Sorry, Beyoncé, but Marsha Ambrosius' Friends & Lovers offers R&B's real sexual liberation | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Sorry, Beyoncé, but Marsha Ambrosius' Friends & Lovers offers R&B's real sexual liberation 

We meet at dawn, Beyoncé: Marsha Ambrosius

Photo by Glynis S. A. Carpenter

We meet at dawn, Beyoncé: Marsha Ambrosius

The British-bred R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius, who was once one half of Floetry, describes the bulk of songs from her recent LP, Friends & Lovers, as "fuck records." Some of the tunes appeared previously on Fvck & Love, a six-track EP that offered a more condensed view of Ambrosius' intense sexual prowl. They showcased Ambrosius in her most candid, candlelit moments: "Come," "Seduction," "Take It" and "69," X-rated tunes that stopped short of seeming like sexual stunts.

Three of those early tracks didn't make it to Friends & Lovers, but "69," a syrupy ode to simultaneous oral sex, did. It arrives early on the full-length, setting the tone for just how uninhibited Ambrosius prefers to be with sexual emotions, confessions and positions.

"It's almost like a breath," Ambrosius, 37, told Noisey of the material. "He inhaled my entire body, spat on me, smacked me in the face, and put it in really, really deep. That sparked how I approached that song. When you listen to it, it feels like that's what's happening to your body. So it's not just a song now. It's a sexual experience."

In August, Ambrosius appeared as a guest on Power 105.1 FM's "The Breakfast Club" morning show. She again talked unabashedly about the sexual experiences that informed the songwriting on Friends & Lovers. She explored topics like remaining in a complicated relationship purely because of "the D," how to lock into that perfect reciprocating position and the joys of sundry fetishes.

Last year, Beyoncé, one of the world's biggest pop stars, sashayed toward similarly explicit material with her self-titled surprise LP. She sang about "graining on that wood" and putting both legs "back on your head." Some proclaimed that this new sexual energy stemmed from Beyoncé exposing her Sasha Fierce alter ego to elevated levels of feminism and sexual liberation; others proclaimed it was due to Beyoncé's "healthy" marriage to Jay Z, which made safe grounds for a monogamous, family-oriented, mega-pop star to sing about adult topics about which single men boast all the time.

But what about non-married women like Ambrosius, who might be looking for the occasional hook-up or the wild dalliance? Could those women have the same carte blanche to sing about sex without being dismissed for lascivious ways? Feminist sexual liberation came to Beyoncé's aid, leaving little room to think more broadly about female eroticism in R&B music. Politics of propriety had invaded the bedroom yet again; female pleasure remained policed.

In 2012, Joan Morgan broached that very subject as a guest on Left of Black, the webcast of Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal. A renowned feminist thinker and self-described "unashamed hedonist," Morgan penned the groundbreaking 1999 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life As a Hip-Hop Feminist. Speaking with Neal, Morgan posited that there's a prevalent belief that feminists are allergic to their own pleasure. They must combat that idea, she said.

That same year, big R&B releases from Frank Ocean, Usher, Rihanna and The Weeknd offered different R&B-oriented views on sexual pleasure. None was more titillating than "Pussy Is Mine," a playfully arousing track from Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream. It's telling, though, that the self-explanatory title's proclamation came and went without a rebuttal from a female R&B counterpart. It was a missed opportunity for women to stake their claim to pleasure, to their tantamount ownership of the male organ—that is, if they wanted it. Morgan never spoke about Miguel, but you can see the corollary in what's missing.

"I think that a politics of pleasure—particularly for black feminists and brown feminists—is so incredibly important," she said. "Our sexuality is written about in a way that is historically problematized for obvious reasons. What we're less good at and have been less successful at is developing a language for pleasure and to assert a right to pleasure."

Morgan got to work doing just that the next year, when she launched the class "The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip-Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure" at The Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. The "Pleasure Principle" dates to 1986, when Janet Jackson released a hit by the same name. Jackson riffed about a relationship of diminishing returns, but, more important, suggested that female "pleasure" could be demanded as instant gratification, not through the stifling construct of domestic glee. Four albums later, on the erotic "Would You Mind," Jackson's more intentional yearnings for sexual pleasure—as giver, receiver and participant—moved to the fore of her aesthetic. She helped pave the way for artists like Ambrosius to demand sexual liberation and satisfaction, with or without consideration for the male libido.

Ambrosius has been building to the blood-rush sexuality of Fvck & Love and Friends & Lovers for more than a decade. When she was in Floetry, for instance, she called for an all-out surrender of the male body to her, not his, sexual appetite on the 2002 tune "Say Yes." But now, she gets her point across without apology and without the help of post-millennial viral catchphrases like "surfboard." (Sorry, Beyoncé).

There are no memes or hashtags for Ambrosius' brazenness, and there's nothing ambiguous about a song title like "Kiss & Fuck," where she not only owns her desires but also sings them pitch-perfectly. During the tune "So Good," she confesses, "I ain't gonna front/I'm up front/blatant about what I want."

Miguel may insist that the pussy is his, but the experience belongs entirely to Ambrosius. The principle of pleasure, you see, is her principal interest.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sunset rubdown."

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