listening to two familiar voices run alongside each other, or seeing a guest introduced halfway through, even if it doesn’t always come off.

But, implicit in the form is the fact that you have to give something of yourself away. The reason you do that is the hope that the returns will be greater. On Plays Well with Others, Lynn makes that bet with each of the songwriters she’s brought in, and it comes off every time.

Screenshot via Youtube

While the song should serve as a reminder to your exes

Just a day after dropping new single "Nunya," featuring Dom Kennedy, Kehlani has released the winter-wonderland visuals to go along with. The singer, NYLON November cover star, and mother-to-be rocks some of the best winter 'fits I've seen in a while, including a glorious puffer jacket that could double as a down comforter that I absolutely need in my life right now.

Kehlani is clearly living her best life up in some snow-filled forest hideaway, vibing on the beach at sunset and sipping on something bubbly as she coolly reminds nosy exes that who she's with is "nunya business." There's not much of a story line (unlike her recent "Nights Like This" video); the main takeaway is that Kehlani is busy dancing through a forest, missing no one and chilling amongst people who are clearly not the subjects of the song.

Kehlani is only two short months away from bringing baby Adeya into the world, who she thanked for helping her get through the video process. "Shot that 7 months pregnant in da snow..." Kehlani wrote on Twitter, adding, "thank u baby for da motivation, mommy was FROZE."

Even from the womb, Adeya has been hustling hard alongside her momma. Twitter user @ODtheMC pointed out that this is already her second music video appearance, and she's not even been born.

Get some mulled wine ready and escape into Kehlani's winter getaway, below. Stay tuned for her forthcoming mixtape, While We Wait, out on February 22.

Kehlani - Nunya (feat. Dom Kennedy) [Official Music Video] www.youtube.com

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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images.

As in Black Panther Political Party leader

It's been a running joke that the Black parents/grandparents of millennials were really confused about all of the Black Panther hoopla ahead of its 2018 release. Many of them were anticipating a movie about members of the Black Panther Political Party and didn't know who the hell T'Challa was. Well, those people are about to have their moment, and we're about to have another one.

Variety is reporting that Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader at the center of the upcoming biopic Jesus Was My Homeboy, could be played by none other than Daniel Kaluuya. Apparently, he is in negotiations for the role. And he's not the only Black Panther alum in the mix. The Warner Bros. project is being produced by Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler. The same article reports that the forever swoon-worthy Lakeith Stanfield—who appeared with Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out—is also in negotiations, to play William O'Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party.

Coogler and Charles King are putting together a dream cast to tell a difficult story. Hampton was killed by the Chicago Police Department, while his pregnant girlfriend lay next to him, thanks in part to information they received from O'Neal. Whenever it's out, I strongly recommend having Black Panther queued up as a palate cleanser.

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