Monthly Archives: July 2011

T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne — “Can’t Believe It”

Released: 7.29.08

Peak: #7

Faheem Rasheed Najm is still ‘n luv wit a stripper, though the sprinkling synths and simulated finger snaps of “Can’t Believe It” create such an open-air feel that you might not guess the young lady here’s occupation right away. While in search of what he calls a little “ventilation,” Pain maneuvers his latest infatuee into a back room for a chat about the various homes he can supply throughout the New World, from Toronto to Costa Rica. The forced mis-rhyme “A mansion/ Somewhere in Wisconsin” is so charming that you can almost put out of mind the image of some poor Tallahassee lass marooned all alone in mid-February in a giant, empty house outside of Sheboygan.

So give Pain credit for thematic consistency, even in pastoral mode. But for all its open electronic pastures, “Can’t Believe It” also features truly lewd guest spot from Lil Wayne, whose whisper-croak combines elements of Smeagol at his most unctuous and two balloons rubbing together. The rapper creeps around the edges of the production like the Ghost of Future Yet to Come, indicating the fate that awaits T-Pain if he chooses to spend the rest of his life crushing out in strip clubs. You gonna get yourself hurt here, Pain.

Neither vocal performance here would be half as effective without that bane of all right-thinking music fans, Auto-Tune, which both vocalists self-consciously manipulate to masterly effect. Apparently, though, such vocal processing physically discomfits some sensitive types, just as feedback and distortion once did. Fortunately, classic rock stations still play the old-timey folk music that will soothe their 20th century eardrums.

Ida Maria — “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”

Released: 7.21.08

Peak: Did Not Chart

Ida Maria’s first single, “Oh My God,” was the sort of song Polly Harvey might have written if she’d already been as clearheaded about sexual passion as she’d become on Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea back when she was still as raw and enraged as she’d been on Rid of Me. The Norwegian rocker flails frantically about for “a cure for [her] life,” never pausing to clarify whether she’s addressing the divine or just venting vernacular exasperation at some failed earthly savior because rock and roll is obviously the real route by which she’ll temporarily thrash her way beyond the confines of her ego.

But I like “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” so much better, because it’s the sort of song Joan Jett might have written if she loved sex as much as she loved rock ‘n’ roll. Again, Ida Maria seeks to bash past her self-awareness, with guitar and drums accelerated an eyelash past the musicians’ comfort zone, but this time it’s in pursuit of that increasing rarity: an excited song about fucking. Much of today’s oversexed pop, sung by people who’ve done it too often for people who’ve done it too little, renders the experience dull and clinical, as though lust were as an inconvenient as an unscratched itch.

But whether she’s cutely breaking “mind” into seven syllables during a “Banana Splits Theme” rip or failing to hold back a scream or a hoarse squeak, Ida Maria has as much trouble keeping it in her pants as Buddy Holly.  Consider “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” is sort of a belated commentary on Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never.” (Remember when “boring and clinical” was an avant-garde counterbalance to pop romance?) It’s not “I might like you better if we slept together,” but I might like you better while we sleep together. And I need to find out RIGHT NOW.

Best Albums 2008 (11-15)

15. Hot Chip — Made in the Dark

The Warning was a classic neither-nor album: rhythmically too abstract and lyrically too introspective for dance-pop, yet lacking the textures or turns of phrase required for close listening. After I heard what Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard could do on this follow-up, I no longer felt the need to become worthy of its predecessor. Adjudged too glib by fans who overvalue their insights and showoffy by those who prize electronic austerity, these forthright hooks and lyrics are straight-up pop if that overused and abused word still means a thing. From the knockdown “Ready for the Floor” to the pensive “One Pure Thought,” a full-blooded and un-stupid indulgence in the fantasy that relationship issues can be worked out on the dance floor, so long as you can both shout loud enough over the DJ.

14. Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend

 

Like so many children of (relative) privilege before them, Ezra Koenig and his fellow dilettantes ransack their parents’ record collections and sing about their peers. Unlike most, they acknowledge that privilege and its fascinations, glancing a few rungs up the ladder for their subjects rather than slumming it with just folks. Their literary Afro-prep pretends to be nothing it ain’t: The Columbia quad is at least as fruitful a milieu for sociological study as any dive bar, Graceland is a juicier monument of ’80s worthiness than The Joshua Tree, and what’s bright and bouncy about African music (which they know more about than 99% of their detractors) offers more honest pop attractions for Western admirers than what’s trance-like and exotic.

13. Jean Grae — Jeanius

This neurotic wordsmith has more reason to hate the biz than most underachievers, and not just because she’s more talented. “My Story,” about an abortion, is the obvious set piece on her best LP, originally scheduled for a 2004 release and rescued from oblivion by Talib Kweli. By the disc’s real emotional core is the relationship between Jean and her wounded pride – she nurtures it, resents it, channels it into braggadocio, turns it back upon herself. And the seamless flow of 9th Wonder’s production serves to throw her psychological complexity into relief. If his pop élan permits Jay-Z to make success his sole topic, your stubborn refusal to recognize her brilliance should allow Jean to make as much of her failure.

12. Taylor Swift — Fearless

Women who’ve outgrown her target demo might be wise to mistrust the critical acclaim showered on a blonde good girl by both old farts impressed that she-writes-her-own-songs and young poptimists basking in her vast sonic rootlessness. But Swift’s the most passionate country star since Garth Brooks, her virginal image rendering lust acceptable to her fans’ parents just as Garth’s doughy unhunkiness placated his devotees’ husbands. For a kid raised to expect men to be Disney princes, she seems healthily skeptical of the good intentions of the sex she’s fated to desire. And skeptical young feminists whose expectations she’ll never meet should note that her most moving songs are about other women: “Fifteen,” dedicated to the girls of that age and a real-life best friend, and “The Best Day,” spent with her mom.

11. El Guincho — Alegranza

Barcelona post-hippie Pablo Diaz-Reixa draws comparisons to (and hangs with) lots of fuzzy noodlers who defy my powers of concentration. But unlike his Animal Collective pals, who seem determined to convince the world that Brian Wilson’s pop would have purer if only he’d never heard Chuck Berry or wanted to be famous, Diaz-Reixa reproduces his extracted sounds and styles with vivid precision. He mixes and matches world-pop elements, once-trendy but now degenerated into overly familiar indie-pop indicators of eclecticism, into such distinct fusions — doo wop Afrobeat, Tropicália dub – that he simulates a community all on his lonesome.

Rihanna — “Disturbia”

Released: 7.22.08

Peak: #1

For fans of fungible R&B starlets, late ’00s pop raises a big question: Why Rihanna? Much of the explanation for her success lay behind the industry curtain, where the heavyweights in her corner ensured financial and promotional backing. But Ri was also uniquely suited for the contemporary popscape. While conventional cult favorites like Ciara and Cassie and Amerie were safer candidates for second-tier Beyoncedom, the dull-edged blade of Rihanna’s voice, which snags on melodies rather than slicing them, was the perfect instrument to embody the moment’s reigning sensibility: a violent monotony that passed as pleasure (the  joyless thump of “I Kissed a Girl” pounding away all semblance of flirtatiousness) or, worse, passion (the insidious Ryan Tedder pricking Leona Lewis for “Bleeding Love” and biting  Mike Chapman for Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”).

This sonically distinctive yet emotionally indistinct vocal presence brought a mournful undertow to “Umbrella” without swamping it in virtuosity or personality. Yet on subsequent hits Rihanna combined anonymity with imitation — “Don’t Stop the Music” never earned its Manu-via-Michael theft, and Ri’s “please” and offhand chuckle on “Take a Bow” just made me wonder what Beyonce could have made of its “You’re so ugly when you cry” and warning about sprinklers. Only with “Disturbia,” a well-realized dystopian fantasia about a woman overreacting to car trouble, did Rihanna’s transformation from lightweight Caribbean cutie—Jay’s “Little Miss Sunshine”—into haunted softcore dominatrix began in earnest.

The herky-jerk Marilyn Manson visuals of the “Disturbia” video may have contributed to the growth of Rihanna’s new persona even more than the inexorable stagger of Brian Kennedy’s simple boom-bap or Chris Brown’s most eloquent lyric. (“Bum bum bee dum bum bum bee dum bum” is meaningless and all that’s true.) But Rihanna’s vocals, autotuned to an ominous wobble, embody the song’s description of a woman made a monster by her surroundings. It’s that voice that’s the strangest part of “Disturbia”—except maybe for the fact that her then-current boyfriend lifted the title from her former boyfriend’s movie.

Avril Lavigne — “The Best Damn Thing”

Released: 6.13.08

Peak: #91[Pop 100]

No stickler for genre tags, I’d have never faulted the silly thing for saying “punk” and meaning “power pop” if her hits indicated that she could tell “Surrender” from “The Flame” or “Go All the Way” from “Hungry Eyes.” Avril lacked the lungs of a Mariah or Christina, so her human-scale ballads skipped along the earth like flightless birds rather than soaring too close to the sun. Still her pivotal role in the brunette post-Britney backlash straitjacketed her persona, so that even “Complicated” bogged down in uptight (albeit credible) teen moralism. Skateboards clearly have no business in the middle of the road.

But like the chewing gum under your desk, Avril only got trashier as the years went by. Old enough by 2007 to no longer act her age, she recast her brattiness as an ornery sexual aggression with “Girlfriend.” Dr. Luke’s inflatable power-chords still retained their pleasurable wallop (he and Katy Perry hadn’t yet teamed up to crush our souls beneath the combined weight of their strident exuberance) and the Lil Mama remix has such charms of its own that my memory helpfully supplies a bouncy “Lil Mama and Avril La-vigne” when I listen to the original. But an Avril Lavigne tune about stealing from faceless boy from some undeserving preppy girl? Lay back, it’s all been done before.

Pissier and poutier than “Girlfriend,” “The Best Damn Thing” relies less on belittling ballerinas to buoy its self-esteem. And unlike ascendant maestro Luke, Butch Walker doesn’t subsume his every craftsman’s flourish in a monolithic whole—that pretty piano hook before the pre-chorus would never have survived the good doctor’s scalpel—though he retains the virtuous lack of principle that distinguishes commercially viable power pop from stiff underground revivalism. As for Avril herself, she even obviates the need for Lil Mama, calling for a “Hey hey hey” and a “Hey hey ho” from her mixed-gender cheerleader squad and kicking her own white-girl playground rap to let us know what A-V-R-I-L stands for, while semblances of her earlier persona surface in the Valley Cannuck-inflected “o” in “not the same.” And if the “motherfuckin’ princess” of “Girlfriend” was borderline clinical, here Avril is a difficult woman in praise of herself, her simple demands including a little personal space during her period and a door chivalrously held open. A girl can dream…

Coldplay — “Viva La Vida”

Released: 5.25.08

Peak: # 1

As pop formulae go, domesticating Radiohead’s intricate abrasions to suit soft rock sensibilities was no less honorable than Radiohead’s parallel project of tricking out electronic and neo-classical motifs for a middlebrow palate. Still, you can only get so excited about a Kraftwerk sample in the 21st century, and after the minor triumph of A Rush of Blood to the Head, X&Y was the blankest of emotional slates. I started to get why the British despised Chris Martin so.

Driven by martial strings, church bells, and timpani rolls (mustered by Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs) and draped in garish French Revolutionary visuals, “Viva La Vida” wasn’t bland. As a midcareer sidestep of expectations, it was less “daring” than merely idiosyncratic; as a smash hit, it was the sort of muzzy pop fantasy that demands interpretation. I find Anthony Miccio’s reading of its toppled despot as George W. Bush, like Dave Marsh’s take on “Every Breath You Take” as a coldblooded threat to tyrants everywhere, intellectually appealing but emotionally unsatisfying, if only because I begrudge Bush and Sting alike any more credit or empathy than absolutely necessary. If I had to search out geopolitical roots for the song’s popularity, I’d call “Viva La Vida” a self-hating nightmare of Third World mob rebellion overwhelming the repressive psychological defenses of comfortable, sentimental Westerners.

Probably. But I don’t. And it’s not. Probably. I hear instead a twist on rock star paranoia from a Gen-Xer (’77 is cusp, right?) whose slight yet constitutional unease with fame makes him ashamed of his insatiable drive to be Bono, but who was born too late (and too sane) to counteract his ambition with grunge self-laceration. In an age of narcissistic pop elephantiasis, it’s a tonic to hear our latent misgivings about pumping up romantic aspirations to arena size reflected back at us. For all its flourishes, the appeal of “Viva La Vida” lay in its sullen understatement, the resignation with which it seems to ask: Ah, who would ever want to be Kings of Leon?

Kid Sister feat. Kanye West — “Pro Nails”

Released: 4.29.08

Peak: #21 [Hot Singles Sales]

“Pro Nails” offers us some sort of cautionary tale for sure, though damned if I know exactly what moral Kid Sister’s plunge from internet ubiquity to pop shoulda-been communicates. That there are limits to online self-promotion? That artists have to strike when the iron’s hot? That women in the music industry continue to face intransigent obstacles? That life ain’t fair?

When “Pro Nails” surfaced in 2007, what initially tugged your ear was the street corner observation “Got her toes done up with her fingernails matchin’,” swiped from Project Pat’s “Good Googly Moogly” and screwed by A-Trak into a gruff, woozy hook. But if Melisa Young embodied the honey that initial lyric ogled, she also took pleasure in dodging “tricks” (like Pat?) who “be so grimy, nasty, bogus/ Turkey, germy dirty” with a style as playful as the crossfader squiggling all over the beat.

After the track went viral, though, the second-guesses and rearrangements began. First, Kanye added a verse for commercial clout, his offhand boast of needing Hammer pants to hide his dick recalling those simpler times when wit had leavened his ego. So far, s’aright. But then the Kid Sister album sent out as a promo, Dream Date, was pulled, after a mix of label and artist concerns, in favor of the slightly inferior Ultraviolet, which seemed to imagine that Fannypack could have notched Beyonce numbers if only they’d snagged the right producers.

And so, Young joined the ranks of female MCs that our blockbuster-obsessed music industry can’t figure how to market. Her cute curves aren’t quite the stuff of Maxim covers, and her outsized personality bristles with the rough edges of the Chicago homegirl she is rather than ballooning to the larger-than-life scale celebrity requires. And the rap underground proves no more suitable a habitat for such cast-offs—the gasps of enthusiasm that disrupt Kid Sis’s Salt ‘n’ Pepa flow are too amateurish to amass much cred among its dick-swangin’ gatekeepers. Maybe the moral’s just that everyone’s got fewer options these days.

Busta Rhymes — “Don’t Touch Me (Throw da Water on ‘Em)”

Released: 4.15.08

Peak: #83 [R&B/Hip-Hop]

When it comes to MCs skating by on personality and connections, Busta Rhymes may be as guilty as Snoop himself. For sheer giving-it-all-you-gotness, Busta Bust never topped his first single, “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” and I’m not saying that just to be a dick–if I really wanted to be a dick, I’d say he never topped his breakthrough cameo on Tribe’s “Scenario.” As with many weirdos, the ’90s were good to and for Busta–he was like the Onyx member you could take home to meet mom. But genuinely unhinged competitors ODB and Mystikal better suited the role of crazed microphone id by decade’s end. And though fans of Mariah or Courvoisier might argue otherwise, Busta blustered through the much of the ’00s as a most unpersuasive high-roller.

Maybe the threat of a little jail time (rising out of an assault on a former driver with the temerity to demand back pay) helped the guy reorder his priorities. On his first disc after the headlines faded, Back on My B.S, he not only sharpened and accelerated his rhymes, but offered a bona fide comeback hit in “Arab Money.” With Middle Eastern caricatures (registering somewhere on the Offend-O-Meter between the Clash and Ray Stevens) either excused or exacerbated, depending on your perspective, by Ron Browz’s autotuned muezzin, “Arab Money” was both technologically au courant and nostalgically redolent of the early ’00s, when Timbaland was pirating North African hits for hooks.

The even rowdier “Don’t Touch Me (Throw da Water on ‘Em)” hearkened even further back, with Sean C & LV’s spare looped funk, built up from the tom roll on the Diplomats’ “I Can Give You Love,” a spry relief from modern rap’s ominous synth-pomp. I almost prefer the all-star remix, that rare instance of the form that didn’t end in babble: Busta’s Flipmode mates Reek Da Villain and Spliff Star spit merely serviceably, but Weezy and Nas aren’t just collecting checks, the Game shoots above his average, and Big Daddy Kane could teach all y’all a little something about how much skill skating by on personality requires. Still, the original version, all Busta alone, is where he returns to the spasmodic glory of his prime. If the frenzy of syllables fades in print (“You can give me yo’ standing ovation while I’m banging your face in”), for once he motormouths like he’s got something to prove. So ignore the song title–let the motherfucker burn.