Monthly Archives: December 2011

DJ Quik & Kurupt — “9X’s Outta Ten”

Released: 6.9.11

Peak: Did not chart

My opinions on ’90s L.A. hip-hop are highly suspect. Even my taste in Cali gangsta runs toward the agile semiotics of Jersey transplant Ice T rather than the blocky bludgeoning of Compton homebody Ice Cube. Chalk it up to east-coast nurturing if you like; my personal theory is that I was old enough to appreciate George Clinton’s greatest hits before Dre lopped off their humor and humanity. And as much as NYC irritates me, its cosmopolitan pretentiousness at least forced dopes to feign intelligence, while L.A.’s method-acting conventions encouraged even some of its smarter MCs to dumb it down.

But DJ Quik’s frisky flow always skipped along with a sharp self-awareness. Though no ace lyricist, Quik’s eye for detail allowed him to sketch a world of backyard barbecues and everyday scuffling that his contemporaries often obscured with b-movie stage trappings. His long-running ambivalence toward thuggery came to a head in 2000 with Balances and Opinions, which not only featured a call to “Change Da Game” but the explicit assertion “I’m not a gangsta.”  And as a producer, Quik peppered his easy-listening g-bounce with an arsenal of funny sounds, particularly a trademark plink that’s somewhere between a spoon-tapped water glass and a thumb-popped cheek.

From the seductive exotica of “Hey Playa! (Moroccan Blues)” to the flutey darting of “Whatcha Wan Do,” Quik outdid himself on BlaKQout, his full-length collaboration with formerly negligible Dogg Pound mutt Kurupt. Buried at the center is “9 X’s Outta Ten,” its hard-ass beat a lump of coal compressed into a diamond. His no-bullshit baritone contrasting with an upper register flutter hook and Quik’s own slightly higher-pitched voice providing contrast, Kurupt repeats “When it stops/ 9x outta 10/ It’s gonna start again/ Where it started at ended up and restart again” so solemnly you’d think he was intoning some forgotten ancient wisdom — so solemnly you might even wonder what he means.

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Best Albums 2009 (11-15)

15. Shakira – She Wolf

Clocking in at barely more than a half hour (Spanish-lyric versions, label add-ons and all), Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s favorite pop star scales back her pretensions so drastically I worry that she’s come to accept that polyglot dance-pop won’t change the world after all. Whether insisting that lycanthropy is no laughing matter or grudgingly accepting that California ain’t for her, she’s getting in touch with her inner timidity. But just because she’s feeling her age more than a thirty-two year-old bombshell should doesn’t mean she feels it any more than her less-famous female contemporaries do – in fact, that’s kind of the point. Anyone who can score four great tracks from the Neptunes in 2009 must know what she’s doing.

14. Yonlu — A Society in Which No Tear Is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre

If Elliott Smith had been a sad Brazilian kid, he might have sounded something like Vinicius Gageiro Marques. But while Yonlu shared Smith’s becalmed vocal chill, he thankfully lacked the petulant undertow. For indie-rock depressives (and, more importantly, their non-clinical admirers) who get off on the supposed beauty of sadness, the clincher is Marques’ creepy back story—he not only threatened suicide online, he followed through. But though Yonlu relished his sensitivity, but he didn’t wallow in his despair, and he knew how to talk sense to his fellow sufferers: “Katie don’t be depressed/ Seriously I mean what the fuck.”

13. A Place to Bury Strangers — Exploding Head

Oliver Ackermann, the founder of effects-pedal design firm Death by Audio, is noise-rock’s answer to Tom Scholz. Shoegaze comparisons may be inevitable, given the surface clamor and structural undergirding, but they’re off the mark – Ackermann has no interest in either the girl-group prettiness of JAMC or the Pre-Raphaelite preciousness of MBV. The sound here is bigger and uglier than on the band’s self-titled debut, but the songwriting is also more streamlined, which very much disturbs fans of perpetual disorder. But any clod can mimic chaos. Crafting a discrete art object and then splattering its contents all over your speakers—that takes skill. I mean, what part of “exploding head” don’t you understand?

12. Doom — Born Like This

As though his metal-masked supervillain persona wasn’t concept enough, Doom couldn’t resist piling on aliases and gimmicks throughout his comeback decade. But while the Madlib collab Madvillainy focused him, the Adult Swim tie-in The Mask and the Mouse diluted colorful interactions with suitable sidekick Danger Mouse by ceding so much time to lesser comics, and the Victor Vaughn discs, apparently designed to prove his illimitability, were too slight by half. After a four-year hiatus, though, his word power felt as pent-up as it had when he first returned in ’99; it hardly matters whether he flows over his own recycled beats of vault material from Dilla and Madlib. Not the “real” Doom, maybe, whatever that means, but the uncut shit, for sure.

11. PJ Harvey & John Parish — A Woman a Man Walked By

Not a “real” PJ Harvey album, if you insist–and maybe, by delegating the music to longtime collaborator Parish, Harvey intended to agree with you. But though Uh Huh Her reassured goth grownups she wouldn’t be happy forever and the drab White Chalk mysteriously beguiled fans of quiet piano, this side project sounds less minor than the supposedly major efforts that followed Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. For someone who values Harvey foremost as a performer, the screeches, bellows, wails and other vocal effects she hauls out of her old bag of domina-tricks are welcome reminders that what she had to say was always less important than how she said it.

Das Racist — “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”

Released: 6.9.11

Peak: Did not chart

Here we have what seems like exactly the sort of internet novelty blip that annoys all the right people. (By whom I mean, of course, “not me.” The internet novelty blips that I–and, I’m sure, you, wise reader—hate are wholly deserving of opprobrium.) The lyrics aren’t solely limited solely to “I’m at the Pizza Hut ( What?)/ I’m at the Taco Bell (What?)/ I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” but aside from a few stray adlibs (“I don’t see you here dog”), an occasional shift to second person plural, and confirmation that both rappers are in the correct (Jamaica Avenue) establishment, that’s what Das Racist’s got to say.

The smarts are right there in their name; the fun comes from wondering if these are smart guys playing dumb, or smart guys disguising smart as dumb. (I pick option A.) If you wanted to be fancy about it, you could say Heems and Kool A.D. are working in a minimalist vein, exploring how many variations can be worked on a simple string of words, like the Philip Glasses of alt-web-hop. No need to be fancy though, ’cause that really is what they’re doing, though (probably?) without the highfalutin rationale—mining comedy from repeated shifts in intonation. Even more repetitive is the staccato pulse, like an electronically augmented pipe clang, threatening but never quite achieving breakdown throughout.

So there was evidence that Das Racist might be more than an internet novelty blip, if not that they’d be able to make a career of it, even before they showed their hand as lyrical maximalists on their mixtapes. And they were great interviews, whether shaming the Times’ shameless Deborah Solomon (“Would we even be on the page of this publication if we had not gone to Wesleyan?”) or, responding, when the Voice’s Rob Harvilla asked them if they feared being pigeonholed as “fast-food rappers”: “There are at least three other things we talk about.”

Michael Franti — “Say Hey (I Love You)”

Released: 6.7.09

Peak: #18

I wasn’t startled to hear a song by the creator of “Television, the Drug of a Nation” in a TV beer commercial — I was just glad Michael Franti and his label sponsors at Anti- were getting paid. Even back when he thought his Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were doing for Chomsky what Public Enemy did for Farrakhan, Franti was warmer than most ideologues, with a heart that was always bigger — and more reliable — than his brain. And with his major-label outfit, Spearhead, Franti crafted an uncommonly humanist “political rap,” translating social awareness into a very Bay Area funk groove without enshrouding himself within the incense-clogged aura of superiority endemic to the genre. Not for nothing did U2 pick him to open the Zoo TV tour.

But though only someone who took the politics of pleasure seriously could have created “Say Hey (I Love You),” Franti himself isn’t what makes the song soar. His lyric struggles too hard to justify his bubbly mood, not just apologizing “I don’t want to write a love song for the world/ I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl” but noting the “junkies on the corner.” Cherine Anderson’s warm supporting vocal, however, bolsters Franti’s own serrated voice, while Sly & Robbie tauten his frothy, late-period dorm-room skank. And much love to Raleigh Neal II, whose piano cuts against the beat every which way.

No wonder somebody figured the song would make somebody want to drink Corona Light, watch Valentine’s Day, and root for the Giants in the 2010 Series (way to capitalize on that Willie Mays connection). Disposable? Maybe. Hiphopritical? Like Big Bill Haywood used to say, nothing’s too good for the working class. And as far as heroes go, I stopped looking for hip-hop to serve up such mythical creatures a long time past.

Maxwell — “Pretty Wings”

Release date: 4.28.09

Peak: #33

All my old complaints hold true. Maxwell’s singing still not only verges on the bodiless, but aches toward it, as though winnowing away all carnal presence to achieve the Platonic form of desire. His ornate vocal curlicues suggest an ideal of soul composed solely of fingertip caresses and candlelight flicker and bubble bath residue. It’s all too much for an Otis Redding fan to take.

The hyperbolic responses to BLACKsummers’night, ranging from Jody Rosen’s snide “an R&B album about love, not just sex, for grown-ups who know the difference” to David Drake’s smitten “only someone as passionate about music as they are the human heart could so successfully produce work that reflects well on both,” failed to fully correspond to my experience of sex, love, hearts, and music. And yet, with the romantic essence of R&B having largely degenerated to a 2D porntasia of robots macking on strippers, my reservations about Maxwell felt less pressing by 2009. In fact, his sensual self-absorption rendered “Pretty Wings,” a breakup song arranged for wind chimes and handclap, suitable as a makeout soundtrack if you overlook (underhear?) the words.

Lyrically, “Pretty Wings” has its moments — “One day you won’t remember me” is a pretty cold line. Yet overall, Maxwell never clarifies who’s at fault. It’d be too charitable of fans to interpret the lyrics as ambiguous; it’d be too uncharitable of me to suggest that they lack coherence. Let’s split the diff and call them “evasive.” The snazzy horns recall “Adore,” and Maxwell even works up to a show of gruffness toward the close (“climax” would be pushing it). True, that vocal shift is a purely formal aesthetic decision—dude know his arrangement requires a contrast in tone — and what Prince recognizes as the icing on top Maxwell serves up as a full course meal. But if the arty slow jam betrays a tendency to preciousness in its creator, it also suggests an attention to detail. And that’s hardly a bad trait bring to bed with you.