SAY WHAT YOU will about Aretha Franklin, but get one thing straight. In her time—and even today, when she takes the stage alongside glossy-eyed acolytes—Aretha

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Where have all the divas gone?

SAY WHAT YOU will about Aretha Franklin, but get one thing straight. In her time—and even today, when she takes the stage alongside glossy-eyed acolytes—Aretha controlled the stage, the record, and the afterparty like no one's business. Strip away the oversized wrap dress and the crossover nonsense—both recent outfits are sure to be short-lived—and you're left with something all too rare these days: a true diva of song.

But oh, are there pretenders. Mariah's cleaned out her pipes with a thorough hip-hop treatment, rendering them both underutilized and belittled. Certainly a potential diva-in-the-making, her true drama takes place off the stage, in battles with Tommy, Derek, and co-op boards that refuse her apartment applications. Musically, there's no challenge left, her last two albums having been practically mailed in. As for Mariah's Aunt Doppelganger, Whitney Houston, much the same is true. Her recent comeback, despite the defiant I'll-wear-my-white-fur-on-the-beach-if-I-damn-well-please moments, still panders to the clubs, adding in vim what it misses in vocal adventure.

Yet, despite these precipitous dives, it is almost certainly true that history will regard the pair as the dominant R&B singers of our generation. Between them, they've sold countless millions of records, not to mention scored a truckload of number-one hits. For all their accolades, though, they make ephemeral music, less and less resonant as time goes by. The pop ballad, it's becoming clear, is a dying form. Fifty years ago, we'd have called them "standards"; now, they're merely fodder for drunken karaoke bar carousing.

Other chanteuses, though, await their turn. The past few months have seen a trio of eagerly anticipated releases, each bearing aspirations for the diva crown. Between hip-hop soul queen and all-around B-girl Mary J. Blige, pensive, sensual, and vicious Meshell Ndegeocello, and the much-hyped, raspy-tongued newcomer Macy Gray, the odds for genius ran high. Yet somehow, surprisingly and to much consternation, none of these talented voices has delivered on its promise. More than a statement of particular faults, their weakness stands as a metaphor for the broader state of women in rhythm & blues: They've been reduced to a seemingly ever-thinning slice of girl-group chatter.

THE THREE M'S were supposed to be part of the backlash. After Erykah Badu's Baduizm recontextualized urban airwaves two years ago, it seemed as if a roots revival of female soul was imminent. Love Jones fans and spoken-word artists the country over rejoiced silently. For Meshell, bits of rock, folk, and funk have always been part of the equation, and Bitter promised to be her magnum opus, a more personal and developed musical statement than her previous two records. Live, it should be said, Meshell testifies her way through these tracks, backed by a rich, vibrant ensemble that on the record was either missing or locked in another room. Her vocals are still deliciously syrupy, though; on "Loyalty" she soothes a lover, assuring that "like a child, you will never want for love/ 'cause all that I have I give to you." In her rich tenor, she weaves a narrative of cruel love throughout the album that, married with more robust arrangements, might impact more deeply. Instead, Craig Street (who produced the entire album, the first time Meshell has worked with an outside producer) plays down the music, presumably to let the star take center stage. All well and good, but rather than subtly complement her mood, the music lumbers around, undermining what might be otherwise poignant moments.

The same troubles can be found on Mary J. Blige's latest record, Mary. Still wearing the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul crown, Mary's always been able to get by on vocal texture and beats; it's never really been about the songwriting with Mary, but it didn't have to be. Her personality was such that it automatically attracted a pile of devotees who were attracted to her combination of round-the-way insouciance and doe-eyed innocence—she could love you, but she would hurt you. It's all here on Mary, but rather than rely on the digital new jill swing that's gotten her to this point, she takes the organic route, leaving the beats in the ghetto and reaching for a sort of soul permanence. Sadly, it's a new world for Mary, one she can't seem to learn the tricks of. With the kind of spare musical accompaniment she sets herself to here, only a voice of crystal quality and resonance, one both assured and delicate, could win. As always, Mary gets points for attitude—a duet with former beau K-Ci Hailey is as raw as she wants to be—but the voice . . . well, that's raw too.

Macy Gray, on the other hand, may well have that voice. Whether it's being put to the right use is another question entirely. On her debut album, On How Life Is, she manages to apply a signature feel to quirky, evocative tracks like "Still," which recounts the tale of an abusive relationship, as well as "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak," which needs no elaboration. Her musical stride is different from the others, embracing the thick instrumentation her peers have eschewed, though ultimately she too has it backwards. Her more sultry moments need a less cluttered palette on which to shine, something she'll no doubt learn as her career evolves. But as for the Venus Freak funk—that, my dear, is diva material even Aretha would be proud of. Will someone prepare the muumuu?

 
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