Stew And The Negro Problem Making It
In 2004, Mark “Stew” Stewart and his songwriting/romantic partner Heidi Rodewald began developing what would become Stew’s defining work: Passing Strange, a rock concert/stage musical that told the story of Stew’s journey from a black, middle-class Los Angeles home to Europe and back, in a seemingly fruitless and endless search for a unique, non-stereotypical identity. The show moved from workshops to off-Broadway to Broadway, and became a Spike Lee-directed movie. Throughout, Passing Strange won awards and introduced new audiences to Stewart and Rodewald’s music: a blend of sunny California pop, avant-R&B, and winking alt-rock that previously had been mired in “cult favorite” status. So after spending six years of their lives shaping and performing a set of now-beloved songs—and, not incidentally, breaking up in the process—what do Stewart and Rodewald do next?
The answer: a sequel, of sorts. In 2010, the pair and their band The Negro Problem debuted Making It, a song-cycle—with mixed-media accompaniment—about the experience of becoming unlikely Broadway heroes at the same time that their relationship was taking a rough turn. The duo never intended Making It to be the next Passing Strange; it was more a public throat-clearing, perhaps to draw a little fire and thus allow the partners to proceed more stealthily from here on. Sure enough, the show received less-than-rapturous reviews, and Stewart and Rodewald have since moved on to new projects, though not before belatedly releasing an album collecting some of the songs from Making It, combined with newer material. And like the performance component of Making It (according to those who saw the show, anyway), the album feels a little like an afterthought: something Stew had to get out of his system, whether his fans would be into or not.
Which isn’t to say that the record is a total dog. There are highlights scattered throughout Making It, including “Black Men Ski,” a witty insider’s take on how people in high society react to a black man in their midst; “Speed,” another of Stew’s vivid drug narratives; “Suzy Wong,” a lilting recollection of an old William Holden movie; and “Tomorrow Gone,” a trippy revamp of a pretty ballad from 2003’s Something Deeper Than These Changes. But too many songs here—such as the sour break-up anthem “Curse” and the “is all art autobiographical?” meditation “Pretend”—come off as overworked lyrically and underdeveloped musically. (Actually, the same is true of “Black Men Ski,” though that song is funny and smart enough to overcome its lack of a strong melodic hook.) On the whole, the album sounds conflicted, torn between Stew’s desire to get back to being a rocker and his need to keep flexing his big-time-Broadway-composer muscles. No doubt Stewart and Rodewald’s partnership will be stronger for them having worked through their relationship troubles and creative obstacles through song. For that reason, fans can be glad Making It exists. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to listen to.