Monthly Archives: January 2012

La Roux — “Bulletproof”

Released: 7.21.09

Peak: #8

“You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” made a strange comeback in 2009. For starters, you had Dr. Luke negligently violating the DNR order and defibrillating the Dead or Alive hook for Flo Rida’s benefit on “Right Round,” as translated by Ke$ha’s most arresting vocal to date. (I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way.) (Or in a bad way.) (I don’t exactly know what I mean.) (I just wish I liked “Tik Tok” enough to have an excuse to grapple with Ke$ha.) (Wait, let me rephrase that.)

More obliquely, this U.K. duo of reformed folkie Elly Jackson and behind-the-curtain twiddler Ben Langmaid translated that oldie’s rhythmic essentials into a hook that glances off a less derivative vocal melody. Tuneful electropop may come cheap, but the sleek “Bulletproof,” a custom-tooled collection of spastic pings that ricochet into shallow pockets of pitch-bent synth, shows up the high-profile synthetic competition — by comparison David Guetta is a hapless clodhopper, Calvin Harris is Narada Michael Walden, M83 is Ummagumma scraped from the bottom of your shoe.

On La Roux’s first hit, “In For the Kill,” the beat was ascetically spare, Jackson’s upper register too shrill and pinched, and “What are feelings without emotions?” hairsplitting in search of profundity. But on “Bulletproof,” Jackson edges closer to a viable persona. The lyric is a commitment to casual sex as an escape from the inevitability of heartbreak, and as with some of the best such boasts, more uncertainty cling underneath the bravado than is first apparent. Elly’s gonna harden her heart, as a no wiser woman once said. But her spunk is so winning I even forgive her the tired opening “Been there, done that” — a lyric, catchphrase, and song title, which, let the record show, John Cale and Brian Eno beat Dr. Dre to by a full seven years.

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Drake — “Best I Ever Had”

Released: 6.16.09

Peak: #2

Drake was something of a historic inevitability. The passive-aggressive sing-rap of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, the smoked out self-absorption of Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite,” the shameless infatuation of Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Through the Phone” — in hindsight, the path couldn’t have been more clearly paved for Drizzy’s sullen girl-friendly ascendance. Of all people, the constantly if not cripplingly stoned Lil Wayne noticed this, and between court dates at that. We should be ashamed.

What’s more, Drake had matriculated from Degrassi, and as the decade mercilessly reminded us, from American Idol to the Disney Channel tween-pop farm league to Glee, folks are always more willing to fuck with music if it’s affiliated with the medium that’s their one true love. If nothing else, Drake proved himself a particularly versatile post-teen actor on “Best I Ever Had,” pulling off puppy dog (“You can have my heart or we can share it like the last slice”) and pussy hound (“All up in yo slot until the nigga hit the jackpot”) with equal charm. Because I am squeamish and chivalrous and old enough to recognize the limitation of aurally evaluating your partner’s sexual pleasure, I wish he took less pride in his girl’s genital whistling. But I get that his appeal derives from his acknowledging how vast an expanse stretches between virginity and mansluttery, and in his encamping on a specific point somewhere along that sexscape. So, er, put those lips together and blow.

As Drake moved beyond mixtapes, he’d come to inhabit musical settings that were both more lush and less inviting. Here, though, Boi-1da cuts up “Fallin’ in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds in a manner that mirrors and flatters the rapper’s sexy insouciance. Drake’s opener — “You know a lot of girls be/ Thinkin’ my songs are about them/ This is not to get confused/ This one’s for you” — is in a class with Usher or Justin Timberlake; this guy could clearly have coasted to a series of easy teen idol hits if he’d chosen to play it safe. Sometimes, when listening to his first two proper albums, and trying to figure whether he’s better understood as a potential catalyst for a more emotionally resonant hip-hop or a symptom of his humorless, spiritually starved generation, I wish he had.

Mariah Carey — “Obsessed”

Released:6.16.09

Peak:#7

You can’t just blame the drugs, of course. You can never just blame the drugs. No use blaming Proof’s murderers or Kim or Debbie either for Eminem’s by-far worst album. Relapse was the work of a man well aware that he was pissing away his talent. Pushing forty, Marshall Mathers’ heart just wasn’t in the juvie mayhem any more, so he feigned serial murder by numbers and filled in his ad feminam Mad Libs with the first celebrity to flicker across his short-circuiting synapses. Few party tracks have highlighted how overdue an artist was for sobriety quite as pitilessly as “Crack the Bottle.”

The incoherent revenge fantasy “Bagpipes from Baghdad” might not have been the nadir of Eminem’s recording career, but he did receive its most embarrassing bitch-slap as a result. An A-List diva taking pot shots at a bottom-feeding rapper should have been embarrassing for all concerned, especially when that diva’s courtiers insist on calling her “the real MC,” especially when that diva boasts “You’re a mom and pop / I’m a corporation,” especially when that diva is Mariah Carey. And yet, not only do Tricky and The-Dream deck Mariah out in a suitably regal track for “Obsessed,” but Carey manages to come off as not the slightest bit bitchy. She’s just above it all, luxuriating in her own gifts with a noblesse worthy of Jay-Z — when she encounters the shared assonance of “you’re delusional” and “losing your mind,” it’s a career highlight.

Ah well, live by the starstruck dis, die by the starstruck dis, eh? But the fable of the Princess and the Peashooter has a more complicated moral. Mariah Carey has always remained true to herself because her true self is a woman who wants to be rich and famous, a desire with which the non-rich and non-famous will always identify. (“Stars—they’re just like us” may seem like a sentiment designed to soothe us plebes, but it’s really the culture industry seeking to reassure its marquee producers.) In contrast to Jennifer Lopez’s cartoonish desperation to prove she’s maintained her roots (you ain’t driven your own car in years, girl, let alone played stickball), Carey really does seem like a Long Island gal who hit the big time, and this attitude seems the key to her resilience.

Eminem, to his credit and his detriment, wanted to be an artist — something more than a star, or at least something not identical — and so stardom took its toll, on his sense of humor, most of all. Em regained his footing on Recovery by jettisoning the multifaceted trickster of his first two albums and fully inhabiting the one-dimensional hero of “Lose Yourself” — in other words, by limiting himself as an artist.

Black Eyed Peas — “I Gotta Feeling”

Released: 6.16.09

Peak: #1

I’ve never seen the percentage in hating the Black Eyed Peas. They’re never bullying or misogynist, and their closest stray toward the sententious, “Where Is the Love?,” was bold enough to remind us that the C.I.A. is a terrorist org. Far be it from me to guess what roils foes who’ve been markedly unable to articulate their beef, but criticisms seem to boil down to the fact that the group is uncool — either tagged “corny,” in rap-snob parlance, or with the old anti-pop snub “plastic.” Me, I like uncool people. Some of my best friends are uncool. Including you maybe.

But though I’ve supported will.i.am’s decision to exuberantly sell out ever since he recognized the error of his earnest, backpacker youth, I can’t say he’s mostly done me proud. “Let’s Get Retarded” was this Roxanne Shante fan’s coulda-been jam before marketing softened it to “Let’s Get It Started” for sports arenas in need of a “Rock and Roll Pt. 3.” And though plenty of pop is more deserving of the scorn heaped upon “My Humps,” the ick factor of “lovely lady lumps” is hard to listen past.

With “I Gotta Feeling,” though, the quartet finally surrendered to sheer sensation, here embodied by the equally despised David Guetta.  The track accretes so craftily — staccato guitar establishes that mood of early evening anticipation, high-end synth adds that wistful edge, one-finger bass tugs us forward until the long-delayed backbeat propels the works upward and outward — that it’s easy to overlook that this dance hit is wholly drumless maybe a full third of its run time, And Fergie finally comes into her brassy own, belting at her most ovaries-out one moment, interjecting “smash it!” like a demented Bowery boy the next. For a few minutes, at least, the club, now the dominant setting for rap and pop, is no longer a drab, noisy site for wrangling temporary mates, but a place to cut loose.

The Peas topped the Billboard singles chart for exactly half a year: Prior to “I Gotta Feeling”‘s fourteen-week residence, the silly “Boom Boom Pow,” which goofed on club music’s futurism and hip-hop’s empty boasts while jacking the thrill of each, had already rested on top for twelve weeks. It was a success story so unnerving to some critics that their denial compelled them to wax with desperate thoughtfulness over the cultural importance of Lady Gaga. The Peas, you see, raise no chewy gender issues, nor is there the slightest bit of transgression about them — they simply plug into our trivial, disposable culture with an awkward eagerness to please that was once pop’s point. I guess there will always be folks less willing to forgive the gregarious and trivial than they are the overblown and self-important. Poor things.

a quick question

Hey there, neglected blog readers.  Hoping to squeeze out the past few entries soon (or not-so-soon), but I have a quick request: Could you let me know which of these posts have been your favorites? Trying to round up and revise a handful of the best.