In praise of Total's 'What About Us,' featuring one of Timbaland's most overlooked beats | Bleader

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In praise of Total's 'What About Us,' featuring one of Timbaland's most overlooked beats

Posted By on 05.19.15 at 12:00 PM

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The cover of Kima, Keisha, and Pam
  • The cover of Kima, Keisha & Pam

Hyde Park's the Promontory has been hosting some of the finest shows in town, partly thanks to the ingenious bookings of jack-of-all-trades (and Reader writer) Jake Austen. One such performance takes place this Saturday, when 90s R&B trio Total plays two shows at the south-side concert hall. Members Kima Raynor, Keisha Spivey, and Pamela Long were the biggest R&B act on Sean "Puffy" Combs's initial Bad Boy Records roster, making their debut on two of Notorious B.I.G.'s most famous singles, "Juicy" and both versions of "One More Chance" (Long also sang the chorus on "Hypnotize," which means her voice is currently taking space somewhere in your subconscious). They released two albums in the 90s before splitting up, 1996's sharp self-titled release and 1998's sort-of-self-titled Kima, Keisha & Pam. But the best work the group ever did on their own wasn't on either of these two albums, but rather in between them: the 1997 single "What About Us," which was relegated to the hard-to-find Soul Food soundtrack.

A Bad Boy remix of "What About Us" appeared on Kima, Keisha & Pam, and for some reason it seems to be more popular now than the original version. But the OG version, which hit number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, is one of the finest R&B singles of the 90s, a smoothly frenetic and weirdly slinky cut that questions why cheating men are willing to jeopardize solid relationships: "Baby, I seen you with another lady / I just finished having your baby / Why'd you have to go?" For a song about such an emotionally damaging situation, its weirdly sensual and playful. The reason for this, aside from Total's buttery singing, is yet another example of the sublime and brain-twisting production of Timbaland.

For such a complex single, the foundation of the song is conspicuously elemental: drums, bass, and an acoustic guitar. But Timbaland's screwy geometry does wonders with these components, speeding up or dicing the syncopation of the drums at odd intervals, and sneaking in the oblong guitar lick diagonally. How he figures out how to make these licks complement each other is beyond me, but it leads up to a typical "Holy shit!" Timbaland moment during a bridge from the final chorus to the outro, when the song breaks down into a beatboxing instrumental and an a capella performance by Total and Timbaland. You have to hear it for yourself, and you can below.

Total plays 7 PM and 10 PM shows, neither of which is sold out; Zzaje open. If you're in town this weekend, I'd advise checking it out.

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