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Pop Music Review : Salt-N-Pepa Sure Know How to Spice Things Up

May 06, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This is girls' night out!" proclaimed premier female rappers Salt-N-Pepa early in their Greek Theatre show on Wednesday, leaving no doubt about who they consider their core constituency, and adding as a word to the wise: "You might want to send your fella out to get a drink, 'cause I'm telling you, the guys ain't gonna like this part of the show."

They weren't bluffing, either, these platinum-selling single mothers.

The following minutes brought a fusillade of warnings and encouragements. "Ladies, don't be lettin' no man put his hold on you, 'cause it only gets worse! I know!" warned Sandy (Pepa) Denton. "You gotta let them know that no means no!" said Cheryl (Salt) James. "You can be happy by yourself! Let God be your man!" exhorted De De (Spinderella) Roper.

This in itself might qualify as fairly subversive, given that this was a couples-oriented crowd and not a feminist rally. But what came next was really interesting: a ritual humiliation of the show's three male dancers, made to get on their knees and endure a mimed whipping.

"That's for peeing on the toilet seat!" said whip-wielding Pepa. Snap. "That's for who be calling and hanging up!" Lash. "That's for my 36 hours of labor pains!" Crack.

No wonder that when Salt-N-Pepa later invited three men up onto the stage to be seductively teased and straddled during the trio's latest hit, "Whatta Man," the poor guys looked vaguely terrified.

So do we count this as bona fide empowerment in the unlikeliest of date-night settings, or puerile pandering to the homegirls?

Isolated, lines like the toilet seat one might seem redolent of too many female comics, and the pretend lashing might recall all the times Madonna has whupped her boy-toy dancers on stage. But in the broader context Salt-N-Pepa aren't really playing this shtick for laughs, and definitely not--unlike Madonna--for naughty S&M allusions. They're serious about the stuff.

But not angry. The threesome manages to touch on touchy gender politics like few other performers in the vicinity of the Top 10 and come out as one of pop's most invitingly playful acts at the same time, even the fellas banished to the beer line might agree.

They're smart enough to balance the carping with celebration, and to provide "Whatta Man" as a "props"-offering, pro-guy tonic to what might have seemed a predictable stridence in their female independence anthems.

Of course, Salt-N-Pepa have been through a severe make-over--they've trimmed down and toned up some of the best abs in the business after all three had babies.

Their image as increasingly self-made women is bolstered by the fact that they've gotten far better at being able to offer the goods live, growing from a so-so novelty act into being Hammer's logical successor as the chief pop/rap crossover act. Backed by recorded tracks, and occasionally the old-style record-scratching of Spinderella and her deejay cohort Kid Capri, the three delivered flawlessly rhythmic patter with the charm of tomboy glam-girls.

Also making this unquestionably "ladies' night" was co-headliner R. Kelly, who simply oozed sexuality through every R&B song in his hourlong set.

Kelly, whose "Bump and Grind" recently topped the national singles chart, relied more on sex shtick--with his look-alike brother joining him, he was like the Patty Duke of soft-core porn rappers--than on his own considerable vocal talents. These chops did eventually get a workout when Kelly broke risque form and performed an extended, gospel-style ode to his late mother. That climaxed with a gigantic framed portrait of Mrs. Kelly lowering onto the stage, her overcome son finally collapsing in apparent anguish beneath the heavenly visage. Bizarre.

Kelly's shaved pate did make for a striking visual: As the cool night air lit upon his profuse perspiration, it seemed--in the right spotlight--as if his entire head were severely smoldering. Now that's a special effect.

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