"They call me Sassy, Ms. Black if ya nasty." —"Watching You"
SassyBlack wants to take you on a trip on her latest album, New Black Swing (out June 23). Maybe not down memory lane, but through a living exhibition of the mechanics of a gone but not forgotten era of R&B. Running from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, new jack swing, the stylistic reference point for New Black Swing, stepped away from the softer love-ballad vibes of the early 1980s (think 1983 Lionel Richie or early New Edition), thickened the sexual overtones, and added the aggressive hiphop percussion that American dance floors of the time craved (think 1986 Janet Jackson or late-1980s Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown).
A themed album like New Black Swing—which follows up SassyBlack's No More Weak Dates (2016) and Personal Sunlight (2015) in her post-THEESatisfaction catalog—actually seems like a natural distillation of her previously varied sound. As a producer, SassyBlack (whose real name is Catherine Harris-White) has always favored beats that sound inspired by the pre-Ableton era: echoey air-snares, synth bass, lo-fi aesthetic. In terms of production, the concept behind New Black Swing seems to focus, rather than limit, her expression.
"I've always been a fan of R&B, and new jack swing, so I just wanted to find some time to dive into an album I've always wanted to do," Harris-White says in a phone interview. The fondness shows, as a number of the tracks are spot-on new jack swing emulation (see especially "What We Gonna Do" and "Games"); in fact, they should be considered proud additions to the canon. Harris-White says she went through a period of intense close-listening to albums by artists like Bobby Brown, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Karen White, Jody Watley, and Michael Jackson. (In an aside, Harris-White insists that Jackson's Dangerous is definitely a new jack swing album, saying, "I don't think people realize it is, but Teddy Riley produced quite a bit of that.") The overall effect of New Black Swing is partially a tribute to the genre, but as a whole, the contemporary rhythmic construction and unmistakable vocal stylings make the album a distinctly SassyBlack product.
Though Harris-White is well-known as a singer, she decided that if she was going to do the new jack swing shtick justice, she would have to rap as well—so she did just that. "I felt like the songs would have been missing something had I not rapped," she says. "It felt good... I do rap, but I took a break from it to focus on my singing. Plus, the songs I was making didn't really ask for a rap, but [this time] it just felt right, and it felt cool to come back to it and feel stronger as a rapper than I did before."
The process of writing the lyrics, she says, was all about getting into the R&B mind state. A prototypical R&B jam may deal with love or loss, but there should be nuance and internal conflict. "It's heartbreak, but it's kind of upbeat heartbreak. It's like, 'You left me, but I guess that's just how it goes, do do do'—and then scatting, and then it's on to the next." She adds: "I feel like a lot of R&B albums revolve around that: what's about to go down or what you're gonna get if you fall in love with me."