Monthly Archives: June 2010

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Hey all, now that I’m finished 2003, I’m taking a time out for a couple weeks to travel, catch up on blog and non-blog stuff, and enjoy the rain. Be back after July 4.


T.I. — “Rubberband Man”

Released: 12.30.03

Peak: #30

How to sell a contradiction–that was the quandry mainstream rap confronted in the ’00s. With thuggery grown intractable and “consciousness” unsaleable, the thinking MC was called upon to reconcile the genre’s conventional violence, materialism, and sexism with the commands of his conscience, to embody these contradictions, grapple with them, at the very least acknowledge them. And yet, with the exception of Kanye, whose own best intentions paved a road to jerkoffery soon enough, contemporary MCs weren’t particularly equipped to make art out of this struggle.

Exhibit A: David Banner, a minor critic’s darling for a quick minute there. A college grad and hood philanthropist with a good line on the failed promise of the Great Migration, Banner stomped across his tracks as “A thug ass nigga/ Wit bad table manners.” So stated Lil Flip, in a description more memorable than any Banner himself ever provided, on the charmless “Like a Pimp.” As a producer, Banner displayed a sure hand at crunk mechanics, but his writing never kept pace. Sometimes his anger manifested itself as rage, sometimes as sullenness, but in neither case did lyrics match oomph.

Exhbit B: T.I., aka T.I.P., who has on several occasions, squared the one persona off against the other, in an attempt to freshen up the long-familiar tale of dealer-turned-rhymer and prove he wasn’t just a pretty face with a quick lip. His first big hit, “Rubberband Man,” consists of a simple stadium-organ hook worked up by Banner and a “nah nah-nah-nah” children’s chorus. T.I. strains against this simplicity. The rubber band on his wrist, we’re told, “represents the struggle, man” — reminds him, that is, of his not-so-distant crack-slinging past — and also referred to the elasticity of his flow. T.I. had enough rough charm to diss his critics while yet seeming above it all, enough rash confidence to get away with the boast “wild as the Taliban,” enough blithe ignorance to trumpet himself as the Rubberband Man and not sample (or, if money’s an issue, just mention) the Spinners. In other words, what makes the track so exciting is that it vaults right over any contradictions.

Best Albums 2003 (1-5)

5. Fiery Furnaces — Gallowsbird’s Bark

I admired Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir so much I convinced myself I enjoyed them; now I’m just sorry if I helped encourage Matt and Eleanor Friedberger to corkscrew inward toward pop-prog insularity. Even their latter-day returns to form are stiff convolutions up against this debut, a veritable Taking Tiger Mountain (By Roots Rock) that jumbles together “Waiting for My Man” piano, guitar flutter and comic synths, with Eleanor’s playful yet prim voice reciting lyrics that glance off narrative. Maybe the Friedberger sibs think singing a simple song comes too easy for them. They’re wrong.

4. Buck 65 — Talkin’ Honky Blues

Nova Scotian Rich Terfry is the honky talker, everyman drawl hicker than Bubba’s, nose for personae slicker than Slim’s. After close to a decade of straightforward beats-and-rhymes, his folked funk is less outright bluesy than plain rural and lonesome. He intersperses clipped character sketches with autobiographical narratives, though “Roses and Bluejays,” about his dad, and “Tired Out” about cheating on his girlfriend, are no more personal than “Craftsmanship,” about shining shoes. If he’s a bit of a crank, his orneriness never clouds his perspective. And if his relationship with hip-hop grew increasingly vexed as the decade progressed, yours didn’t?

3. Gaby Kerpel — Carnabailito

What can I say–it was a good year for Argentine electronica. This avant-theater composer records performances (of his own and of others) on various traditional instruments–the Brazilian cavaquinho and the Argentinean charango, flutes and kalimbas, a toy accordion and a Chinese violin. These he samples and filters into sonic constructions too homely yet masterful for crit-clichés like “soundscape” or “sonic tapestry.” I’d expected to hear this trick more often the decade dragged on. Expected to hear more from Kerpel too, but only a few tracks and remixes have surfaced–if anyone knows of a genuine follow-up, I’d love to hear about it.

2. Drive-By Truckers — Decoration Day

Grand concepts behind them, Patterson Hood and his boys zero in on family affairs, including incest, as though to show just how many messy details country music excises from its blissful domestic visions. These narrators are usually self-destructive and often well-meaning and always unwilling to romanticize either aspect. Say hello to show-stealer Jason Isbell, who conveys fatherly advice on “Outfit” and tracks a blood feud through the generations on the title cut. And wish luck to Mike Cooley, who questions the real-life applicability of “Freebird” and, on “Marry Me,” starts a family on goddam purpose.

1. Liz Phair — Liz Phair

So you’re not excited when a middle-aging critic’s darling combines pop tunes thicker than three wads of Bubblicious with meta-commentary on her fans’ expectations? Have you ever thought it’s you that’s boring? Say her Matrix pop lacked fizz–I’m still not wholly sold on “Why Can’t I?” myself (though I hope it puts her kid through college). But 90% of the misgivings expressed were couched in received sexism and ageism (sadly, often by her female contemporaries), or simple-minded anti-pop snobbery dressed up in possessive chatter of “betrayal.” Poor Liz–she was cougar when cougar wasn’t cool. You want to hear a sell-out? Listen up to the middling 2005 AAA follow-up Somebody’s Miracle, where Liz behaves just as a middle-aged woman “ought.”

Cee-Lo feat. Timbaland — “I’ll Be Around”


Peak: #52 [R&B/Hip-Hop]

There will be no “Crazy.” Been going light on spoilerish foreshadowing, partly because (shh) I haven’t fully finalized lists for the decade’s later years. But Gnarls Barkley? Just not gonna happen. With its forthright backbeat, its decorative electronics and strings and chorales, and a solid melody that Cee-Lo delivers with unfussy passion, “Crazy” sounded like a hit single right out-the-gate. And yet, as a song, it just sits there in all its inert glory, awaiting a pat on the head for being so well-crafted.

Sad to say, Danger Mouse is one formidably talented drag whose standard M.O. has been to moderate the eccentricities of his top-shelf collaborators. Gorillaz, Beck, MF Doom, James Mercer–DM has reduced the varied gifts of each to a workmanlike competence. And all I’ll say about the Grey Album is that it’s no less ingenious and no more overrated than its two source artifacts. As for Cee-Lo, just listen to how mild Gnarls Barkley’s greatest hit sounds up against the liveliness of “I’ll Be Around,” in which drums tumble out between horn blasts, and a guitar sneaks up behind the voices on the chorus.

But I’m not playing the easy card, that Timbaland > > > Danger Mouse. I’d rather hear “Crazy” than “Apologize,” after all, and I’d rather hear “Closet Freak” than either. But there are songs that should have been hits, and then there are songs you could’ve sworn were hits. “I’ll Be Around” falls into both categories. The song seemed everywhere in 2004, and yet never made the pop charts. Like plenty of fat guys, Cee-Lo’s charm lay in his oversized personality, and part of the excitement in his performance was the danger that he’d slide from ingratiating to overbearing. On “I’ll Be Around,” he teeters perpetually on the brink, and therein lay the fun.

Twista and Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx — “Slow Jamz”

Released: 12.2.03

Peak: #1

Before everything else, “Slow Jamz” reminds us of that spacious corner of African-American music that hip white expropriators have largely overlooked. We Ice People typically plunder black culture for the three r’s: rhythm, rawness ‘n’ rebellion. Sure the playful babymaking of “Lets Get It On” gives us confused sex-giggles. But Frankie Beverly and Evelyn “Champagne” King–even Freddie Jackson–get limited airplay in your average Caucasoid boudoir.

No huge loss, says culturally insensitive me. Music’s an overrated aphrodisiac to begin with, and soundtracking sex an often wasted effort–unless you rush the foreplay, the tunes run out before it’s even time to do the do. And since the use value of quiet storm requires a strenuous unobtrusiveness, its extra-sexual replay value is usually slight. Still, what makes “Slow Jamz” great is that it’s so convinced that “Vandross” rhyming with “pants off” proves the mystical power of certain tunes to arouse women, Axe-Body-Spray-like, that it overlooks the fact that “Vandross” doesn’t really rhymes with “pants off.”

Luther Van himself kicks off the party, “A House Is Not a Home” sped-up as was au courant back before Kanye’s egotism swallowed his sense of humor. When onetime Fifth Wheel host Aisha Tyler craves a quicker dick, Kanye’s admission of sexual/ rhyming inadequacy sets the stage for what amounts to stunt casting. But though Twista fulfills his role as a sound effect, his climactic verses serving as the lyrical equivalent of Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo, he rises above mere gimmick status by the ease with which he rides the rhythm on the break, plus the eminently quotable “No matter how much of a thug you see/ I still spit it like it’s R&B.” As for Jamie Foxx, he does his job, which is to sing the melody, thus enabling him to later sing lesser melodies for immense profit. And nah, I can’t imagine fucking to “Slow Jamz” either.

Alan Jackson — “Remember When”

Released: 11.18.03

Peak: #29

Thank God for Jimmy Buffett. For a minute there, Alan Jackson seemed infallible. The brilliant “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” gave way to “Work in Progress,” a self-deprecating traipse through masculine clichés, and “That’d Be Alright,” which had kind words for a dangerously un-American world where “[E]verybody everywhere had a lighter load to bear/ And a little bigger piece of the pie.” Then Jackson went and baited his second Greatest Hits with the Buffett collaboration/ soon-to-be hit “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” which is only actually true one out of every sixty minutes.

The other bonus track on that best-of, though, was something else. From the moment the introductory guitar lays out the melody for our inspection, “Remember When” has a classic feel, and it moves forward with a calm, unrushed assurance matched by Jackson’s vocal. Just where you expect some crappy song-doctored bridge to disrupt the song’s flow, the song instead floats into gentle key change and a laid-back solo. Even the strings stay out the way.

The lyrics are semi-autobiographical, following high school sweethearts from mutual virginity loss through a rocky pass of implied infidelity to parenthood and highly credible promises of golden age to come. Though I’m no fan of the belief that having children brings a troubled couple closer. I don’t deny that it’s a possibility, or, for a serious-minded man and woman, even an opportunity. In real life, it should be noted, Alan and Denise Jackson separated briefly after the birth of their third daughter, as a result of what one wikipedician euphemizes as “the strains of Jackson’s career.” In other words, Jackson, like any good Christian would admit of himself, was far from infallible. With “Remember When” he made something lasting and beautiful from that fallibility.

Kelis — “Milkshake”

Released: 10.23.03

Peak: #3

Look, I never said that I hated the Neptunes. I just make them work for my love, hit by hit. Also, I’m more susceptible to those tracks that veer away from their standard template. With its shuffling dancehall beat, its broadly slathered background of electrosquelches, and that amazing little bell, “Milkshake” is Pharrell and Hugo at their leftest-field. Not that it would matter without Kelis, who instigates a playground taunt about her dairy jugs and never once sounds anything less than a grown woman.

Kelis entered the decade with two of 1999’s finest choruses under her belt: “Hey, Dirty, baby I got your money” and “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” But whether imitating ODB’s backup hoe or shouting a catchphrase that was not a song title (“Caught Out There,” fyi), Kelis seemed liked the kind of R&B weirdo that pop had constricted by 2003 too much to let in. Her second album, Wanderland, was never even released in the U.S. Fortunately, the Neptunes doted upon her as their golden girl, and the emergence of Nas and Kelis as Bizarro World Jay-Z and Beyonce probably didn’t hurt none.

Her post-Neptunes career as a free agent has offered some mild highs. The Bangladesh track “Bossy,” which called out 50 Cent, defiantly fights her man’s fights. (“That’s right, I’m the one who’s tattooed on his arm.”) And on Polow da Don’s “Blindfold Me,” she and Nas offer up more kink than any J&B duet is likely to. Not crazy about “Acapella,” though I suppose David Guetta and offer as safe a harbor as any these days.

But “Milkshake” endures, because “Milkshake” irritates all the right people. By which I mean, of course, “not me.” Someone else might say, for instance, that “Hollaback Girl” irritates all the right people. But that can’t be true, because Gwen Stefani bugs me the fuck out. And I am not the right people. Q.E.D.

Linkin Park — “Numb”

Released: 10.14.03

Peak: #11

From my snooty grown-up perspective, teen angst spokesmen seemed in a constant state of devolution throughout the ’90s, with each link in the chain sparking reluctant nostalgia for its predecessor. And so Marilyn Manson retrospectively rendered Trent Reznor a pop-industrial genius; Korn aroused a wistful yearning for Marilyn’s camp giggles; the cloddish plod of Limp Bizkit made Korn’s off-kilter sleaze seem downright artful. Last but (it seemed) least, Linkin Park’s carefully regimented rage made Durstian hissy fits sound authentically peeved.

In fact, Linkin Park replaced the epic self-pity that’s teen-mope’s stock in trade with something sadder: epic disappointment. Their biggest hit, “In the End,” throbbed with the cold resignation of an existential statement, but closer attention to the lyrics revealed it to be just a particularly frustrated break-up song. Springsteen once asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Linkin Park answers, implicitly, “It’s a lie, and what could be worse than that?”

And if the contrast between the reasoned desperation of Mike Shinoda and the shouty bark of Chester Bennington did indeed schematize the soft/loud dynamic of grunge with an almost clinical neatness, that was kind of the point. A Linkin Park song didn’t progress from verse to chorus like a slow boiling pot that eventually blows its lid. Instead, the screams are the split-personality narrator’s attempt to jolt himself into some more intense feeling, to break free of his own rationalizations, to instigate some form of catharsis, no matter how mechanical.

No better example of this process than “Numb.” The singers are the disappointment this time, consistently failing to live up to expectations of an unnamed other who could be either parent or girlfriend, though “All I want to do/ Is be more like me and be less like you” leads me to I suppose the former. These yappy malcontents just want to better themselves, but stupid stupid life just keeps getting in their way. They’re right–it’s not fair.

Linkin Park remain much-despised, perhaps because what’s essentially a dry synth-pop, a kinkless Depeche Mode, offers little retro camp value for wised-up former fans. And their Jay-Z-sponsored attempt to cash in on the mash-up craze didn’t help either. But for the record, today I’d rank ’em thus: Nine Inch Nails > Linkin Park > Limp Bizkit > > > Marilyn Manson > Korn.

OutKast — “Hey Ya!”

Released: 9.9.03

Peak: #1

One way to create a genuinely post-racial United States would be to get rid of all the white people. But even with miscegenation and immigration doing their bit, such a monochrome utopia will likely never exist outside the imaginations of Big Boi and Andre 3000. Young enough not to remember de jure segregation, OutKast romanticized its upside. Whether embedding themselves in the all-black society of Idlewild, or touting the back of the bus as where it’s at on “Rosa Parks,” or pretending that the invention of rock and roll could have galvanized black and tan teenyboppers worldwide, in the video for “Hey Ya!,” Dre and Boi dreamt of a world where culture formed itself independent of the constraints of history.

And yet “Hey Ya!” is the work of an artist broadly experienced enough to realize that those living in de facto segregation deny themselves “white” pleasures the way pre-Elvis audiences denied themselves “black” ones. That video, which recreates not-pop-but-Rock history in an entirely black universe, was a sort of double-backflip reverse crossover maneuver. With white acceptance presumed (and borne out via wedding band playlists and a viral Peanuts video), “Hey Ya!” challenged black audiences. Maybe Andre 3000’s delivery partook of rapping on its way from singing to declaiming. But only the broadest definition of hip-hop would take in those hand claps, acoustic guitar, jumpy drums, synth-bass and high-end chirp synth.

At the core of “Hey Ya!” remains an irreducible paradox: A joyful song about the pains of realism, it’s ultimately unable to resist its own ebullience. “Y’all don’t want to hear me,” Dre complains. “You just want to dance.” And yet, by the coda, he’s shouting along “All right all right all right!” Whether in either ecstasy or acquiescence we can’t be sure.

Kanye West — “Through the Wire”

Released: 9.30.03

Peak: #15

Sure Kanye was the Roc’s token backpacker, and he hailed from the perpetual bridesmaid of American rap metropoles. Still, for the most hyped up-and-comer in the rap game to come across as an underdog took some doing. But Kanye has always had a weakness for challenges (why else would he ever sing?) and at least the handicap he exploits on “Through the Wire”–a post-car crash wired jaw–wasn’t self-inflicted. Kanye had already enlisted listeners as accomplices in a performer’s victory on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (in the service of another far-from-underdog). Here he duplicated the feat, accelerating a dollop of David Fosterized glop to a pitch of triumphant munchkin ecstasy.

“Kanye can’t rap” is this generation’s “Dylan can’t sing,” or maybe “punks can’t play.” Hip-hop aesthetes, like jazz heads before them, prize elements of carefully circumscribed formal virtuosity. But in pop, impact and expressiveness and immediacy hold the field, and Kanye is no more Kool G Rap than King Curtis was Charlie Parker. And as if his flow isn’t already choppy enough to infuriate rap classicists, there’s his willingness to risk incoherence too. “If you knew how my face felt/ You would know how Mase felt” may make some sideways sense, but when he follows up a decent pun on Jamaicans and blood clots with the throwaway “Story on MTV and I ain’t trying to make the band,” you either value the persona behind that verbal noise or go blog in furious dissent.

Trouble is, the perpetual underdog never realizes when he’s transformed into a bully, when his once necessary struggle for attention has become a diva’s spotlight-hogging. And as with Marshall “Radio won’t even play my jams” Mathers, Kanye’s adjustment to stardom has been rocky. Then maybe we should distrust stars who adjust smoothly to notoriety. And definitely we should remember how much work Kanye once put into being the underdog.