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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

Guess who didn’t win the 27th or 28th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. C’mon, I’ll even give you a hint. If you were rooting for him, you didn’t give him much chance. But if you regard the motherfucker as the epitome of all that is vicious and/or venal in popular music, you may well have assumed the worst — after all, assuming the worst is a habit of yours. Now you got it, right? His name is, his name is, his name is — Mr. Triple Trouble himself, Eminem/Marshall Mathers/Slim Shady, who finished only fourth among the 586 pros, prose poets, hacks, hackers, slackers, hobbyists, copywriters, and gray eminences who participated in our most humongous rock critics’ poll ever. Eminem was way ahead of the neck-and-neck if not yet tits-and-pecs Shelby Lynne and D’Angelo, but well behind third-by-a-hair Radiohead. Although PJ Harvey attracted no more voters than her fellow Brits, whose leader sang more winningly on her record than on his own, Pazz & Jop’s almost-famous point system boosted her almost-perfect record to second in a year when supporters of D’Angelo, Eminem, and Radiohead felt no obligation to deny their faves’ flaws.

As for the perfection of our biggest winner since Pazz & Jop hit cyberspace, suffice it to say that OutKast’s fourth album has people crying masterpiece, and that whatever my personal rankings I was glad Stankonia beat Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Having decided that The Marshall Mathers LP was so intense it had to be my No. 1 even though Harvey had generated the more through-inspired record, I was in no position to quibble that Stankonia doesn’t maintain for 73 minutes. If the voters felt that OutKast’s singles-topping “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” blew such distinctions away, that feeling alone proved it. Hallelujah! Our first real rap winner since De La Soul in 1989 or — depending on how you define reality, always the key to hip-hop metaphysics — Arrested Development in 1992. And while the surest proof that the end is near may well be that our best golfer is black and our best rapper is white, African American artists have suffered polite liberal prejudice so regularly in our poll that it was nice to see OutKast benefit from it. Relative to the dreaded Mathers, the reformed Atlanta drug dealers — hey, that detail couldn’t be some Slim Shady persona-twist, could it? — seem pretty safe.

But that’s a jaded reading. Stankonia is also the deeper musical choice, its hooky funk far stickier than Eminem’s brightly tripping high-versus-low pitch juxtapositions and its raps even more rapid and rhythmic, with bonus points from diehards hung up on music being played live. Its vision of a community as enmeshed in pleasure as in responsibility is a way out of the gangsta trap, too. But in 2000 Eminem was the more momentous artist, and not only because he was white, or “provocative.” It’s because he was brilliant, galvanizing an audience everyone knew was there with rhymes of exceptional if not unduplicated technical bravado that layered levels of meaning hip-hop had always hinted at but never so fully exploited — and also because, far from indulging the woman-hate that has long been a sorry cliché of our richest genre, he begins the ugly labor of unpacking it, in terms that never kowtow to the public moralists whose imprimatur would taint any such development for his faithful.

Please, I’m not claiming Eminem is a caped crusader battling for justice under cover of warning sticker. He’s just a rock star, the old-fashioned kind who cares (even) more about fame than money and isn’t a creature of the lifelong career calculation that distinguishes the current glut of Mickey Mouse Club alumni from the Bay City Rollers. But he’s so intimate with the dissembling pseudoauthenticities gangsta rappers lay on friends and foes that he’s taken them somewhere, and in this, as Frank Kogan’s “Open the Trapdoor Eminem” makes as clear as is suitable, his stardom provides leverage. Many believe such multifaceted contradictions are over the heads of a young audience that’s even more confused than he is — surely that’s why pundits are in a lather over his Grammy nods while no one peeps about Steely Dan’s 19th-place Two Against Nature, in which cheaters plot to drive a wronged wife insane and a lovable pedophile sets up a three-way with his “Janie Runaway.” I don’t think so — teenagers in love generally hear lyrics better than professionals holding their noses. And one reason I decided to publish Kogan’s explication de gestalt was that a lot of my colleagues weren’t getting it either.

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Unannounced, 2000 turned out to be what some were proud to anoint “Year of the Rock Critic.” Sadly, it wasn’t in-house causes célèbres like Jim DeRogatis’s Bangs bio or Richard Meltzer’s Da Capo best-of that inspired the heavy breathing. It was sanction from popular culture’s Holy See — Hollywood. First came High Fidelity, which deftly imported Nick Hornby’s London-based record-geek novel to Chicago. And then the clincher, Almost Famous, an entertaining fantasy with a cute premise that presented both Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe as paragons of a J-school integrity few were aware they had anything to do with. Fun flick, but the main thing it told me about rock criticism happened when it placed midway up the Voice’s much smaller film critics’ poll. As both filmmaking and culture myth, this critic preferred not just High Fidelity but Gladiator. Us guys may not be so classy, but as a group we’re also not so damn avant-genteel. Which is why I was bummed by all the voters’ Eminem-keyed boilerplate — from “homophobic” and good ol’ “misogynistic” to “rhyme skills” and “urban stories,” not all equally inaccurate but all useless rhetorically and analytically. After we win our Pulitzer, the new Voice ownership will publish the Eminem section separately and distribute it in schools. Also included will be the Napster-etc. “Danger — Sky Falling” and “Boogie Oogie Google,” an unsolicited-and-then-some missive from inactive critic Julian Dibbell, whose name I struck from the rolls myself, but who was then invited to vote via — life can be so poetic sometimes — computer glitch.

Pazz & Jop’s hugeness can be a pain in the ass; God intended better things for me than extracting indie labels from CDNow so surfers who’ve clicked over from The Drudge Report will know who to blame for the latest Nitin Sawhney joint. We did finally succeed in attracting more African Americans and hip-hop specialists (unidentical cohorts, as Condoleezza Rice and DJ Koala will soon explain to Charlie Rose), but beyond that I doubt the size of the thing impacts results much. What it does is provide proof against elitism, claiming aesthetic authority for informed consensus rather than rhetorical force. My theory has always been that listening to lots of music so you can write about some of it will teach anyone things they’re better off knowing. Dullards dance with smartasses and cranks harangue geniuses as the buzzworthy corrects for the tried-and-true and the strictly personal stays that way.

Patterns assert themselves — Best New Diva, Great Country Hope. But they also shift. Those who consider alt-country yesterday’s news because Jay Farrar took a powder, for instance, should note that 2000 gave us a young Great Country Hope (Shelby Lynne, whose fifth and best album is up for a “new artist” Grammy), an old GCH (Merle Haggard, whose 76th and best album snared a P&J debut), and a middle-aged GCH (Steve Earle, whose 11th and squishiest album coasted on cred), as well as the surprising reprise of trans-Atlantic transubstantiators Billy Bragg & Wilco, the suspect alt-countrypolitan resuscitation of the Jayhawks, and two standard-bearers from the Bloodshot flagship: Warners/Whiskeytown refugee Ryan Adams and Neko Case, 36th with her Boyfriends and 118th with her New Pornographers. Strap yourself to a tree with roots, they belong in any future-conscious overview of American pop. Over the decades, as more young critics cut their chops on college radio’s different-is-better-but-new-will-do, the pop part has angered many militant avant-gardists, not all of whom would be voting if we applied the same exacting standards to criticism they think they apply to music. But polls generally measure consensus, and a thrilling consensus is what pop is.

So we examine the results and conclude that 2000 was a great year for hip-hop. Ignore the wailing wall of alt-rap ideologues and thirtysomething grouches sounding just like the doomsayers of that great year for alt-rock 1994 — who, OK, had a point, but history doesn’t always repeat itself, and this history began before alt-rock knew its name. After 20-plus years, the genre formerly known as rap is still exfoliating from both its pop-crossover and bohemian-purist trunks. Our record eight hip-hop finishers include Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah commanding strong genre support and major-label alt-rappers Jurassic 5 jollying none, conscious pioneer Common forging onward, New York undergrounders Dead Prez and Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek edging low, young loonybird Eminem and old quack Dre, and the most dominant P&J album since the mid ’90s, when Hole, then Harvey, then Beck ran away with successive polls. Although it somehow failed to excite alt-country roots fanciers, Stankonia is very much of a place — East Point, the working-class-when-there’s-work Atlanta ’hood where Dre 3000 and Big Boi live large without playa playing. Yet by backing up front-porch solidity with assault-weapon sass, its hugely successful run at the pop charts packs as much metaphysical ambition as any alt-rock master-statement. OutKast need to see more of the world before they can take it to George Clinton’s stage. But note that no Clinton album ever breached our top 10. Not only do hits come more naturally to funk innovators these days, so does status.

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Ah, hits — where “r&b” lives, supposedly, only on our chart rhythm things were always getting lost beneath the album-cut staples of college/alt radio. So we canned the reissues category, which had degenerated into a dick-size contest for well-promoted luxury boxes and tokens of retro hip, and expanded to 40 singles from 25. And in a technical adjustment to the Napster-etc. brouhaha — which moved the wags at Spin to name “your hard drive” album of the year — we defined a single (too broadly) as any individual song. So perhaps the way hip-hop and r&b overran our chart — 11 rap records top 25, five more below, plus Aaliyah and Sisqó and Badu and Scott and R. Kelly and Lucy Pearl and Macy (not David) Gray and three Destiny’s (not Desmond) Childs — reflects the dispersion of the album-rock vote into the mists of unlimited choice, while folks who love rhythm things remained social beings tryna get this party started. Or maybe, with deserving teenpop down to Britney and ’N Sync smashes (no Pink? no M2M?) and the 38th-place “Kryptonite” and “The Bad Touch” the only decent new radio-rock novelties (no Matchbox Twenty! no Bon Jovi!), the silly likes of “Country Grammar,” “Shake Ya Ass,” and “Thong Song” could be cheered on as the affirmations they always are. Maybe it was just a great year for hip-hop.

A similar logic would then pertain on the album chart, which for all its neotraditionalism has always honored the accessibly avant-garde — progressive populism, call it. This dream is mocked by avant-garde militants, who are so postpop they’re barely aware that hip-hop might be an artform, although the city dwellers among them presumably recognize its existence as other people’s noise. But for those who hold to the avant-pop hope/illusion, the argument would go, the scant guitar-band options have given way to an underground rap achieving critical mass and dozens of bigger names approaching maturity. Compared to the low-overhead Blackalicious or Del the Funky Homosapien, the Jurassic 5 seem as blandly good-time to me as the Del Fuegos of early Amerindie, but I like what their finish signifies. Common finally made our chart with the most musical of his four honest albums. I’m only sorry that De La Soul (81st) and the late-released Wu-Tang Clan (45th) didn’t get the respect their accrued accomplishments warrant.

It turns out, however, that the voters didn’t find 2000 such a bad year for young guitar bands. After dipping to 18 in 1998 and 14 in 1999, Pazz & Jop debuts rebounded to 20 in 2000. These include the solo bows of Wu-Tang’s Ghostface and Whiskeytown’s Adams, the winterbloom of 63-year-old Hag, and the reunited Go-Betweens (whose ’80s shutout proves that sometimes we miss even guitar bands), as well as the fresh hip-hoppers and Best New Diva Jill Scott. But Lynne and Neko Case lead us to a varied alt-rock contingent, from the aggressively conventional Travis and Coldplay and Marah and Queens of the Stone Age to the glacially keyby Sigur Rós to the dissimilarly punky Le Tigre and At the Drive-In to my favorite pairing, mopey Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy and calm Californians Grandaddy.

Few of the new newbies are alt-rock in the familiar Amerindie sense: the Springsteenish Marah and the metallic Queens forswear any collegiate vibe, Sigur Rós are from Iceland and hunger, and three others are just plain British. Even if Travis are dumb sub-Bluroroasis tunesmiths who seem alt over here because we’ve gotten so chauvinistic, together with Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy they betoken an Anglophilia revival that picks up on the excitement that a few years ago surrounded electronica. Why not? Damon Gough isn’t just another depressive with hooks — his album mutates like Tricky rather than marching like Bluroroasis. Six thousand miles away in the sun-baked Modesto flatlands, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy has also been nurturing a gift for song cycling. Thom Yorke, call your guru.

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In case you were wondering, Yorke seems to be what happened to the excitement surrounding electronica. Was 2000 the year when Moby launched his world takeover from the top of our 1999 poll? Or was it the year when not a single danceable techno album placed among the voters’ 100 favorites? The latter, I’d say. (Down to 50, for your tree-killing information: Björk, Bebel Gilberto, theasteriskedEgoTrip’sTheBigPlayback*whichgot30pointsfromallthede admag’splayasandstillfellshortfuckyouguys, James Carter’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Wu, Emmylou, North Mississippi All Stars, Dandy Warhols, Modest Mouse’s Moon and Antarctica, and John R. Cash). But it was also when the world’s greatest rock band cough cough chose to concede techno its futuristic pretensions by emulating illbient texture and flow. Although Radiohead’s subtle, synergistic exercise in pomo beauty is accounted terribly difficult by Kid A’s anhedonic supporters, don’t waste any paranoia on it. Not only was more recondite music available from sex symbol D’Angelo, the years to come promise terrible difficulties worth warning people about — and I don’t mean the fallout from Primal Scream’s dystopian XTRMNTR, which does a Radiohead-style solid for pomo ugly.

In the section entitled “The W,” you will find many conflicting theories of what Washington’s return to Reaganism will mean to progressive music. I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which means that at the very least I think it’s deluded to wax optimistic, just as it’s deluded to swear the damn Democrats will come roaring back in 2002. But as usual I hope you grant this much to Pazz & Jop’s version of the damn Democrats, oldsters tied to the tried-and-true: New doesn’t equal progressive. Although encouraged by the three Best Old Divas — Scott’s impressive ninth place didn’t cancel long-awaited efforts by Sade or Erykah Badu or the latest from the fecund Madonna — I suspect that our electorate’s openness to young guitar bands comes at the cost of insensitivity to old ones, and that fresh-obsessed hip-hoppers taking De La and Wu-Tang for granted are no better. U2 wrote some songs and got many props, Yo La’s lounge venture lost some fans as it reassured others, and while my clique was convinced that the world’s greatest rock and roll band hip hip hooray had finally slipped, the 10th-place finish of Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, after 1999’s The Hot Rock came in 23rd, could mean we were wrong. But some of my deepest satisfactions in 2000 were provided by old artists up to old tricks with new twists: Lou Reed’s Ecstasy (63rd), Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers (104th, Jesus), and RZA’s supremely meditative Ghost Dog soundtrack (83rd). Maybe I’m just a damn New Yorker, but the voters’ preference for young repeater Elliott Smith’s soupiest album, not to mention old farts the Jayhawks’ smiliest, gets me mad.

Top 10s do rein one in. Me, I’d have loved to tip my ballot to the life-sentenced Waco Brothers (two mentions), in-it-to-win-it Amy Rigby (six), ‘buked-and-scorned Fatboy Slim (six), postexotic Youssou N’Dour (nine). But I suspect many voters would have kept listing putative next big things, often strictly personal ones. Of the record 1621 albums named by our 586 respondents, 1021 appeared on precisely one ballot. Figure a mean length of an hour and it would take a person 40 work weeks to consume each of these leisure products once. Or put it another way — 1621 is almost half the total estimated annual album production of the mid ’80s. This is, as I hope everyone at least glimpses, the flip side of both the Napster brouhaha and the Mickey Mouse Club blitzkrieg, each of which is equally as responsive (or not) to the incomprehensibilities of defining and servicing an audience.

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Ponder the 2000 label breakdown. A full half of our major-label albums came from the megacorp I call UniMoth — 11 in all, four of the top seven, on Interscope, Island, MCA, Motown, Giant, DreamWorks. But breaking last year’s record of 14, 18 of our finishers were on independent labels, be these well-capitalized ventures by renegade bizzers from the philanthropic Danny Goldberg to the profiteering Richard Branson or tiny outfits like Le Tigre’s feminist Mr. Lady or renegade bizzer Aimee Mann’s DIY SuperEgo. This is hardly a utopia — those don’t exist, not under anybody’s capitalism. But it’s myopic to see only doom in the spectacle of a music industry that can conceive no market vast and malleable enough to manipulate on a scale acceptable to its number-crunchers except kids who don’t yet know their own power — kids who may remain passive forever, probably won’t, and are certain to change in other ways regardless. And it’s also myopic to think the music industry stops with the five-going-on-four megacorps up top. Will Napster-etc. put an end to the album — and, boo hoo, Pazz & Jop — as we know it? I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which isn’t to say I don’t wonder — and worry — sometimes. Then again, I’m also on record as mourning the death of the monoculture. Those who don’t, which means all too many technodeterminists, should rejoice instead that for the foreseeable future some Internet facility or other will enable anyone with a modicum of motivation to get his or her recorded music to simpatico individuals — maybe retail, maybe fucking free.

Is this progress? Of a sort, at a loss. But in a historical moment when no music is capable of providing the relief all anti-Reaganites crave, maybe the path of wisdom is to leave the pronouncements on who and what does and doesn’t truly herald progress to the Nayda-hatas and their opposite moralizers among the damn Greens. I just figure that in a marginalized left, the symbolic one Pazz & Jop monitors no less than the real-world one where it is oh so marginally situated, all who desire justice for the disadvantaged are my allies — however pathological their personalities, impotent their tactics, or delusory their respect for the actually existing disadvantaged.

As rock becomes ever more self-conscious, what I prefer these days to call popular music encompasses an ever more incalculable profusion of aesthetic…”levels”? “approaches”? “multivalences”? “tones”? But what’s interesting about the ones rock stars go for is that they move masses rather than nurturing subcultures. For 30 years now, ever since I uttered the words “semipopular music,” I’ve wanted both while too often settling for the easy one. Subcultures are for company, solace, protection, inspiration. Only if they’re exceptionally strong and lucky do they have a chance of germinating change. Symbolically yet again, rock stars with a pipeline to the actually existing disadvantaged hold out the possibility of something more. The unlamented Eazy-E was proud to donate money to the damn Republicans, and I wouldn’t put the same stratagem past his opposite immoralizer, Eminem’s man Dr. Dre. But on the other hand, Eminem has cameoed on more rap records in the past year than anybody this side of that ho Snoop. So here’s my modest proposal: that the good Dre, the dirty Southerner in the faggoty pants, give Marshall Mathers a call.

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

2. PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island/Def Jam)

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

4. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope)

5. Shelby Lynne: I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

7. U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)

8. Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)

9. Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach)

10. Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

1. OutKast: “Ms. Jackson” (LaFace/Arista)

2. Eminem Featuring Dido: “Stan” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

5. Madonna: “Music” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

6. Nelly: “(Hot S**t) Country Grammar” (Universal)

7. Eminem: “The Real Slim Shady” (Aftermath/Interscope)

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

9. Destiny’s Child: “Say My Name” (Columbia)

10. (Tie) Aaliyah: “Try Again” (Blackground/Atlantic)
Macy Gray: “I Try” (Epic)

—From the February 20, 2001, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

DIE, CUPID

“If at first you don’t succeed/Dust yourself off, and try again,” or so the great Aaliyah once sang. Adventure(s) & Nerve Dating is giving you a chance to try again at love (or at least find a quickie) with the Broken-Hearted Ball: Screw Love/Get Screwed, an all-night anti-Valentine’s Day Party. The evening is broken up into two parts. The first half consists of dancing the pain away with songs about heartbreak (“You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” etc.). Then, after you’ve let go of the bad vibes, it’s time to get back in the saddle and find Mr. or Ms. Right Now with songs like “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want Your Sex” to get you in the mood. Formal attire is requested—probably to make it more interesting when you have to take it all off.

Sat., Feb. 11, 8 p.m., 2012

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

The xx

“They look like the goth kids from South Park!” wrote one astute YouTube commentator on the video for “Crystalized.” While it’s true that the semi-tragic haircuts and oral care of South London four piece the xx leave something to be desired, the band’s coolly distant r&b songs sound like ultra-suede. Look out tonight for a smoldering cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” and the Echo and the Bunnymen-ish “Blood Red Moon.” See ’em now so you can say you saw them then. With Javelin and Lia Ices.

Wed., Oct. 21, 7 p.m., 2009

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Singles Going Steady

Nelly Furtado
“Say It Right”

Loose (Geffen)

Ten years after Aaliyah’s “One in a Million,” Timbaland is still using the same heaving synth waves and tricky, Tourettic drum programming, but the rest of the pop world still hasn’t caught up. Here, Tim channels early-’90s Peter Gabriel, his rippling bongos and staccato mouth-clicks granting a vaguely Afropop lilt to those pillowy keyboards. There’s also a little Eno in the peals of distorto-guitar that bubble up in the coda. With her airy chirp, Furtado sounds like she’s singing a duet with a volcano—she can’t overpower it, so she lets her voice float lazily over the fires.


The All-American Rejects
“It Ends Tonight”

Off Move Along (Interscope)

These guys are humping the emo zeitgeist for all it’s worth, hiding huge, transcendent pop hooks behind MySpace self-involvement and Tyson Ritter’s piercing helium yowl. This inevitable breakup power ballad might be their most satisfying bit of formulaic expertise yet: Pro Tooled strings and super-processed acoustic guitars soar slowly upward before exploding into a gloriously meaningless chorus, and those whoa-oh-oh backing vocals just kill. It’s about as punk as Def Leppard, and that’s not a complaint.


Avril Lavigne

“Keep Holding On”

Eragon soundtrack (RCA)

The bad news: Avril has all but deadened her bratty mall-punk bite so she can make a piece of blandly inspirational Broadway fluff for the soundtrack to a movie about dragons. Her guitars don’t crunch anymore, and she doesn’t use her high notes like knives. The good news: This song’s string arrangement is a fucking monster, moving from slow wind-chime flourishes on the intro to spinning crescendos on the bridge. With backing like that, anyone can be a convincing Auto-Tuned balladeer, even someone who was meant for better things.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Good Morning Little School Girl

My mind’s telling me no

But my body, my body’s telling me yes

Baby, I don’t want to hurt nobody

But there is something that I must confess

—R. Kelly, “Bump n’ Grind”


The sudden respectability of R. Kelly the artist is a confounding development in official pop taste. Child pornography charges have done for this manifestly skillful, manifestly simplistic hitmaker what the preeminent inspirational anthem of the ’90s could not. That his fans still believe he can fly is no surprise. But for Chocolate Factory to show up on dozens of critics’ Top 10 lists, including three in The New York Times, suggests less that Kelly has responded to his legal dilemma (and fees) with the strongest music of his life, as is commonly argued, than that an oeuvre few gatekeepers felt obliged to take seriously is now hot news, and that credit must be given where it’s due.

In September, seven months after Chocolate Factory, the oeuvre was showcased in all its dualistic synergy on The R. in R&B Collection: Volume 1, which makes its move with the porn-lite triptych “Bump n’ Grind,” “Your Body’s Callin’,” and “Sex Me” and finds spiritual fulfillment by preceding “I Believe I Can Fly” with “I’m Your Angel,” a Celine Dion duet beloved of wedding singers, and Ali‘s “The World’s Greatest,” where Kelly compares himself to an eagle, a lion, a mountain peak, a marching band, a star (“up in the sky”), and “the people.” Those of the intervening 12 songs in which he achieves orgasm substantially outnumber those in which he does not. Although several of the orgasms involve affection and one commitment, you’d never guess from The R. in R&B that Chocolate Factory had just bum-rushed the populace with woman-friendly rhetoric—pledges of devotion and other idealistic fancies, individualized sexual flattery, and an abject token in which Kelly not only ranks female “backbone” above male “bullshit” but allows as how said bullshit may be why women smoke cigarettes and snap off on their kids. What you would guess, because it’s on the compilation too, is that Chocolate Factory‘s lead single was the Saturday-night special “Ignition—Remix” (“stick my key in the ignition,” etc.). Nor would you gasp when Chocolate Factory reversed the best-of’s narrative strategy, closing with the Kelly-vs.-Isley cuckolding contest “Showdown,” the Orientalist sex fantasy “Snake,” and some pimp-and-thug—how’d he put it?—bullshit.

But the clincher is the pitiful “Heaven I Need a Hug,” on a bonus disc now available only as an import: “I gave 13 years of my life to this industry,” “Media, do your job/But please just don’t make my job so hard,” boo hoo. I know the music is one thing and the life is another, only I also know that in pop they rarely are. “Heaven I Need a Hug” assumes the listener knows about Kelly’s tribulations—the video where some supposed 15-year-old sucks Kelly’s dick and he comes on her and pisses on her too, not to mention his annulled marriage to the 15-year-old Aaliyah and the lawsuits from other underage girls Kelly allegedly, to use his term, sexed. It underlines a crucial distinction, which is that whether or not Kelly is legally guilty of doing these things, they feed into how he is perceived. Which means that when, on his hugely engaging “Step in the Name of Love—Remix,” Kelly declares himself “the pied piper of r&b” (“king” was once his preferred title), his failure to think through the pedophilic implications is cavalier, stupid, or both.

Not that anyone should suspect Kelly of pedophilia per se, because teenagers aren’t children per se. His turn-on is a far commoner one—the virgin who craves your penis. This fetish has a long history in rock and roll. Its ur-text is “Good Morning Little School Girl”—attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson I and covered by, among many others, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter, an elderly Van Morrison, and 16-year-old Jonny Lang—and its permutations are endless. Most relevant here is the way modern boy groups typified by Boyz II Men developed the love-man idea traceable to Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, and evolved doowoppers like the Moments and the Manhattans. There’s a difference between teenage boys seducing teenage girls and young studs seducing teenage girls, and Boyz II Men dare you to figure out what it is. They’re polite and lubricious in equal measure, role models who’ll never call that sweet young thing again.

Still, they were more teen-appropriate than 2 Live Crew, or Ice Cube’s “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dug Out.” And in jumped Kelly, a clever beat popularizer who encapsulated his vision with “I Like the Crotch on You.” Kelly soon warmed up his voice, hooked up his tunes, and on 1995’s R. Kelly played up the woman-friendly. But he also kissed thug booty, and no one did more to sexualize pop language and assumptions in the ’90s. He made the Backstreet Boys reaction inevitable, and if he was too lightweight to loathe—I myself am partial to the dumb double entendres of “You Remind Me of Something” (“my sound, I wanna pump it,” “my cars, I wanna wax it”)—he was also too lightweight to feel. That’s why I gave R. Kelly a nice review and forgot about it, why I filed 2000’s TP-2.Com.

All love men lie. As ideals, alternatives, their lies can be healthy sometimes. But no matter how much Kelly has bared his soul, expanded his palette, and seen the error of his ways, his lies smell like the foulest bullshit. Giving credit where it’s due, I hope he goes broke.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Highest, Most Exalted One

Three weeks back, I lay in a sea-salted bathtub with candles, bubbles, and headphones, listening to Aaliyah. Lamenting the state of my love life during a midnight soak, I used the multisensory experience to remind myself of the type of woman I wanted most to attract. Focusing on the album cover now and again, there was no doubt in my mind that, with a female like Aaliyah romantically in my cipher, all would be right with the world.

The very next day, I sat with some music journalists in a suite at Hotel Giraffe, patiently awaiting the arrival of the new Jay-Z album. An hour late, Roc-a-Fella CEO Damon Dash walked into the room with the masters. And Aaliyah. Concentrated meditation is a powerful thing, I thought. With the power of your thoughts, you can attract anything to your Self that you choose. It was a lesson Aaliyah Haughton had learned long ago; may have always known. Born in Brooklyn in 1979, raised most of her life in Detroit, and gone at 22 (she died Saturday in a fiery plane crash off the Bahamas that also killed eight others), Aaliyah was clear on leaving an entertainer’s legacy from her very beginnings. It seems she manifested herself in the pop cultural landscape as easily as I’d inadvertently willed her into my immediate surroundings.

In ’94, long after a preteen defeat on Star Search, Aaliyah released Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, under the wing of producer R. Kelly. The number-one Law of Success in hiphop’s exalted Zulu Nation Infinity Lessons declares that the greatest sin is gossip. Accordingly, I was never too interested in what the deal was with Aaliyah’s underage marriage to Kelly, or her recent ties with Dame Dash. But Kelly did right by the 15-year-old ingenue in the studio, to the point where her post-Kelly career seemed in doubt.

Her One in a Million follow-up deaded that. Timbaland reinvented Aaliyah as an artist whose body of work I looked forward to seeing unfold. She dared to attack and conquer Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” (with Slick Rick, no less). “4 Page Letter,” “Hot Like Fire,” “If Your Girl Only Knew”: Timbaland’s futuristic-leaning production carried a subliminal promise to make Aaliyah into the black femme fatale superstar of the 21st century. “Are You That Somebody?” and “Try Again” were mere soundtrack cuts, yet their radio omnipresence spoke to everyone’s appetite for Aaliyah to fulfill her promise.

Upon hearing of Lennon’s murder outside the Dakota, McCartney notoriously remarked to the media that his death was “a drag.” I spent this weekend out of town, in multimedia alienation; my brother tracked me down Sunday night to break the news, and all I could say, over and over, was “That’s fucked up.” Like McCartney, I felt so much more, stuff beyond articulation. Remorse. Sorrow. Anger. Agitation. Aaliyah’s was an ending as senseless as those of Tupac Shakur or Christopher Wallace. Worse, some will say, because Aaliyah never dispensed any “ready to die” or “how long will they mourn me” energy into the universe to boomerang to her.

My brother’s news brought back images of Janet Jackson’s MTV Icon Award tribute celebration from earlier this summer. Destiny’s Child performed, but Aaliyah didn’t, and the reason was obvious to me and my boys sitting on the couch checking it out: Aaliyah is Janet. (Was? Damn.) Just like Janet herself never had no real business playing Dorothy Dandridge in nobody’s biopic, because she is Dandridge. The glamorized drama or dramatized glamorousness in Janet’s life rivals that of Dandridge. (Just like Madonna portraying Marilyn Monroe would be a mistake.) Aaliyah, at 22, was too busy building that type of mystique to be onstage gushing over Jan like a fan. Aaliyah seemed more like Janet’s peer than Destiny’s Child, Brandy, or Monica. Shit, she, Dandridge, and Jackson could’ve been sisters from different mothers. Another reason her loss is like a brick to the chest.

“Has there ever been an artist to pass away that the record industry didn’t pimp?” my best friend asked. I took part in a brief debate about Hendrix, Shakur, and Biggie, about family estates of artists providing permission for certain things, etc. There was already a lot of cartoon imagery connected to the promotion of Aaliyah. I do not look forward to any animated videos coming out of Virgin to propel the shelf life of this princess’s record. Please, not that.

Back in high school daze, girls would often gender-correct the lyrics to records sung by guys, i.e., “I love you, girl” would become “I love you, boy.” Regarding records sung by females, I recall always keeping the original gender in their lyrics intact, as if the women in question (Sheila E., Cherrelle, Sade) were singing about me. Or to me, directly. Stuff like, “To let a fine man like you go, she must be insane,” from “I Care 4 U.” “There’s no need to worry/Boy, if you call on me/I’ll come in a hurry.” This was the ego-boosting, esteem-repairing sweetness I came to Aaliyah for in the bathtub. Meeting Aaliyah for the first time last year, in D.C. at BET HQ, she seemed self-assertive, in command: entertaining flirtation from Rap City host Tigger (for her, I’m sure, entertaining male flirtation was a daily routine), hitting her points in an interview about her role in Romeo Must Die and her album-in-progress.

Monday, I returned to Brooklyn from out of town, headed to my bathroom. My portable radio rested on the sink. Atop the radio, the Aaliyah CD case. That’s fucked up.

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Cash & Carry

When you need a little money in a hurry (to, uh, buy books, of course), the useless parts of your CD collection are a lot less painful to extract than plasma. You just have to do it right. The first rule is to make sure your discs look presentable. If any cases are broken or scratched up, do your wallet a favor and buy a bundle of empty, clean CD cases at an office-supply store.

There’s also a trick that will dramatically increase your yield if you’ve got a big stack of discs to flog. Pull out the ones you know will sell—current chart hits, stuff by famous bands—and reserve two-thirds of them in a separate bag from everything else. Go to the first CD store and present the rest of them, making sure that there’s a big-name CD on the top, and a few more among the dross. Tell the clerk that you only want to sell the ones you can get at least a couple of dollars for, and that you’ll hold on to the rest. Then schlep the discs they don’t want to the next store, lace them with a few more really good ones, and repeat the process. At the third store, add the rest of the primo stuff, and take whatever they’ll give you. No used-CD buyer wants to bother with another one’s rejects, but a stack of discs with the new Aaliyah on top of it doesn’t look like it’s been picked over.

Still, the price you can get for a half-decent CD varies widely, as does the likelihood of finding something bearable to listen to in the bargain bin. We went trade-in hunting in the Village, armed with a bunch of the new Bob Marley reissues (opened but otherwise pristine). Disc-O-Rama (186 W 4th), our first stop, offered us the worst price of any store for Marley ($3 trade or $1 cash), though they’re the outlet of choice for cheap current hits—new copies of most of the current Billboard Top 200 are $10 or $11. Their $1.87-plus-tax rack included albums by Dusty Trails and the Damnations TX, both of which have at least two bucks’ worth of charms.

New York’s serious used-CD zone, though, is St. Marks Place between Second and Third avenues. Norman’s Sound & Vision (around the corner at 67 Cooper Sq) gave us $3 for Rastaman Vibration; their $2 cheapo bins, down a flight of stairs in the back, had a copy of Led Zeppelin II (badly scratched up) and barely anyone else we recognized other than Heavy D and the Boyz. We hit the jackpot at Mondo Kim’s (6 St. Marks Pl)—a crisp new $5 bill for Babylon by Bus and a 99-cent CD rack with a couple of neat indie obscurities by White Collar Crime and Sammy.

Joe’s CDs (upstairs at 11 St. Marks Pl) offered us $3 cash or $4 credit for Catch a Fire; for that, we could’ve gotten Natas’s WWW.com or the A*Teens’ The ABBA Generation, annoyed the living hell out of our roommates, and still had a dollar of credit to spare. The discount-bin-free 13 CDs (13 St. Marks Pl) upped that offer to $4 cash; we finally broke down and accepted four bucks from Sounds (20 St. Marks Pl), despite their procedural rigmarole and ghastly 88-cent bin. Highlight, in the loosest sense of that term: Baha Men’s I Like What I Like.

A few blocks from the epicenter, the neighborhoody Stooz (122 E 7th) gave us $4 for Live! They only set out the bargain crates on Saturdays, but if you’ve got a little bit more to spend, they’ve got the goods (especially if you like old vinyl). And our final stop was Accidental CDs (131 Ave A), the fabulous Tompkins Square freakhouse that’s been open around the clock for five years and has now been almost entirely crowded onto the sidewalk by its own overstock, even though someone recently hauled away most of their cheap CDs. They offered us $3 cash or $5 credit for Burnin’; we traded it for a Liz Phair tape and walked away humming “Shitloads of Money.”

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Up Jumps Da Meme

Timbaland sure is on the radio a lot, even when he’s not. Turn on Hot 97 right now, wait 15 minutes, and you’ll hear either Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” Nas and Ginuwine’s “You Owe Me,” or the Lox’s “Ryde or Dye Chick/Bitch,” all of which he officially produced. He’s Bill Gates in terms of market share, but his aesthetic dominance is like Apple’s. When you see a computer desktop running Windows, you’re seeing a jacked-up version of a Mac interface circa ’95. Similarly, when you hear Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” that new Harpo DeBarge song, or any production by Cyptron, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, or Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins, you’re hearing Timbaland as shareware, generally programmed in his ’98 style. No matter who the artist of record is, r&b in 2000 is Timbaland, just like funk in 1970 was James Brown.

Rewind to 1996. Quiet storm r&b? The immobile Wu-Tang thump? Timothy Mosley said “No, no, no” like Destiny’s Child and offered his playful, syncopated machine funk as the Thesis. Between ’96 and ’97, tracks like “Hot Like Fire,” “Up Jumps Da Boogie,” “Luv 2 Luv U,” and “The Rain” illustrated his main points: irregular hi-hat patterns, rhythmic hiccups, big Swiss cheese pauses, and noises drawn from video games, mouths, TV shows, anything and everything but the old-school funk records mined for hip-hop’s first 15 years.

The high point of this first chapter was also the turning point. Timbaland used 1998’s Dr. Dolittle soundtrack as an opportunity for Wu-like maximized dissemination, producing a full third of the album and hitching affiliated tricycles like Playa up to the monster truck of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” which took Tim into the Top 10 pop album charts for the first time. “Are You” can be recognized blocks away, from two notes. The rhythm is literally arresting: stopping, starting, and chunking along like a Metallica riff, the vocals submissively Mickey Moused to it. Add the baby noises and a creamy chorus written by Steve “Static” Garrett of Playa (Mosley’s best house songwriter) and you’ve got the top and bottom that broadbanded Timbaland’s vision. R&B said yes, yes, yes, and the sweatshop knockoffs started to flow.

Missy’s 1999 album Da Real World was Tim’s Antithesis, an attempt to stay ahead of biters’ jaws. Enacting a scorched-earth policy, Tim got rid of the trademarks but forgot to replace them with anything, producing Da Real Nap. On the other side of prime time, he paired Aaliyah with Nas on “You Won’t See Me Tonight.” Cognitive dissonance, lame track.

But even Tim’s failures bear seeds and show roots. “She’s a Bitch” found new life as a dancehall beat, voiced on at least five Jamaican 45s last year. Not a surprise—dancehall and Miami bass have always been Tim’s secret spices. (Dancehall and Miami bass labels don’t generally send out big promo mailings, so the music remains invisible to most critics, which may explain why the red herring of drum and bass keeps being brought up when trying to explain Tim’s beats.) The dancehall link is most audible on 1997’s “Money Talks” by Lil’ Kim and Andrea Martin, a Tim gem. The chorus is lifted from Shabba and Krystal’s “Twice My Age,” one of the ’90s’ biggest digital reggae tunes, but not exactly a hip-hop or r&b staple. And many of Tim’s sledgehammer kick and snare sounds—half music, half medical procedure—are lifted straight from dancehall. (Other than Tim, KRS, and Busta, does anyone in hip-hop even care about dancehall?)

Nineteen ninety-nine is when it became clear that, as with James’s brand new bag, Tim’s musical thesis was rich enough to sustain a whole field of artists, some of whom execute certain ideas better than the Author himself. Though Missy, Timba’s main melodist, is good at writing hooks, she too often stops there, leaving pop workmen like Rodney Jerkins the room to one-up Missy and Tim with through-composed gems like “Say My Name.” She’kspere’s letter-perfect Timba rhythms and pop-friendly work made the rest of Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall the Aaliyah album Aaliyah didn’t make. The Neptunes kept the hectic space bounce alive with their Super Mario shoot-outs and block-sized beats on Kelis’s Kaleidoscope, the Missy album Missy should have made. But between Cyptron’s pleasantly brutal and She’kspere’s cyber-light, the production on TLC’s Fan Mail is the highest bidder to date on the Timbaland style. (Extra points for actual concepts go to TLC themselves.)

Perhaps the hip-hop competition scared Tim back into shape. Though a serious chart threat, Swizz Beats’s productions sound like a guy road-testing his Casio presets at the Nuremberg Rally. The chart part, though, signifies big to Tim. There’s Cash Money’s Mannie Fresh, who only bats .300 because he produces 75 albums a year. Even better for Dirty South bounce is Chris “Tricky” Stewart, who took JT Money into brilliantly weird territory on last year’s Pimpin On Wax. But I think what lit the match under Timbaland was the return of paterfamilias Dre. Tim’s beats and squeals and dropouts are circa now; in 1991, Dre’s synths and long cinematic skits dominated hip-hop. Though Dr. Dre—2001 doesn’t exactly sound like progress, Dre’s soigné beats are still louche enough to make the party people say oui oui in a very platinum way.

And so, spurred on, Tim has returned to form in 2000. But he’s not what you’re hearing on the radio now. Aaliyah’s “Try Again” is the lead single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, Tim’s attempt to duplicate Dolittle‘s diversified success. Though “Try Again” has a nice acid bass line and fun quotes from both Rakim and The X-Files, the chorus lyrics are shy of rousing (“If at first you don’t succeed/dust yourself off and try again”) and the hook is too amelodic. On the remaining Tim-produced Romeo tracks, Timbaland and Magoo ride a good ’98-style beat on “We at It Again” but reiterate why they are hip-hop’s least-awaited duo. Ginuwine’s “Simply Irresistible” is a good Prince rip but nowhere as great as last year’s underrated 100% Ginuwine. Romeo‘s non-Timbaland songs prove his hegemony by sounding so much like him you’d be hard-pressed to tell the butter from Parkay: for instance Rapture and E Seats, who once again make Destiny’s Child Tim’s Ghost of Christmas Future.

It’s on Jay-Z’s Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, though, that Tim becomes that somebody again. He treats his four tracks not as chances for side money but as the debut of Timbaland, Vol. 3 . . . the Synthesis. He’s ditched the obvious signifiers (I had to check the booklet each time to figure out who was doing the beat) and come up with four separate templates, all hot enough to feed a whole album. “It’s Hot” is just a lonely gospel hand clap, lots of negative space, and a cantering bass twink. Think “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” murdah murdah style. “Big Pimpin’ ” rolls out bhangra flutes and taxicab strings on pillow wheels, which suits cold fish Jay-Z and hot-stepping UGK just fine. (Dirty South wins that one.) “Come and Get Me” begins with a fuzzy funk intro, plenty fine on its own, only to slide into a haunted-house breakdown full of echoes and squeals. Then the song comes to a full stop and, BOOM!, a whole new synth stomp enters, which I won’t itemize. The hook itself finally appears, and there’s some rapping and stuff. Two songs in one—the trend starts here.

The real wig-mover, though, is “Snoopy Track.” The hi-hats move like angry brooms through your ears, but your hard drive gets wiped by the giant-sandworm borborygmus that some will feebly describe as the “synth bass line.” Add a Darth Vader hook by Juvenile and voilà, it’s scarier than Entombed and more swinging than Ray Brown, alive but right-angled enough to make electronica sound like the middlebrow Muzak it too often is. I pray this is released as a single.

Hip-hop has largely given Tim the cold shoulder, and I can’t always blame those lil’ backpackers: When Jay-Z’s not paying, his hip-hop productions are patchy. Nas’s “You Owe Me” is less sonically gerrymandered than the r&b-meets-grime disaster of “You Won’t See Me Tonight,” but exemplifies Tim’s taste in concepts (i.e., none). Nas, the charming dog, manages to equate slavery reparations with ass owed to him by one of those darn skeezers. The Lox’s “Ryde or Dye Chick/Bitch” is an up-to-snuff cha cha but suffers from the same what-a-completely-fascinating-subject problem. Even paired with a great MC like Mad Skillz on the new single “Together” (Rawkus), Tim is just perfunctory. No—there’s something special about Tim and Mr. Dr. Jigga. Just put on “Paper Chase” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who” from Vol. 2 again—that’s some nasty Logan’s Run shit.

Timothy Mosley grew up on sampling, not piano lessons. That freedom, or lack of traditional grounding, allowed him to create a sound that is now replicating across the pop landscape. He broke open the vaults, made anything fair game for r&b and, by osmosis, pop. Tim’s work is done, in large part. As he said to me in a 1998 interview, “I think of all those people on the radio as part of my production team.” How big of you, I thought at the time. But now? He’s the meme, no doubt.

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Demographic Violence

Romeo Must Die opens with a late-night drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, into deepest Oakland, the music turned way up, the gleaming, gliding, saturated-blue images cut and spliced to mirror the signature syncopation of the accompanying Timbaland-produced number. For a few brief moments, the movie is thrilling, in the way Timbaland beats are thrilling—skittish yet propulsive, weirdly unstable and fearless about it. The sensory high evaporates soon enough (in the next scene, to be precise, which cuts to a dance floor and a teasing glimpse of Asian Lesbian Action with gratuitous tit shot). Romeo Must Die delivers routine kicks without living up to its iconic casting: Hong Kong martial-arts superstar Jet Li paired with hip-hop princess Aaliyah. The movie makes a show of crossing racial lines, but it’s hardly political (or even enamored with culture clash, à la Jarmusch or Wu-Tang), just demographically astute. The wall-to-wall rap score is as kinetic as the acrobatic fight choreography, and nothing else matters.

When an Asian mob boss’s son is found hanging from a tree, his brother Han (Li) breaks out of a Hong Kong jail and travels to SF to avenge his death—blamed on a black gang led by Isaak O’Day (Delroy Lindo). The whole sorry mess has something to do with coveted waterfront property and the NFL. Against the backdrop of an escalating gang war, Han strikes up a friendship with O’Day’s daughter Trish (Aaliyah). The directorial debut of Andrzej Bartkowiak, a cinematographer whose credits include Speed, Romeo Must Die keeps the fight scenes—most of which involve an airborne Jet Li and some queasily convincing sound effects—frequent and fairly elaborate. Still, the movie fills too much of its downtime with silly mawkishness. One unbelievable flashback has Han remembering a childhood trauma shared with his brother: The two boys, adrift at sea, hold on for dear life to a basketball (the artifact that triggers the memory) and float “toward the lights of Hong Kong.”

Romeo Must Die tries to have it both ways: Race is the movie’s gimmick and its willful blind spot. Conspicuously cautious in its delineation of a racial gang war, the script ensures that the distribution of villainy is evenhanded. Meanwhile, the romantic angle promised by the title is barely acknowledged. Some Romeo—by the final scene, Han and Trish have barely worked their way up to holding hands. As modern star-cross’d lovers, Jet Li and Aaliyah would have been hard to beat; it’s a shame the Hollywood powers who brought them together didn’t have the nerve to one-up Leo and Claire.