Neneh Cherry: Homestyle
It’s a miserable day for a house-hunting expedition, thanks to an early December rainstorm. By dusk, the sidewalks of Manhattan are flooded with filthy gray water and strewed with discarded umbrellas. Traffic is snarled, and dozens of frustrated drivers leaning on their horns form an incessant, angry chorus that seems to drown out all other sound.
Business, however, is business, and singer Neneh Cherry is sloshing quickly up Broadway with her husband, songwriting partner and coproducer, Cameron “Booga Bear” McVey, late for a five o’clock appointment with a Brooklyn real-estate agent. There is a brief moment of “uh-oh” when they descend into the subway and the long line at the token booth comes into view, but McVey produces a couple of tokens from his pocket and passes them around Scout-leader style, eliciting a grateful smile from Cherry. “You are always so prepared,” she tells him as she pushes through the turnstile.
Most pop stars would stand out like neon on a subway platform, but Cherry, despite the Day-Glo orange raincoat she is wearing, blends right in with the home-bound nine-to-fivers — surprising, considering that the object of all the nonattention is a woman whose renowned beauty has been beamed out nationwide via heavy rotation on MTV. But it isn’t so surprising given Cherry’s background. The fact that she has the ability to make herself invisible in the grimy nether world of the New York City transit system seems just another aspect of the grit and streetwise sensibility that have marked her career to date.
The subway ride is fairly quiet, but when the two get off at their stop in Brooklyn, the game of beat the clock is in effect again. When they reach the first corner, McVey suddenly turns to Cherry and recites an address and a rapid-fire set of directions; he repeats it once, then takes off jogging down the block, apparently intent on catching the real-estate agent without subjecting Neneh to a headlong dash as well.
It is an act of gallantry that does not go unappreciated. Cherry watches McVey’s rapidly disappearing form for a long moment, and then a distinctly girlish sigh escapes her. “He is such a nice man,” she says finally, still watching him run.
What? Neneh Cherry allowing herself to go all swoony and googly eyed? Is this the hellcat who appeared on the cover of Raw Like Sushi with her fists wrapped in gauze like a prizefighter’s? The same woman who kicked off her debut album with a song that hurled teasing barbs at street gigolos and closed it with a track on which she almost gleefully described giving blue balls to a too-handsy suitor — not to mention that exasperated “I came already, stop it!” that served as the parting shot?
For all intents and purposes, Cherry’s trademark braggadocio is still very much intact; you pick it up in offhand comments she makes and in her bearing. It’s in full force on “Sassy,” a collaboration with Guru from Gang Starr that kicks off her sophomore effort, Homebrew. Cherry opens the song with the declaration “Fellas got to give me the most respect/Cause you know I don’t waste my time,” then turns the mike over to Guru, who caps a rap-sody of her praises with the caveat “If you step to her wrong, you’re getting played like jazz.”
It’s been three years since Raw Like Sushi catapulted Cherry to the top of the charts. The singer made her mark as the anti-Madonna, a pop diva who could flaunt her femininity without hitting us over the head with S&M gear and bullet bras but who could also revel in the tougher, more masculine aspects of her nature without veering into the realm of icy disdain. Unlike Madonna, with her detached, cold, computer-chip “sexuality,” Cherry exuded a sensual warmth; her contradictions were strikingly human and real. The media, naturally, ate it up. It seemed that Cherry would forever be saddled with the Strong Woman and Funky Earth Mother tags that surfaced in practically every article written about her during the post-Sushi press whirlwind.
But a lot can happen in three years, and during the long hiatus between Sushi and Homebrew, Cherry did more than swap vows with McVey and watch their daughter, Tyson, learn to walk and talk; she indulged in a great deal of introspection, emerging from the time with a new perspective on her past and a sense of calm and security about her future. Homebrew is a striking mirror to those changes, a mature look at the complexities and contradictions of relationships and what Cherry calls the “abstract realities” of life in general. More a companion to the don’t-mess-with-me mettle of Raw Like Sushi than a radical departure, Homebrew is an attempt by Cherry not to abandon her aggressive stance but rather to reconcile it with her vulnerability.
“After Raw Like Sushi,” Cherry says, “what almost started to gag me was being portrayed as this ‘strong woman.’ That was how the media was wanting to perceive me. And you know, fine. I mean, that’s definitely something I’ve got. For a long time, even when I’ve said, ‘I feel really pathetic,’ I felt like I was obligated to be out there kicking shit. You know: ‘Yeah, I can take this on, no problem. Shove it on my back.’ But there’s always that basic need that’s inside of you to just” — she offers a throaty giggle — “bury your head in someone’s armpit.”
Cherry’s acceptance of that need fuels Homebrew‘s most overtly romantic tracks. On “Move With Me,” she describes herself as “strong enough to be weak in your arms.” On “Twisted,” a song she says was an attempt to explain to McVey why she had been so complicated in the early days of their relationship, she admits, “I think I could give myself up to you, cause you pushed your way thru my attitude.”