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

1993 Pazz & Jop: Playing to Win

No use seeking hidden meanings in the 20th or 21st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. The story is smack dab on the surface, there for the kvelling and the selling — self-evident and significant, heartening and thrilling, unprecedented and maybe even sexy. Liz Phair — the first female victor since Joni Mitchell in 1974, when the 24-person electorate consisted largely of my friends — is joined on the album chart by 11 other women, recording under their own sobriquets or fronting bands that usually include more women. With PJ Harvey scoring twice, and the Digable Planets and Yo La Tengo granted half-credits for Ladybug and Georgia Hubley, that’s 13 and two halves records all told, and though in 1992 we had 10 and two halves, then women garnered a mere one (and a half) of the top 10, whereas in 1993 they scored three of the top four. On the traditionally distaff singles chart, where the gender breakdown is unremarkable, the Breeders follow Tracy Chapman in 1988 and Laurie Anderson in 1981 to the top spot. Björk’s “Human Behaviour” came in second on our video ballot, following Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and “Cannonball” rode in fourth on a goofy clip codirected by better half Kim Gordon. Rap-rockers Luscious Jackson follow Lucinda Williams in 1989 as EP winners. Only on the reissue list, where Columbia’s proudly feminist Janis Joplin box finished seventh in an otherwise male field, did guys still rool.

Needless to say, skepticism is always justified when journalists crow about trends. Note that as recently as 1991, the only women to place were Bonnie Raitt, Sam Phillips, and Kirsty MacColl, and note also that this is hardly Pazz & Jop’s first Year of the Woman. We had one in 1992; we had one in 1988; we had one in 1981, when women put ten and three halves albums in the top 40; hell, we thought we had one in 1979, when 10th-place Donna Summer, now cited as an example of how critics only respect sexually assertive white women, led seven (and three halves) female artists onto our chart. And as was noted by many of our 309 respondents — a new high, as were the 68 female voters, their numbers swelled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton Memorial Poobah Ann Powers’s affirmative-action effort and H. L. Mencken Memorial Poobah Joe Levy’s insistence on declaring our deadlines a disaster area — the women on our chart are as varied as the men. (Almost, anyway — none of them is as big a creep as Dwight Yoakam, not to mention Dr. Dre.) I’ll grant you that 68th-place diva Toni Braxton and 47th-place sexpot Janet Jackson deserved more respect, that icons on the order of Sinéad and what’s-her-name were nowhere in evidence, and that we got no riot grrrls either (although Bikini Kill’s Joan Jett–produced “Rebel Girl” was tied just below chart level with seven other singles that would have toned up an already healthily non-album-dependent list). But despite all that, we cover a lot of territory; I mean, from Sade’s velvet wallpaper and Aimee Mann’s power-pop singer-songwriting to Rosanne Cash’s mainstream privatism and Jane Siberry’s eccentric privatism to Carol van Dijk’s Euroneotraditionalist lead work and Laetitia Sadier’s Euroexperimental front work to Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s people’s poetry and Cassandra Wilson’s art of improvisation seems like a lot to me. And Phair at number one, PJ Harvey at three, and the Breeders at four (plus Belly at 37) represent a sea change.

I’m not forgetting that Harvey and the all-female L7 burst upon us in a 1992 that was topped by the half-credited Arrested Development. And I’m down with the profusion of comments on the varieties of female experience. But I still think that the big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win. Sade and Mann and Siberry and Cash and Me’Shell and Wilson and van Dijk and Sadier all fit established female niches that critics appreciate. It’s not impossible to imagine a poll-topping successor to Joni’s Court and Spark emanating from a leader-plus-backup like van Dijk’s Bettie Serveert, even from a singer-songwriter who combined Siberry’s singularity with Mann’s thralldom to the hook. Not impossible — just damned hard. I believe that Blondie’s 1978 Parallel Lines was a more incandescent explosion than the poll-topping This Year’s Model, that the McGarrigles’ 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees was a tougher statement than Never Mind the Bollocks, but I wouldn’t waste time electioneering for either. I know all too well that in practice, our poll honors music that parades its mastery of meaning, and that in practice this comes down to bands, whether ad hoc creations like Paul Simon’s Graceland hirelings, De La Soul’s voice-and-tape fantasias, and Prince’s multitracked versions of his multitalented self or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like the Clash, E Street, Crazy Horse, and Nirvana — whether ad hoc studio creations like Phair and friends or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like PJ Harvey or hybrids like Belly and the Breeders.

In short, what we have here is the consummation a lot of male critics said they were waiting for — not women who could play their axes or anything stupid like that, just women who knew how to come on strong. This is basically the musical bias the Brits call rockism, a promethean schema that valorizes the artist as creative actor. From Van Morrison at 55 to Mick Jagger at 110, from Donald Fagen at 43 to John Cougar Mellencamp at 93, from Elvis Costello at 57 to Sting at 65 — hell, from John Hiatt at 38 to Billy Joe Shaver at 38 (hell and tarnation, from Kate Bush at 65 to Rickie Lee Jones at 106) — old-timers of all ages still strive proudly to fulfill this ideal. But it’s no longer the fine strapping hegemony it used to be, and not just among fad-hopping U.K. pomo-poppers. What does it mean, for instance, that three of our most aged white male finishers — Jimmie Dale Gilmore (seventh), Willie Nelson (22nd), and Bob Dylan (23rd) — devoted themselves to other people’s songs? Or that after years of traditionalist resistance, the Pet Shop Boys — whose three previous entries finished 22nd, 32nd, and 35th — should leapfrog to fifth on their poorest-selling disc? Above all, what does it mean that after years of posing atop Mount Caucasus, torch aloft and eagle at liver, U2 should finish ninth with a damn Eno album?

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For good reason, the rockist vision is often attacked as Euro, male chauvinist, and so forth — as an aestheticization of the will to dominance. Yet oddly enough, while rockism continues to define metal and fuels many of the new male country singers, two of its bulwarks these days are rap (pardon me, hip hop) and the former Amerindie subculture still sometimes labeled alternative, both of which reject or redefine virtuosity while championing their own modes of rugged mastery. As so often happens in countercultures, it’s like hippie all over again: in order to combat the ruling class, the media, the powers that be, the establishment, the man, both rappers and alternative rockers lay claim to an individualistic ethos they believe has been homogenized out of existence. Big on authenticity and creative control, they carry the rockist flag. But not without misgivings. Reluctant to cross over yet desperate to get paid, reliving African trickster and griot traditions as they act out against absent fathers, forced by the forces of censure and censorship to front about how literal they are, rappers suffer ugly doubts about their own autonomy. And the indie guys, who reject rockist ideology while embodying its aesthetic, don’t have it so simple either. They’d be confused about gender privilege even if their girlfriends didn’t hock them about it.

When Nevermind overwhelmed Billboard first and Pazz & Jop later in 1991, we all knew “alternative” was in for weird times, but except for some feminist critics, notably the Seattle-born Powers, few considered gender consequences in the year of Raitt-Phillips-MacColl. Who would have figured? Yet here we are. Say there are 12 Amerindie bands in our top 40, and nine in our top 20: Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. Since not one of these bands records for a fully independent label, this list is deeply debatable; maybe it’s wrong to exclude long-ago Twin/Tone stalwart Paul Westerberg, and I count Pearl Jam only because…I forgot. Still, bear with me. Seven of the 12 are first-time album finishers, but not one of the four male newcomers — Uncle Tupelo, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, and Smashing Pumpkins — scored with a debut album. All came up in the indie farm system, where all recorded at least two albums/EPs. A version of the Breeders that included Belly’s (then Throwing Muses’) Tanya Donelly released a Rough Trade album in 1990 and a 4AD/Elektra EP in 1992. But Liz Phair and Belly charted true debut records, which added to Digable Planets, Me’Shell, and Netherindies Bettie Serveert makes five, all showcasing women, on a chart that averages around eight — with Exile in Guyville, which predated the Atlantic deal critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper Gerard Cosloy cut for his poll-vaulting Matador label, our only genuine Amerindie album.

Nor is it just the numbers that tell me women are now the prime hope of a onetime youth culture whose length of tooth is measured by the 1986 and 1988 debuts of Overkill and the Whigs. It’s my ears. Although I didn’t resist Exile in Guyville, I did find it hard to hear through the word-of-mouth, just as Nirvana’s number-two In Utero was hard to hear through the media clamor (in my defense I’ll say that two decades ago it took me just as long to penetrate Exile on Main Street, which I promise not to mention again). When I gave myself the Christmas present of relistening in depth, however, the voters’ choices ended up my favorite new music of 1993, and Guyville started sounding like a full-fledged classic.

If you wanted to get wise, you could grouse that Guyville shares all too much with Court and Spark, but you’d be jiving. Where Joni’s winner was a produced, listener-friendly variation on the audaciously arty For the Roses, Phair’s recalls the more tentative Clouds — except that it’s realized and Clouds isn’t, proof positive that minimalism lives. Phair milks drummer-coproducer Brad Wood (who kicks things off with a perfect Bill Wyman bass hook) and multitracks with Princely panache, adding simple, self-taught, alternative guitar noises — strums and riffs rather than Nirvana/Sonic Youth noise-a-rama — where he-who-cannot-be-named would lay in a beatwise panoply. By the time I’d heard the 18 songs 18 times, I was hooked right down to the perverse slow ones — like “Canary,” which follows a minute of halting piano with a sad ditty whose mix of domestic detail and attempts at cooperative cohabitation climaxes quietly with a house on fire. Clearly, Phair wanted to prove she could do it with a band and prove she could do it without one; substitute “guy” for “band” and you’ll know why. Not only does she have another album in her, she has a career in her, one she’s canny enough to stay on top of. But at the same time she’s alternative-rockist enough to look askance at careers undertaken exclusively from behind closed doors. So her next step is to get out of the studio and start a band. Since this leader-plus-backup is unlikely to bog down in participatory democracy, I just hope Phair figures out how to generate the requisite synergy anyway, and noting that the four musicians credited on her record are fulltime citizens of Guyville, submit that a female player might shake up the dynamics.

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For I also note that of the three other women’s bands, PJ Harvey, which consists of Polly Harvey and two guys from Somerset who knew a genius when they saw one, is at once the most accomplished and the most conventional — a blues-based power trio who, like Nirvana, hired critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper, alternative ideologue, and sexist dweeb Steve Albini to guarantee the hard-edged power-as-integrity they demanded in a followup. Albini’s input was pitiless and extreme, and although the device of turning some levels so low that listeners have to choose between not hearing the record or playing it loud is what insiders call a “stupid gimmick,” I go along with the consensus that Rid of Me is realer than the 35th-place 4-Track Demos. I prefer it to Belly’s Star and the Breeders’ Last Splash, too, and not just for its passion — hybrids who recorded before they played out, Belly and the Breeders aren’t all there yet musically. Yet live, Star’s mystofemmes are postmacho masters of their own pre-Amerindie pastiche, while Last Splash is simply the most outlandish record ever to make our top five. Take as a metaphor the tumble-bumble number-one single “Cannonball,” which is either alternative’s “Horse With No Name” or the revenge of the shambolic — proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between. Unlike the Pixies or PJ Harvey, the Deal twins don’t equate guitars with virtuosity or expressive display, and if they’re too messy by me, the voters took their loose ends as proof of a righteous impulse worth loving and rewarding.

And at least Last Splash made the Dean’s List — down in the 50s, stranded in a vast expanse of nonfinishers. Where before world beat and college radio my lists often anticipated the consensus, recently their correspondence to the general wisdom has been random — my first would be the voters’ 87th, my fourth their 32nd, my ninth their eighth, my 38th their fourth. This year, however, the pattern was different. Rarely have I concurred so thoroughly on the cream — four of the voters’ top eight are in my top seven, nine of their top 17 in my top 18. But not one of the 23 records below that — and only two of a typically varied 41–50 that goes Spinanes, Henry Threadgill, Donald Fagen, Counting Crows, Björk, Mekons, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, Suede, Velvet Underground — made my year-end A list. Most of the voters’ choices were solid and smart, worthy of honor or at least mention; from Dwight Yoakam to Cassandra Wilson, I might have missed a few altogether without the P&J seal of approval. But they’re almost all by Yanks. And while the chauvinism wasn’t as unremitting as in 1992, when PJ Harvey and Morrissey were the only aliens on our chart, I find the census discouraging: the only non-Americans are Harvey, perennials U2/Sade/Pet Shop Boys, major-label freshpersons Stereolab, and Amsterdam Anglophones Bettie Serveert.

Although under the sexual circumstances I cherished hopes for 62nd-place Zap Mama, this is not a plea for “world music” — most of my African and Caribbean (and Central Asian) finds were strikingly archival. So forget Third World outreach — I would have settled for Anglophilia. Because in this particular year of the woman, I found the oblique genderfucks of the Popinjays and Saint Etienne and the self-contained dream-pop of Ireland’s Cranberries and Michigan Anglomorphs His Name Is Alive more pregnant with meaning than the arty variations on womanist expressionism served up by Mann, Siberry, and Me’Shell. When expressionism works it’s the shit. Mud-wrestling with chaos, cutting their rage with conscious grotesquery and indignant self-deprecation, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, and Greg Dulli give irony the arm without denying themselves its out. In contrast, crooner-poemwriter concrète Mark Eitzel, one-trick guitar god J Mascis, Music Row status symbol John Hiatt, recovering outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, Oprah volunteer Eddie Vedder, and Prince surrogate Terence Trent D’Arby all express too much, methinks. Yet though their moments rarely become minutes and their minutes never become hours, all have parlayed identifiable styles, discernible smarts, and reliable personas into serious Stateside reps. Meanwhile, a straight U.K. band’s gay-identified U.K. record affects a pathos so flamboyant that reasonable people can’t stand it — until the songs climb into bed with them. In Britain, Suede wins a Mercury Music Prize. In Rolling Stone, it’s “Hype of the Year.” And in Pazz & Jop, it finishes 49th — better than it might have, worse than it deserved, and at least it deflected repressed homophobia from the Pet Shop Boys.

Although the shortfall may be random, to me Suede’s showing seems emblematic of Amerindie provincialism. With its naturalization of fashion, hype, indirection, androgyny, and Jacques Brel, Brit music culture is now so far removed from America’s alternative mindset that the poor guys might as well be performing Bulgarian folk songs. But provincialism begins at home. Were I to kvetch that of the 16 votes for Suede, nine came from New York and California and only two from Middle America, Midwesterners could respond that of the 18 votes for St. Louis fiddle-and-steel band Uncle Tupelo, nine came from Middle America and only four from New York and California. So as with Suede, I’d listen a lot and get it eventually. There’s something smartly posthomespun there, though not enough — I’d like more lyrics on the order of “Name me a song that everybody knows/I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose.” On the other hand, I’m not always so sure what Suede’s songs mean either, and if a Minnesotan were to claim that our differences came down to dialect — that camp and falsetto are indigenous to one place, banjo and drawl to another — I’d have trouble mounting a convincing counterargument. As discrete monads segregate themselves into subsubcultures determined by geography and sensibility, battening down the hatches from Compton to Croatia, the fine old liberal myth about music dissolving boundaries is showing its bullshit quotient.

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As you might have guessed, it is with rap that segregation becomes most problematic, although this time it may be less characteristic of consumers than critics, with formerly tolerant white worrywarts on one side and populists and rap specialists on the other. Dr. Dre didn’t get near the victory some scaredy-cats predicted was his for the drive-by. But having fretted that gangstas were cordoning off their own market niche like the heavy metal kids of yore, I obviously never imagined that The Chronic, a late-’92 album that picked up all of 10 points last year, would finish a triple-platinum sixth in our 1993 poll. Still, Dre’s triple-platinum partner in profit Snoop Doggy Dogg was only 52nd, and the tenor of the few progangsta comments suggested considerable support in the fact-of-nature, sound-of-the-streets, and guilty-pleasure categories. And though the tough-talking Latinos of Cypress Hill were 29th, voters generally preferred the alternative: De La Soul, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Me’Shell, all whom explored jazzy beats that signified bohemia as much as they did great black music. I don’t exempt myself from this tendency — after a year of prayer and meditation, I’ve learned to loathe The Chronic. But I much prefer De La’s dislocated funk and the Digables’ hard-bop hooks to the cocktail-flavored groove of 82nd-place Guru, Me’Shell, even Quest, and would single out for praise the alternative/metal-rap of the 60th-place Judgment Night soundtrack, which attempts to suture cultural lacerations more patient-appropriately.

Dave Marsh leads off the “Gangsta Bitching” section with a typically passionate outburst that’s also typically, shall we say, overstated. The facts are these. Between 1988, when It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back announced hip hop’s rockist agenda, and 1992, when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… became our third rap winner in five years, we’ve averaged two black albums a year in the top five, three in the top 10, and 10 in the top 40. But by “black,” I mean “featuring an artist of African descent.” This makes sense to me; anyone who doesn’t think Vernon Reid or Tracy Chapman is “really” black should try and imagine saying so to their faces. Others might counter, however, that a black album can only be one that attracts a substantial black audience, which also makes sense. Then our black numbers go down, although not that much — unless you want to argue that the black audience for Prince and P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development isn’t “black enough.” These calculations do get tricky — and risk unseemly racial presumption in the bargain.

We can safely say this much, however: 1993 is the first year that there hasn’t been a black album in the top five since 1985, when Artists United Against Apartheid earned only a half. And if we can also project that this will prove an exception rather than a trend, we can nevertheless see why Marsh is so upset. Because make no mistake, bohemia is a trend, from Digable Planets and Me’Shell NdegeOcello to Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Bohemia is a function of class, a concept that in this context encompasses cultural style as much as gross income; it’s hostile to the merely popular in ways both stupid and smart. Marsh, who voted for Pearl Jam as well as Dr. Dre and has always trumpeted working-class taste and rockist expressionism over collegiate exclusivity and pomo irony, hates bohemians for reasons he would argue are fundamentally political, and even those who would beg to differ will grant that politics is hardly a specialty of this year’s boho crop. Where in 1992 we heard nonstop propaganda from John Trudell and the Disposable Heroes and heavy protest from Arrested Development, Neneh Cherry, even Sonic Youth and Leonard Cohen, 1993 never gets more ideological than Me’Shell, Digable Planets, and — jeeze — the Pet Shop Boys. For some, this leaves Dr. Dre in the symbolic position of embodying our inarticulate collective rage. I say he’s not good enough for the job. In fact, I say he’s not angry enough.

Yet however much our women pussyfoot around the four-syllable F-word, however heavy they come down on the inward, they do represent a power shift, and power shifts are what politics is about. It’s my (male) belief that the progress this shift will effect is unlikely to nudge, much less dislodge, the entrenched economic interests exploiting gangsta pathology, although it might palliate some symptoms. Nor do I expect international sisterhood to cut into an America-firstism that could get real tedious real soon. And let me note that as a longtime bohemian hanger-on, I’m appalled to witness in one year the returns of Tim Buckley (in the voice of his EP-charting son) and El Topo (a dreadful fillum revived as the dumbest video ever to top our poll). But none of the above is to suggest that Liz Phair represents anything less than a long overdue and exceptionally happy development in an exercise that teaches me something new every year. Male critics said they were waiting for it, and they were. Now they get to find out how much they like the consequences.

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Top 10 Albums of 1993

1. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador)

2. Nirvana: In Utero (DGC)

3. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (Island)

4. The Breeders: Last Splash (4AD/Elektra)

5. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI)

6. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Interscope)

7. Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra)

8. De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy)

9. U2: Zooropa (Island)

10. Digable Planets: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum)

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Top 10 Singles of 1993

1. The Breeders: “Cannonball” (4AD/Elektra)

2. (Tie) Digable Planets: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (Pendulum)
Nirvana: “Heart-Shaped Box” (DGC)

4. Dr. Dre: “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (Interscope)

5. Salt-N-Pepa: “Shoop” (Next Plateau)

6. (Tie) Radiohead: “Creep” (Capitol)
Soul Asylum: “Runaway Train” (Columbia)

8. The Juliana Hatfield Three: “My Sister” (Mammoth/Atlantic)

9. Urge Overkill: “Sister Havana” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day”/”Check Yo Self” (Priority)
Tony! Toni! Toné!: “If I Had No Loot” (Wing)

—From the March 1, 1994, 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.


Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.


Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg—who’s currently taken the name Snoop Lion—needs no introduction. Snoop’s been the man since he was first introduced to the world on Dr. Dre’s 1992 debut album The Chronic. Since then, Snoop has sold more than 30 million albums globally and boasts a 12 solo album catalog. He continues to make music with a Wiz Khalifa collab on the way, scheduled for a 2014 release. And what should you expect when seeing Snoop? Him rocking out with a blunt in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other.

Wed., July 9, 8 p.m., 2014


Roy Ayers

Roy Ayers is one of those musicians’ musicans who inspired Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Dr. Dre, but also has equal respect from jazz luminaries such as Robert Glasper, Christian McBride, and Stefon Harris. The 73 year-old godfather of jazz-funk and composer behind ’70s hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” still rocks the vibraphone as he continues to represent the common lineage between jazz, r&b, and hip-hop. Ayers makes as much sense at S.O.B.’s as he does at the Blue Note, where he has also played. Similarly, his music is as likely to turn up on the soundtrack for The Pink Panther as it is in 8 Mile

Wed., Nov. 20, 9 p.m., 2013


Arctic Monkeys

A four-piece rock band born out of a suburb of Sheffield, England in 2002, Arctic Monkeys enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in 2005, when the then-teens tossed out free EPs to draw a fan base. Although generally considered part post-punk revival, the band has tweaked their sound each album, beefing up with heavy-handed drumming and frantic riff-heavy songs, while maintaining the quick-quipped lyrics and chunky bass lines that made them famous. Their newest album, AM, contains strange citations of hip-hop, so expect some back vocal falsettos and Dr. Dre beats atop all the swaggering balladry and muscular guitar work.

Mon., Sept. 16, 8:30 p.m., 2013


The Graying of Hip-Hop

Andre Young is 48 years old. Gary Grice is 46, and Shawn Carter? Forty-three. O’Shea Jackson is 44 and Tariq Trotter is 41. Nasir Jones can boast that he’s still in his 30s, but whatever pleasure he gathers from that ends September 14. Dr. Dre, Gza, Jay Z, Ice Cube, Black Thought, and Nas aren’t the only rappers pushing through midlife, but they represent what is a unique situation for hip-hop: Its best are getting old.

Is this a good or bad thing? The early signs aren’t too comforting.

Magna Carta … Holy Grail—Jay’s 12th album—felt aged before it was even released. The Samsung ad featuring Rick Rubin, Jay, Timbaland, and others was intended to get hip-hop fans excited about the return of an icon. Instead it was mostly embarrassing. Here were several titans of industry, playing make-believe and spouting clichés. Jay said that MCHG was going to “change the rules,” that the album was about “this duality of how do you navigate through this whole thing, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself.” Timbaland bobbed his head, and Rubin relaxed barefoot on a leather couch. My takeaway from the spot was not that Jay was about to unleash another classic, but that he was trying way too hard. And Rubin had remarkably pedicured toes.

While MCHG was innovative in its release, it didn’t go well. People complained the app required too much personal information from its users. Others said it didn’t deliver the album on time. It was more embarrassment, another sign that Jay was attempting to bathe in the fountain of youth, but was instead getting dunked. Critics panned MCHG for being repetitive. Jay was still rapping about how great he was and—though he did mix in sporadic thoughts on religion and fatherhood—the album only reinforced the notion that Jay hasn’t been worth listening to since 2003’s The Black Album.

Jay’s peers are also experiencing this inevitable problem called aging. Though Nas deserves credit for his mature material on Life Is Good, most wondered how good life really was, considering he felt it necessary to feature his ex-wife’s wedding dress on the cover. Dre’s Detox continues to be more urban legend than anything else. In 2001, Scott Storch proclaimed that Detox would be “the most advanced rap album ever,” but Dre is almost 50 now, and after countless delays, the fear that it’s destined to become hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy—poorly executed and not nearly worth the wait—is growing. Not much is expected from Ice Cube, either. In fact, his fans don’t even want another album; they just want him to stop participating in Coors Light commercials.

This midlife crisis is understandable. Rap, more than any other musical genre, is obsessed with youth. It is the music of the young and strong, not the old and frail. If you’re more concerned with locking down your 401(k) than your block, you’re on the outside looking in. This is what’s happening with the icons of the ’90s. Their lives are different now. They have kids. They are wealthy. They have moved beyond what concerned them in their youth, yet those same subjects remain core to hip-hop—declarations of power and outright bragging are what fans expect to hear.

“For a music that pulls from the specific energy of not just youth, but young maledom, [getting older] makes it a little hard,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and hip-hop fan. “It’s especially hard for the over-35 person who used to be a big fan. The artists that should be your peers are clearly still talking to 16-year-olds.”

So what, exactly, are the elder statesmen of hip-hop supposed to do? There appear to be two choices: quit, or change the material. Ending their careers would be the safer route. No one will miss the same old songs of days gone by, and the rapper would preserve his or her legacy.

The idea of an icon of rap changing content may, at first blush, sound ridiculous—no one wants Jadakiss to start rapping about Lay-Z-Boys. But with time comes experience, and since these guys are, at day’s end, gifted storytellers, age could bring an abundance of rich material to their repertoire. By changing it up, they could change the game.

DMX—if he can get himself together—could certainly produce some stirring insight into the uncomfortable realization that people’s worst enemies often lie within. There are definitely people out there who would love for Lauryn Hill to explain what she has been through since the late ’90s. Nas and Jay could both fill volumes exploring the complexities of fatherhood.

By accepting the reality that they are older, these MCs could alter rap forever. Rapping about raising kids might make them seem soft, but at 40 years old, you are soft. As for the theory that this type of material wouldn’t sell, most of these rappers have already solidified their place in history—why not take a chance?

The longer the icons of the golden era of rap wait to make their decision, the more pronounced their advanced age becomes. However, if they decide to lead a change, hip-hop will follow. Rap has never been a game for the easily intimidated—perhaps Father Time just needs to be reminded of that.


Pazz & Jop: Kendrick Lamar, Finally Compton’s Most Wanted

Good kid, m.A.A.d city opens with absolution and ends with ascension—in between is a trench of thirsty purgatory. Fade in: Compton, 2005, a Gehenna of redeemers and ratchets, robbers and rabid cops. Our star is a confused teen torn between blood red, marine blue, and waving the white flag.

Subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” the Compton rapper’s Interscope debut chronicles a day in the life of 10th-grade Lamar. The narrative is tight, the characters are vivid, and it’s executive-produced by the George Lucas of G-Funk, Dr. Dre.

There are Black & Milds and Young Jeezy CDs, inner-city intersections and burger stands haunted by the dead. Lamar re-creates the pistol-smoke-poignancy of classic L.A. hood movies, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Colors. “Poetic Justice” steals its moniker from a Janet Jackson vehicle in which Tupac played Lucky the mailman. Lamar’s parents bicker like Craig’s parents in Friday. Its nonlinear story line appropriates Pulp Fiction. The compression and deception comes straight out of Training Day.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city also implicitly echoes the vérité actors and anomie of neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves. Its plot of a callow kid surrounded by lust, dope, and bullies is reminiscent of Dazed and Confused. And the gap in time between the falling action and denouement feels like There Will Be Blood—especially because there actually is blood.

By the penultimate song, “Real,” Lamar has divined his spiritual epiphany. A slain friend commands him to tell his story. There are evangelical overtones and a message from his father that “real is responsibility . . . [and] taking care of your motherfucking family. . . . Real is God.” His mother tells him to take music seriously and to “come back a man . . . to tell a story to the black and brown kids of Compton.”

When final track “Compton” rolls around, it flashes forward to the present. Lamar is critically and commercially inviolate—the young king of the West Coast, flanked by Dr. Dre and 10 bottles of Rozay. It’s a victory lap in a new Porsche, not a jittery ride in a station wagon. We never learn the details of his rise—the album’s dazzling spell is evidence enough of the levitation. It finished at or near the top of every year-end poll and has sold 500,000-plus copies since its October release with only one single in the Billboard Top 40.

If you merely tuned into the latest “true story told by Kendrick Lamar on Rosecrans,” you might mistake him for an Athena who emerged out of his own head fully formed and well armed. The reality is more Malcolm Gladwell: 10,000 hours of backseat freestyles, discarded style experiments, and intermittently memorable music.

The greater rap world first homed in on 2011’s Section.80, a generational manifesto for Reagan babies bred into an out-of-focus idiocracy of drug abuse and dumb separatism. The underground was first struck by his darts on the previous year’s O.verly D.edicated, which lacked the musicality and hooks of its successors but proved that Lamar was the rawest rapper in the west. Even then, this was a half-decade after the action of good kid, when his music first reached Top Dawg Entertainment shot caller Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith.

During the hind years of the last decade, Lamar found his voice through apprenticeship, imitation, and all-night studio sessions. He first earned attention as the sidekick of Jay Rock, the blood-affiliated Watts rapper signed to Warner Bros. via TDE. With traditional West Coast gangsta rap firing off its last rounds, Rock had “next” reserved but never heard his name called. Before the WB pact, rumors spread that Rock and Lamar (then called K. Dot) were in talks with Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella. Lamar was even said to be landing ghostwriting gigs for superstars before he could legally drink (or not drink) Patrón.

His first official mixtape, 2007’s Training Day, takes its leitmotif from Denzel Washington’s crooked cop tale, but bites beats, cadences, and vocal tics from Jay-Z. Lamar acknowledges the rumors that he’s “fucking with Sean” and even once says “Hov.” The record simultaneously reveals Lamar’s backpack past, beholden to the late-’90s/early ’00s underground: two Dilla requiems, a freestyle over a Talib Kweli beat, and another flipping Kanye West’s “Grammy Family.”

His sophomore free release, 2009’s C4, made the homage overt. It’s essentially a Lil Wayne tribute tape down to the goblin voices and giggles. One song is unironically called “Bitch I’m in the Club.” There’s also a Wu-Tang doxology over the beat for the Clan’s “Tearz.” The first song I ever heard from Lamar was recorded around this time. It was a paean to Kurupt called “Kurupted.” The unrefined skill is obvious, but it was unclear if he’d ever synthesize his idols.

What eventually happened was similar to the Beatles playing speed-fueled Buddy Holly covers in Hamburg—inspiration through prolonged imitation. Lamar also discarded the inherited logic that the paperless rapping of Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. was somehow superior to the pad and pen. The leap occurred shortly after 2010’s Kendrick Lamar EP, when the former K.Dot switched to his birth name and started clashing with the sipping, smoking, and shooting tropes of West Coast gangsta rap.

You can’t ignore the impact of the Top Dawg brass. Rather than prematurely sign to a major label, Lamar’s talent was incubated alongside an in-house team of engineers, producers, management, and other gifted rappers. When Dre finally arrived, it was to teach a postdoctoral course. Lamar was neither the offspring of blog hype nor a gimmicky video. He was unabashedly sincere and post-regional, but obviously rooted in the bloody soil of Compton.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city wears its influences proudly. There are references to E-40, Ice Cube, Uncle Luke, and Houston anthem “25 Lighters.” Avatars from the ’90s like Dr. Dre and MC Eiht appear. So does Lil Wayne, if only in the spirit of Lamar’s wordplay and Silly Putty voice. His introspection and war with his conscience recalls Eminem, and he occasionally flexes a DMX growl. The narrative intricacy channels Jay-Z, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., and Slick Rick (via Snoop Dogg). Lamar boasts an aesthetic and slant toward spirituality similar to the early Dungeon Family records. Above all, his ability to induce tears and articulate the totality of the struggle reflects what he absorbed from Tupac. Of course, there are the aforementioned movies.

But good kid, m.A.A.d city supplies its own philosophy of sin and salvation. The script and sound are original—new testament to the immutability of old ideas. It is Compton scared straight.


Schoolboy Q

Still establishing his voice three mixtapes in—is he a moralist, a hedonist, or a knowing parodist of both?—L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q is a compelling presence nonetheless. There’s a loping, quietly hysterical quality to the storytelling on Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions, as if the rapper is constantly struggling to gauge his own levels of credulity and commitment to hip-hop itself. Pal Kendrick Lamar may have a Dr. Dre co-sign to flaunt, but we’ll take Q’s half-blazed rope-a-dopes.

Wed., April 11, 9 p.m., 2012


Joell Ortiz vs. Gentrification

Joell Ortiz saw gentrification engulf Greenpoint from the vantage of the Cooper Park housing projects. As the new millennium began, the 31-year-old rapper noticed the first changes sprouting up with “a little condominium here, a loft setup there.” Before the influx of high-income housing, his section of Brooklyn suffered from a domino-effect blight: “My area was really drug-infested ’cause across from us was a shelter with a lot of drug addicts—the drugs bring the money, and the money leads to violence.” But not these days. “Now, it’s ridiculous. They brought in the hipsters, brought in the yuppies, and built up the big condos that no one in my ‘hood can afford.”

He’s describing a phenomenon common to many areas of Brooklyn, but he could just as easily be talking about hip-hop. With a new album, Free Agent, on the horizon, Ortiz is at the forefront of a generation of New York rappers who have seen the music gentrify around them, their gritty rhymes and no-gimmicks personas pushed out by slick-talking Southerners with no qualms about taking over turf that was once the birthright of Big Apple rappers alone. As he puts it, “I’m part of this little project of raw hip-hop surrounded by so much happy pop shit—like three-bedroom condos all around us.”

Make no mistake: Hip-hop is New York’s music. Time was that simply hailing from the five boroughs brought both bragging rights and an audience at any major record label. New York was the place where an aspiring artist had to prove their talent—critically, commercially, and on the live stage. At our ’90s peak, artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, pre-Kelis-era Nas, and adopted New Yorkers Gang Starr reigned supreme with a blueprint of scrupulously composed lyrics, soul- and jazz-derived beats, and a pretext that rappers were reporting from the slums. It’s a formula often regarded as “purist” and antiquated these days. But, as Ortiz testifies, “Back then, you had to be nice. You couldn’t just get by with a catchy chorus and something to fill up the gaps in between.”

Not any more. Today’s biggest hip-hop artists hail from down South: Giants like T.I., Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne may tackle the same street-level subjects that Ortiz dealt with growing up in Greenpoint, but when T.I. spits about dope boys, he does so over production that’s cannily palatable to daytime pop radio, suitable for sweet-16 parties, and unafraid of hinging things on a hummable chorus. (It’s to Jay-Z’s credit that he’s one of the rare New Yorkers who’ve managed to stay abreast of rap’s sonic shifts.) Labels don’t want to market an MC standing around in utilitarian Timberlands and Carhartt clothing—they want Wale in expensive, tight brand-name pants. “Rough, rugged, and raw” no longer earns a badge of authenticity—labels are looking for clean-cut kids like Drake, a rapping Dawson’s Creek character if ever there was one. It leaves classical New York rappers like Ortiz, intent on staying true to their regional roots, left out in the commercial cold. Dollar cups of coffee from the corner bodega have been replaced by $4 cafe lattes, if you will, all served to a soundtrack of Jeezy and Weezy.

Ortiz is aware of the changed arena he’s fighting in. Now living on a calm, residential Bushwick block, he’s open to admitting that his brand of hip-hop is far from fashionable. He favors a style of rap that’s abrasive and uncut and sounds best over production that cribs from the same well of sample sources his ’90s New York contemporaries plundered. Done right, it’s a ferocious but uncompromising blend, as exemplified by the DJ Premier–produced “Project Boy,” a Free Agent track he comically recorded in a three-piece-suit while en route to a “formal function.” Over a beat that sounds like it’s based on the theme from a low-budget ’70s spy flick, Ortiz paints an uncouth environmental picture filled with “crack heads [that] smoke anything that can fit in that stem/And little girls do grown men just to sit in that Benz.” Then, as if condensing his whole mentality, he vows, “What y’all spit’s sugar-coated—I be spitting that phlegm.” (In a similar vein, in Ortiz’s hands, Lloyd Banks’s “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley” became the economical “Nissan, Honda, Chevy.”) Asked whether he’d have been a better fit 15 years ago, he smiles broadly, leans back on his couch, and proclaims, “If I was making music back then, this interview would be going on in my mansion! I’m pretty sure it would have been a lot easier then.”

But he’s not bitter. He has had his dalliance with the top echelons of the music-industry machine, and it didn’t work out. The buzz Ortiz created with his 2007 debut The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, earned him a chance to sign with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label—he did, only to sit on the shelf after being told that a new Eminem album and Dre’s chimerical Detox pre-empted him on the release schedule. (A track titled “What’s Your World,” originally scheduled for Free Agent, caught Dre’s ear and has been earmarked for Detox.) He was officially released at the start of 2008—a move that prompted the title of his new album, which will be released on E1 Music.

Looking back on his gamble with Dre, Ortiz reasons, “How could anyone not take that chance? I wanted to be alongside Eminem and 50 Cent, and get pointers on how to do records and get better as a rapper.” The experience only fortified his belief in standing firm with his core hometown values—the very traits that attracted others to hip-hop in the first place. He predicts that Free Agent will be better received than his debut, but guarantees that it won’t come with any gimmicks. He won’t, as he jokes, bend to his label’s marketing department and come out “50 pounds lighter with a six-pack.” After all, he was here first, and he’s confident in his heritage: “The thing is, I want to get a condo just like everyone else, but I’m not gonna change who I am to get there,” he says. “And when I do get there, my apartment will still feel like the projects inside. I won’t be going out and ordering a gourmet salad—I’ll still be getting chicken wings and french fries.”


Eminem’s Comeback Neither Shocks Nor Amuses

First, let’s talk about what he did. Marshall Mathers once wrote a song called “Kim,” about killing his wife, and a lot of people got understandably worried: What’s the big idea here? Should our children be listening to this? Isn’t this guy just filling their heads with misogynist rage and passing it off as a joke?, etc. More sympathetic listeners used words like “storyteller” and “depiction” and “uncompromising” to try and explain to people who’d read Kant why they were so fond of a homicidal trailer-park rapper, and the whole thing was exactly the kind of ideological traffic jam that had become Eminem’s métier. On the subsequent State of the Post-Eminem Union masterpiece “White America,” he bragged about “creating so much motherfucking turbulence.”

But back to “Kim” real quick: Driving his wife out to the woods to stab her, Eminem was fearful and panicked, freaking out about someone driving in the other lane, scaring his victim with a frantic bark every time he felt small. It was hard to listen to this song and not be wrapped up, shaking, in a blanket by the end. It was a song about male rage, but it wasn’t some sanctimonious depiction—it was specifically about Marshall Mathers’s male rage and also, maybe, yours. With which you were now forced to engage. Eminem would not let you trust yourself—like the best essayists (like Socrates!), he sowed doubt.

Or maybe I’m just making shit up. Because Relapse, his first proper album in five years, couldn’t pull the rug out from under you if you left the room.

It was always going to be difficult. So much of Eminem’s work relied on his interplay with a rapt public—his innumerable celebrity disses worked because Marshall Mathers was a celebrity himself, a Loki in Valhalla. Now, Relapse is a dank echo chamber wherein he continues his “shock tactics” in pointless isolation. He has nothing to push against and no one to play with. Em slices up some hitchhikers and actresses—which, like, OMG—but it’s rote teenage cruelty: It can’t even summon the old, uncomfortable laughter. When he insists on “Medicine Ball” that “it’s time for you to hate me again” amid Silence of the Lambs references, it sounds like he’s pleading.

“Medicine Ball,” by the way, proceeds atop an exhausted boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beat, which sounds a lot like Relapse‘s other boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beats. With a handful of exceptions, Eminem has never bothered with samples, and his beats, whether homemade or solicited, have usually been simple, afraid of camouflaging the words. Which was fine, because this guy had a knack for internal rhyme so inventive that beneath sequences like “Mammals/Cannibals/Cantaloupes/Dead animals/Antelopes/Man and/Can’t elope,” anything more assuming might have seemed selfish. Now, though, infrequent sonic candies like the yelping horns of “My Mom” (which contains some of Em’s better lines) or the titular loop of “Bagpipes From Baghdad” (which doesn’t) are buoys amid a monotonous sea of what are basically Insane Clown Posse lyrics.

There’s an airless misery to this album. No more disorientation. Now, you know exactly what’s going on: You’re sitting in a cold little room listening to Dr. Dre clap every few seconds while a jumpy 14-year-old reads you the protected entries from his Xanga. (That’s kinduva dated reference, but judging by the celebrities he offs here—Lindsay Lohan! Britney Spears!—Eminem would approve.) Then there’s a nasty little irony: Several songs describe a ravaged childhood with such hysteria—Em’s never liked his mom, but, unless I’m missing some mixtape somewhere, this is the first time his stepfather has sodomized him with her blessing—that they seem to be begging for sympathy, a commodity Eminem’s never cared about before, and which he fails here to manipulate in any unexpected or interesting way. And Relapse is the first time he hasn’t earned any.