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Little Ghetto Boy

by Lalah Hathaway

Although everything about this Grammy-winning live performance oozes effortless class, it’s the vocal that provides the real magic. One aspect of Hathaway’s technique particularly impresses me, and that’s her treatment of long sustained notes. There are plenty of R&B divas who lack the conviction to stay put on a given pitch for any length of time, retreating into blizzards of emotionally vacuous curlicues at every opportunity — their fear, presumably, being that they’ll lose the listener’s attention otherwise. What Hathaway so splendidly demonstrates here is that there’s plenty of scope to hold the ear with timbral variation alone. The word “boy” at 0:50 is a case in point. By virtue of her extending the vocal diphthong, you effectively get a slow transition between ‘o’ (as in ‘top’), though ‘e’ (as in ‘set’), to ‘ee’ (as in ‘see’), creating a kind of timbral momentum through the arrangement drop-down at that point. Likewise, the word “door” at 1:51 goes from ‘o’ (as in ‘top’), through ‘er’ (as in ‘her’), to ‘a’ (as in ‘hat’); and the word “sing” at 1:00 sustains the ‘ng’ almost into an additional syllable.

Not that Hathaway’s style is without ornamentation, but it’s economical and unfussy, often just simple mordents (eg. “street” at 0:25, “misery” at 1:05, and “sad” at 1:25); little upward scoops at note onsets (eg. “face” at 0:33, “got” at 1:42, and “boy” at 2:21); or tiny scalar fall-offs (eg. “be” at 0:57, “go” at 1:45, and “man” at 2:27). And she doesn’t just rely on flurries of notes to enhance her expression. Take, for example, the added articulations on “gr-o-ce-ry sto-o-(h)ore” and “and i-it, and it ai-ain’t gonna change” (at 1:20 and 1:36 respectively), or the sudden stressed and extended-duration high-register notes on “how rough” and “don’t you know” (0:54 and 1:22). Because of this restraint, her first real ad lib (the “eh-heh” at 2:33) actually feels like an important event, and the subsequent improvisatory outro section also provides a natural step up in performance intensity, as you’d hope.