Blu Cantrell – “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)”

Released: 4.24.01

Peak: #2

If nothing else, I hope this list proves what an incredible moment for female R&B the earliest sliver of the decade was. From sassy kiss-offs like Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” and Olivia’s “Bizounce,” to all-purpose assertions of simulated self like Mya’s “Free,” Lil Mo’s “Superwoman,” or Nivea’s “Don’t Touch My Radio,” R&B teemed with second-tier divas, just famous enough to fulfill a fan’s widescreen fantasies, close enough to ordinary to invite reasonable identification. And their sheer number lead to a healthy diversity of opinion.

Still there was plenty of common ground. This era’s heroines regularly called men on their shit and, not coincidentally, often focused on the economic realities of being a woman. The general consensus was that financial autonomy was the way to go, but even here,  Pink’s “Most Girls” and Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” used that means to differing ends: “true love” vs. booty calls. In this context, Alicia Keys’ strictly non-pecuniary musings on “A Woman’s Worth” were a sad retreat to idealized romance.

The Blu Cantrell of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” had taken the more traditional female route to financial security, but when the man who was supposed to provide for her “slips up,” her rage trumps prudence. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” marks another contribution to R&B feminism from Dallas “Unpretty” Austin, moving on since the dissolution of TLC, and Austin’s weirdly arranged orchestral loop, landing on an wobbly woo-woo-woo-woo, is what draws you in to the track. But the song’s continuing appeal rests in how the vicious nonchalance of Cantrell’s infidelity-spurred spending spree ebbs to reveal a palpable hurt and regret as she moans that “It’s a shame we have to play these games.” Try as they might, R&B women have a hard time making themselves as callous as the men who fuck them over.

As for Cantrell herself, she kept her career alive for a spell with the Sean Paul duet, “Breathe,” produced by Dr. Dre, and the ragga-powered “Make Me Wanna Scream.” But the music industry has never been a comfortable home for past-prime ladies, and as the industry contracted, a scant few superstar names came to stingily dominate the latter half of the decade. In 2008, Cantrell, having shed two dozen pounds for the reality show Celebrity Circus, posed nude for Playboy. She’d turned down a cover back in 2003 when her career was still going full steam. What’d I say about economic realities of being a woman?

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