Monthly Archives: September 2011

Pitbull — “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)”

Released: 2.24.09        

Peak: #2

Pitbull has never been one to waste effort. The Miami rapper followed up his debut album, Money Is a Major Issue, with a remix-and-whatnot disc called Money Is Still a Major Issue, lost hometown acronym be damned. His early crunk hits were spare bursts of energy and personality, their hooks showcasing Lil Jon at his most minimal. As simple and raw as its title, “Culo” (“Ass”) was little more than a chant and a handclap, with most of that “little more” just LJ’s customary vocal noises. By comparison, “I Know You Want Me” is a busy patchwork of distant submarine pings, flamenco guitar breaks, and, most prominently, the descending trumpet figure from Chicago’s “Street Player.”

Jon sampled the latter from Nicola Fasano and Pat Rich’s “75, Brazil Street” (though it had anchored the Bucketheads’ “The Bomb” long before), just as Pitbull had commandeered the title hook from a Dominican mambo duo. You might think Pit’s too wobbly a mic controller to put his individual stamp on these borrowed elements — neither his lusting after the honey with “an ass like a donkey” or inviting us to watch him “make a movie like Alfred Hitchcock” makes me want to search out translations of his Spanish rhymes. But he’s a hell of a master of ceremonies, contributing the most entertaining Spanglish count since “Wooly Bully” and an upfront self-assurance that sounded refreshingly candid up against the moment’s prevailing pick-up hit, Jamie Foxx’s shiftily date-rapey “Blame It.”

Still, there are only so many let’s-spend-the-night-together jams a fellow can cosign. Pit’s own “Hotel Room Service” brandished his limitations as a mack, and “Give Me Everything,” in which Ne-Yo attempts to terrify women into one-night stands by predicting the end of the world, is just plain desperate. It’s also a huge hit, as is its album of origin, Passion Pit. Because the world has wondered for too long what a solo record by the dude from Real McCoy would’ve sounded like.

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Ting Tings — “That’s Not My Name”

Released: 1.27.09

Peak: #39

Jules de Martino and Katie White are, like Santi White, small-time industry survivors (TKO opened for Atomic Kitten! Dear Eskiimo signed to Mercury!) who finally figured out how to cash in just as the biz collapsed around them. And as with Santogold, you’re likely to have first heard a Ting Tings song in a commercial or a trailer. But where Santogold’s glossy surfaces glint like a grinding axe blade, the Ting Tings polish funhouse mirrors to reflect their trivial pop surroundings from absurd angles.

On “That’s Not My Name,” Katie White vents the unspoken frustrations of the world’s forgotten girl, finding a golden mean between Toni Basil and Kathleen Hanna that’s less coherent or authoritative or principled than either. White runs through a roll call of mistaken names: Stacy, Jane, Mary, Jo, Lisa, “darling” and “bird,” even “hell,” whatever that means. She isn’t ducking catcalls on the street; she’s stomping around her bedroom after school to a spunky, rewired Devo beat, wondering why teachers and boys and everybody else call her quiet when she’s a riot. Indelible and disposable,”That’s Not My Name” is the premier example of the Ting Tings’ annoying, prefab technique.

At least I think it is. “Great DJ” (“Tha drums/ Tha drums/ Tha drums”) may be more deliriously annoying; “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” its simulated postpunk even more dishonest that its boasted “I ain’t faking this,” may be more cheekily prefab. On a different day, I might prefer either to “That’s Not My Name.” And that’s how pop should be sometimes. Not all the time, though. It should never be just one way all the time.

Chrisette Michele — “Epiphany (I’m Leaving)”

Released: 1.27.09

Peak: #89

Though jerks like me initially knocked neo-soul for its retro reverence, those new R&B traditionalists actually expanded their peers’ range of vocal influences. In the ’90s, contemporary R&B singers were already looking backward, but they’d largely settled on two terrible role models for non-geniuses to choose — Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. And so the men whined and the women wailed. Not that it seemed any wiser for neo-soul’s two most promising women to emulate the cream of female jazz vocals. And yet, Erykah Badu developed into a versatile observer of social and romantic decay from within the husk of Billie Holiday’s reefer-cured skepticism, while Jill Scott successfully transplanted the girlish insouciance of Ella Fitzgerald from the upscale jazz club to homelier surroundings.

In music, as in life, Ella has proved the better role model. On her debut, I Am, Chrisette Michele proved the finest of the post-Ellas, going so far as to thank Fitzgerald by name, along with “Miss Billie,” “Miss Sarah” (Vaughn, of course) and (oh well) “Miss Natalie Cole.” Before you get the wrong idea, the song in question, “Let’s Rock,” also sampled Run-D.M.C., and though Michele wrote her own material, pros like Babyface and John Legend were looking over her shoulder. She also has credits on the second-best song on her follow-up, Epiphany, “Blame It on Me,” an acid taunt disguised as a reasonable breakup number that showcases Michele’s range and restraint — for once, a singer who recalls Aretha’s harried way with a vowel rather than her inimitable quest for anti-gravity.

But while I’m all for self-expression, Ne-Yo offered an even better outlet for Michele’s sly sarcasm with “Epiphany.” After another night alone, Chrisette blithely coos, “I think I’m just about over being your girlfriend,” her epiphany sounding, like so many such breakthroughs, a long time in coming. She sounds happily surprised not only with this realization, but with the results of her voice coming into contact with a lyric and tune. And you can tell a producer knows he’s got a great vocal melody on his hands when he echoes it instrumentally, as Chuck Harmony does here, with a piano hook that never wears out its welcome. “Epiphany” is a song that makes clear that it’s quite pleased with itself without ever sounding smug.

Plain White T’s — “1,2,3,4”

Released: 1.16.09

Peak: #34

Tom Higgenson is the kind of drip who considers “Times Square can’t shine as bright as you” a poetic compliment. But he’s also the kind of drip who can sing that line with such an easygoing ache that you don’t have to be a teenage girl to imagine he means it. He may even be the kind of drip who did mean it. And in 2007, he and Plain White T’s emerged as the kind of long-struggling drips whose hard-won success seemed a pleasant fluke. “Hey There Delilah” contrasted charmingly with the Adult Contemporary competition, its homely, credible longing showing up the made-for-CW melodrama of the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” and the rote sentiment of Daughtry’s “Home.”

As is the nature of flukes, Plain White T’s seemed unlikely to repeat the feat. Sure enough, two years after the T’s breakthrough, the simplicity and directness of “1,2,3,4” (“There’s only one thing, to do, three words, for you: I love you”) proved less seductive to pop audiences than the deep, deep thoughts of the Fray’s “You Found Me” or Daughtry’s “What About Now.” (And unlike Feist, the T’s counting never showed them how to get to Sesame Street.) But “1,2,3,4” genuinely improves on the original template, feeling more effortless and offhand even than “Delilah.” The swelling strings sound as intimate as the plucked guitar melody, and the keyboard imitating a calliope or pennywhistle or whatever never intrudes.

Cornball, for sure, adorable, for damn sure, and with a video even more cornball and adorable: As Higgenson busks solo in Chicago, cute captions explain how each couple watching him originally met. That sort of manipulative shtick could sell enough jewelry to decimate an entire West African country come Christmas time. Instead it’s peddling an even more insidious commodity: true love. And yet, the fantasy is appealing. Maybe it’s not your thing. But if you out-and-out hate this song, I bet you trip first-graders when they’re running to catch the school bus.

Keri Hilson feat. Lil Wayne — “Turnin’ Me On”

Released: 12.19.08

Peak: #15

As 2008 drew to a close, R&B was amid one of those periodic dalliances with pseudo-feminism that only demonstrate how paleolithic its gender roles (and ours) remain. At least Ne-Yo’s fetishism of career women on “Miss Independent” was as heartfelt as it was pandering. But “Trading Places,” Usher’s offer to exchange stereotypes for a night, exulted in its privileged descent into momentary powerlessness: tomorrow he’s back on top and you’re cooking eggs and ironing.

I know, men, right? But Beyoncé’s juggernaut twofer — one “serious” song, one “party” jam — was also problematic. Her own gender-swap anthem, “If I Were a Boy,” explored the darker undertones of the double standard that got Usher off, while on “Single Ladies,” she grinds against her new man to annoy the ex who’d failed to secure his property rights on her body. Bey’s such a unique presence that the ballad felt evasive, reducing real women’s problems to melodrama, while the male-identified dance hit expressed female solidarity so powerfully that it came to masquerade (per Jordan Sargent in Pitchfork) as “the biggest female empowerment anthem of the past decade.”

“Turnin’ Me On” was a less grand but more satisfying depiction of a woman declaring her prerogatives in the club than “Single Ladies.” Sure, Polow da Don’s production is downright skeletal up against Nash-Stewart’s luxuriance, and Keri Hilson is nowhere near as commanding a singer as Beyoncé. But the Baduesque edge to her “ah ah ah-ah”s brandishes a borrowed dignity, and Ms. Keri lets her suitors know what turns her on (earned swagger, looking fly) and off (grabbing her ass, promising to take her shopping). Dangling carrot and stick, she flaunts financial independence and a supple vocal flow as she demands that all comers “recognize a real woman.”

Like most second-tier divas, Hilson is usually less luminous. The T-Pain remix of “Turnin’ Me On” may or may not dis Beyoncé and Ciara, but it floats a promise to “shoot these bitches down” no one needs to hear regardless. All-star cameos (Ne-Yo as the nice guy, Kanye as the cad) weigh down her bigger hit, “Knock You Down,” on which Danja’s hyperactive hi-hats are an irritant besides. But because Hilson is second tier, she can impersonate a woman who has more realistic expectations than Beyoncé’s, and express a view of men more subtle than Britney’s “Womanizer.” “I dig your persona,” Weezy flatters Keri on “Turnin’ Me On,” while rhyming in full-on phone-in mode (“I hope your piranha bite”?). But that gets Hilson all wrong. Her strength is her anonymity.

Best Albums 2008 (1-5)

5. Girl Talk — Feed the Animals

The culmination of the more-more-more Hollertronix aesthetic may irk troo rap fans in its lack of respect for The Culture and snobby crate diggers in its inability to resist the obvious crowd pleaser. I wouldn’t claim that mashing UGK into Spencer Davis is a deeply meaningful process myself. But people like to dance to songs they recognize because it’s fun, and people like to hear self-important tough guys deflated because it’s funny. Greg Gillis’s mix is marginally less artful this time, but because he also pitch-bends the vocals less distractingly, the simulated serendipity of his Tab-A-into-Slot-B constructions sounds less willful. Recommended to people who like hearing self-important tough guys deflated and dancing to songs that they recognize.

4. Les Amazones de Guinee–Wamato

The first recording in a quarter century from an all-woman band of Guinean soldiers who’ve been playing together almost twice that long leads with a shout of “Retour en force des Amazones!” but the overall assault is more disciplined than militant, with bassist Salematou Diallo holding things down like the Commandant she is. The sound is powered by contrasts: two saxophones and two guitars, African and Western drums both, and three distinctive vocalists. One is high and serrated, one low and growly, one working a bluesy mid-range. And know what, Goldilocks? They’re all just right.

3. TV on the Radio — Dear Science

Plenty of decent bands, overburdened by early excitement when they first break through and haven’t yet jelled, peak long after the hype dies down and no one’s still listening. But I can’t think of another band so immediately over-praised who became great in spite of themselves while still in the spotlight. Return to Cookie Mountain was doughy and half-baked by comparison, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes callow pulp. Funky at long last, on their own ambivalent terms, and lyrically direct too — “Hey jackboot, fuck your war ’cause I’m fat and in love” leapfrogs over its overly quoted predecessor “I was a lover before the war,” and “I’m gonna make you cum” isn’t even the most carnal they get – the racket they kick up here is almost enough to make me believe in progress, and happy that I withheld judgment for so long.

2. Drive-By Truckers — Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

No concept here, unless “life during wartime” counts, which only Patterson Hood’s “The Man I Shot” and “The Home Front” address directly. But since that’s our national reality until further notice, better just to acknowledge that the Truckers are willing to face up to the everyday facts of American existence, even if Hood’s characters are often looking to duck out of such a confrontation, via crystal meth or life insurance fraud or just sleeping late on Saturday morning. Meanwhile Mike Cooley represents disappearing losers on “Bob” and “Self Destructive Zones” and Shonna Tucker makes an improbably sufficient Jason Isbell replacement. Nineteen songs, all keepers.

1. Los Campesinos! — Hold On Now, Youngster…

These Welsh art school spastics first caught my ancient, withered ear by reinterpreting pre-S&E Pavement to sound like Mekons, then by dissing K and MacKaye; toss in “The Year That Punk Rock Broke My Heart” here and you could suspect them of being a decade older than they claim. But their glockenspiel plinks and  traded shouts and verbal tumult are the genuine immature article. Bright enough to realize the world has no use for hyper-literate smartasses, desperate enough to believe that obsessing over bad sex will help them forget their obsolescence, they indulge with bookish camaraderie and abandon in lyrical gags that stretch far past a single quotable line. They got sadder from here, though not wiser.

The-Dream — “Rockin’ That Shit”

Released: 12.08.08

Peak: #22

Tricky Stewart and Terius Nash don’t exactly have a “sound,” not in the way Timbaland and the Neptunes did. There’s no core of definitive rhythms that your body already recognizes before your ears alert your brain. The upside-down stagger-funk of “Umbrella,” the pillowed low-end insistence of “Touch My Body,” the front-stoop dancehall of “Single Ladies” – these tracks may share certain traits, but they’re foremost the work of sympathetic craftsmen catering to the requirements of a specific performer’s voice and persona. What the premier R&B production team of the late ’00s offers instead of a sound is an approach: Set some nifty rhythmic parameters, then allow sometimes discordant but always lush synthesizers to crest in waves of pleasure that fluctuate in intensity rather than building to a sole climax.

Significantly, given this chameleonic quality, Nash-Stewart have primarily serviced established artists, often major celebrities, rather than cultivating their own stable of collaborators, and most of these have been women. The main exception on both counts is Terius “The-Dream” Nash himself, who specifically articulates the promise of well-heeled comfort and pleasingly varied sensations the tracks offer. “Rockin’ That Shit” caters to the listener — lazy chords drift in from behind, their layered flow simulating sexual rhythms more directly than old-timey slow jams ever did, with a reverbed Prince drum that pops-and-ebbs rather than pounding – and Terius, aware he’s fucking out of his league, caters no less diligently.

No less diligently, but much more crassly. The-Dream’s singles thrive on the contrast between plush sonics and earthy come-ons. The lead single from each of his first two LPs lodged FCC-disapproved naughty words (OK, one word in particular) right smack in the titles: “Rockin’ That Thing” may be a better censored title than “Shawty Is a 10,” but “Rockin’ That Shit” is what he means and you know it. I’d regret that he blows the mood with “Aint just tryna get in your clothes/ Okay, I’m lyin’/ Damn you fine,” if a certain self-awareness of how duplicitous pillow-talk can be is a big part of that mood. But just when Dream’s patter threatens to overwhelm the cut, the chick renders him speechless and grasping futilely for a metaphor, rocking that shit like … oh.

Young Jeezy feat. Nas — “My President”

Released: 11.15.08

Peak: #53

Hip-hop had good reason to mistrust Barack Obama and good reason to rap about him. “My President” strikes the right balance between pride and skepticism, acknowledging the historical importance of the 2008 presidential election while insisting that the grind goes on. When Jeezy commands the nation “We ready for damn change, so y’all let the man shine,” he may be as vague as Obama himself about what he means by that “c” word. But when Henny and Dow Jones of Tha Bizness pump up the keyboard pomp like the musical directors at the world’s most stately roller rink, the grandeur is, for once, appropriate to the moment.

Jeezy’s “Put On” was a more straightforward street anthem, and, according to many who distrust the self-conscious air of significance pumping throuh “My President,” a better track – in rap as in sports, hometown pride is one of the few hints of emotional vulnerability non-pussies are permitted to express. But for all the pizzazz of Drummer Boy’s slasher-flick synth figures, Jeezy had already covered this lyrical ground with “My Hood,” and Kanye’s self-involved Auto-whine detracts from the message of solidarity.

Nas’s “Black President” was more straightforward too, slapping down Tupac’s pessimistic “We’re not ready to have a black president” with an interpolation of Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan chant. But Nas’s verse on “My President” is more reserved in its support, leading with “No president ever did shit for me” and continuing to lecture Obama on the need to maintain integrity. It was left to Jay-Z, appropriately, to turn “My President” into a full celebration on the post-election remix — the sentimentality of “Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly” falls just this side of will.i.am’s effective partisan kitsch on “Yes We Can.’ As for Jeezy himself, his original coda makes clear Obama’s importance to him. I don’t know how much he knows about Jackie Robinson and Booker T. Washington, not to mention Obama. But he knows they’re black. And he knows that matters.