Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Barbara Mason's “Don't I Ever Cross Your Mind (Sometime)" 12-inch single. Listen to the song below and read Schnipper's thoughts after the jump.
Barbara Mason has a mom haircut. If she was younger, it would definitely be a huge lesbian signifier, but over 50, close-cropped is standard. This sounds mean—a lifetime’s worth of hairdos has surely got to be tiresome (lord knows I never comb my hair), but to see such an impressive beehive dissipate into little curls is more a signifier of age than any crows’ feet I’ve seen.
Barbara Mason, owner of said majestic beehive (not to mention at one time ginormous, loosely curled afro), began her career when she was a Philadelphia teenager. “I’m Ready,” a song she wrote and sang, became a huge hit. That is because it is fucking awesome. Her voice is a little squeaky, more crushed than regular velvet, and manages to sound squeezed and punchy but still loopy. When she extends the last syllables, like in “ready,” she’s inexact in her pronunciation, but generally trilling, like a chamber music serenade of nonsense syllables. Her sweet voice is so non-forceful that anything that any hints of exertion are barely betrayed. She also plays with time, dropping her voice out of standard meter and pace, like she was having a conversation on the phone, tripped, and tried to keep up the pace without anyone on the other line noticing. I don’t even know how to hold your hand just to make you understand/ But I’m ready to learn. Say this out loud: it sounds so rhythmically free. There is no eloquent structure. But instead of trying to clean up its choppiness, she just lets her voice drop, pause and slow with no particularly eloquent path. Maybe she was drunk.
45 years later, “I’m Ready” is probably Barbara Mason’s most famous moment. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, she began a disco-soul career, and her weird song “Another Man” gained some notoriety. I don’t know how much of that was based on its musical merit and how much was based on the fact that it was about her man leaving her for another man. Think I want to leave but can’t swallow my pride/ Admit my man loves another guy she half-sings with sassy backups. This song did not do great outside of disco clubs, but Europeans loved it. Go figure.
Ignoring for a moment the then gasp-inducing gay content of the song, “Another Man” was groundbreaking because it was a pretty funky number. Barbara Mason’s got a slew of sassy backup singers and a chunky, now wildly outdated, synthesizer bloop. It’s the beginning of the rollerskate jam era pinpointed. The drum machines of hip-hop had begun to emerge and “Another Man” was trying to battle them. (The single was even released with a “rap version.”) Mason has a number of spoken interludes; you can picture her waving her disapproving finger. Around this time, Barbara Mason had pretty bad hair. It was vampy, not quite an afro as it didn’t reach up so much as forward and behind, like a big thick mud flap molded to her head. It was a product of its time, now outdated and kitsch, just like the song.
That’s ok. Not everything should be transcendent, nor should it be expected. “I’m Ready” is a classic song, but it’s not something that should be produced today. “Another Man” is a steppingstone to the merger between current rap and R&B. Barbara Mason’s main strength is undoubtedly in her voice, but following close behind was her willingness to explore her genre. Around the time of “Another Man,” she recorded “Don’t I Ever Cross Your Mind Sometime,” a lighter disco track, written with an extreme debt to producer Patrick Adams. Adams worked mostly in a more underground, superfluously keyboard heavy mode. Though some of his tracks did achieve crossover play—notably Musique’s slightly ridiculous “In the Bush”—he was mostly too weird to find mainstream attention (until his work with people like R Kelly and Keith Sweat). Incredibly prolific and restless, by the time “Don’t I Ever Cross Your Mind” was recorded in 1984, he was beginning to emerge from his heavy use of the synthesize squiggle they ripped. But, through his hefty catalog of jams, it’s possible that he never went as hard as Barbara Mason does.
Don’t I ever cross you mind?/ Sometimes? is such brutal pleading. It’s so raw. She doesn’t care if you still love her, if you want her back, just, Do you ever think of me?. Desire in music is usually about expressions of love or lust, but here it’s just about self-esteem. This is Barbara Mason’s most traditional diva turn, stretching her words into a slurred infinity. The hardest plea is the huffed repetition of early in the morning. Like, even then? When you’re all alone, the bed is cold and empty, surely then I’m important? The keys (backed by a more standard piano) wobble over the entire track like a weak-kneed mourning. It’s a melancholy track, something Adams never was in his wiggly songs, an emotion it seems a loose synthesizer is best at relaying. It occurred to me at some point that this song maybe wasn’t supposed to be so sad, that maybe Barbara Mason was pleading for someone she hasn’t yet loved, that the track is about an oblivious crush. But that’s not interesting. And Barbara Mason only seems to be interested in complication.
Not too long after this track, she stopped recording and focused more on the business of music. That changed again, and she’s been singing consistently since before the turn of the 21st century. She says her voice is the best its every been. I don’t doubt it. Age is too often a curse for musicians, not in level of talent, but often in taste. It’s hard to keep up. But she has always been so of the times by being out of time, totally loose and curious. She was never trendy, but never too out of touch. It’s just too bad that her hair is short now, mowed down out of the way and convenient. I wish she’d grow it back.