I recently picked up this album in the soul/R&B section of my local record store. Considering the time I spend in record stores, I’m usually informed about any old record sitting in the rap bin waiting for me to pick it up, but only sporadically do I visit soul/R&B, so this album must have been hiding from me for years. What was it doing here? It’s a rap album alright, but judging it only by its cover without listening to it, I would have filed it under soul and R&B too. The cover shows Little Shawn dressed in a somewhat silky, slightly unbuttoned shirt with a Christian cross around his neck, facing himself in a bedroom mirror while a female figure emerges in the foreground. Pink, light-blue, shadows and a few bright spots dominate the color scale of the cover. The expression on the face in the mirror is somewhere between contemplative and conceited. Let’s check out what the ‘voice in the mirror’ has to say.
The first time I heard Little Shawn was on Special Ed’s posse cut “5 Men and a Mic’ from 1990. Then I heard Biggie make a reference to him in “Party and Bullshit”: “Can’t we just all get along / so I can put hickeys on her chest like Little Shawn / get her pissy drunk off of Dom Perignon” (a line Shawn later used for his mid-90s single “Dom Perignon”). Big was referring to “Hickeys on Your Chest”, where Shawn jokes about his affiliation with fellow Flatbush- Brooklynite Special Ed: “Phone number after number, damn / but I don’t want another Special Ed fan / cause I’m Little Shawn, so girls, feel free / to run up and wrap your arms around me / but don’t think I’m nasty or say I’m gettin’ fresh / cause all I wanna do is give you hickeys on your chest”.
Clearly a club single, “Hickeys” is L.L. from the subject matter down to the flow and tone of voice. He even uses the same ‘I’m no R&B cat, but I know how to treat a woman’ routine: “I’m not El, James, Barry or even Al / but take me to your guard and I be sure to make you smile”. Shawn of course sees no similarities to any other rapper: “Howie Tee got a fly track synched up / so to another rapper I could never be linked up / or hear that I sound something like him / cause I get in that ass just once like James Ingram,” he states in “Yes He Did Leave Da Stage”.
And indeed, while making maybe one too many reference to r&b singers in his rhymes, he manages to distinguish himself from the rest of the rap pack. He has a clear, mid-range (although not characteristic) voice that is unfortunately sometimes buried under too much production.
The album starts off very nicely with “Funky, Funky Rhymes,” showing Howie Tee, one of the early masters of the sampling era, ahead of everybody as he constructs a multi-layered track that takes you on a mystic journey from the days of classic funk to the future while Clark Kent adds some cuts in the background.
But the music on this cd +does+ correspond with its cover, so girls are definitely the main focus here. The year before Howie Tee had explored the possibilities for rap producers in the r&b field when he co-produced Color Me Badd’s smash hit “I Wanna Sex You Up” (they provide the background vocals on “Come Back (2 Me)” here). And Capitol Records was working the pop rap sector with MC Hammer, Young MC, Mantronix and Mellow Man Ace, so Little Shawn might have been caught up in the mainstream machinery more than he wished to be. But overall the bubblegum appeal of “The Voice In the Mirror” is limited. I’d call it carefree tracks geared towards the dancefloor. Sometimes it stays within the borders of the acceptable (“I Got What U Need”, “Say What U Wanna Say”, “Tanya’s Freakin’ Me”, “Why Ya Gotta Act that Way”), other times it goes beyond (“I Made Love (4 Da Very 1st Time)”, “That Girl”, “I’d Love 2”).
Despite his claim “Little Shawn got something for every female / and I can break it down for you in detail,” Shawn does not get explicit the way rappers did even then. That’s not to say there’s no cursing on this album. But profanity is reserved for wack rappers. Prime example: “Yes He Did Leave da Stage”: “So just desert me cause you can’t hurt me / that’ll never work, gee / so – arrivederci / cause I can change a rapper like a bed spread / wax that ass and leave him on his death bed / I can rip a bitin’ MC like loose leaf / You got doubts? Step to me and you’ll see / cause just when you thought you had the last laugh / I beat the backyard shit out of your black ass”.
Lines like “To me gettin’ loose on the mic is like intercourse / cause this is easy as gettin’ in a girl’s drawers” and “Commercial or street, I’m in there / I go where a lot of rappers wouldn’t dare” sum this album pretty much up. However, unlike other rap albums it’s mostly harmless. Among all these love songs the battle rhymes of “Keep Ya Distance”, “Rappers At Close Range” or “Clap Ya Hands” ring somewhat hollow:
“What you gonna do when Little Shawn’s comin’
I’m on my way so you better start runnin’
and hidin, cause competition is slippin’ and slidin’
and copy cats are ridin’
Therefore I gotta keep changin frequently
(Why?) cause some rappers out now are weak to me
You know me, Shawn, I’m sure that you do
so don’t ask me who am I talkin to
Who gives a damn about a Billboard chart
because the underground is where it all starts
It comes from jeeps in the streets with the beats
and the peeps in the clubs where everyboody meets
Some of you have heard of me and some of you have bitten
but I’ma let you know on the microphone I ain’t kiddin'”
Having said that, I’m not surprised this is the only album Little Shawn ever got to record. Or isn’t it? Maybe I should search these record stores more thoroughly…