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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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Jill Scott+Luke James

Jill Scott’s music is generous and contains multitudes: scorching brushfires of soul tracks with the Roots and (in her best spot this decade) Eve, plus 13 years’ worth of post-r&b flecked with spoken word and inhabited by one of the genre’s warmest voices. She’ll be at Radio City Music Hall this New Year’s, promising emotions that transcend the season’s glitz. Opening are Danja protégé and Beyoncé-beloved Luke James (song to look up: underrated r&b edifice “I Want You”) and Gang Starr mastermind DJ Premier.

Tue., Dec. 31, 9 p.m., 2013

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New Year’s Eve Concert Guide

 

DIIV

 

South Williamsburg’s latest crowning achievement, Baby’s All Right, the sort of fun, unpretentious bar/restaurant/concert venue that the neighborhood deserves, is hosting a party filled to the brim with recently popular and consistently good dream-pop and rock acts — DIIV, Perfect Pussy, Potty Mouth, and Nothing — to ring in 2014 in the noisiest way imaginable. Recommended if you’re not afraid to get rowdy. At 7:45, Baby’s All Right, 146 Broadway, Brooklyn, facebook.com/babysallright, $35–$40 MARIA SHERMAN

 

Jill Scott

 

Jill Scott‘s music is generous and contains multitudes: scorching brushfires of soul tracks with the Roots and (in her best spot this decade) Eve, plus 13 years’ worth of post-r&b flecked with spoken word and inhabited by one of the genre’s warmest voices. She’ll be at Radio City Music Hall this New Year’s, promising emotions that transcend the season’s glitz. Opening are Danja protégé and Beyoncé-beloved Luke James (song to look up: underrated r&b edifice “I Want You”) and Gang Starr mastermind DJ Premier. At 9, Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, 212-247-4777, radiocity.com, $70–$255 KATHERINE ST. ASAPH

 

Mykki Blanco

 

Mykki Blanco recently posted the Facebook status update, “I’m over gender. I’m into species,” and paired it with an Apple Store selfie of the rapper looking like a silver-haired elfin space magistrate. Accordingly, La Blanca has assembled a merry band of cosmic mutants for a New Year’s bash at the Gramercy Theater: Expect post-sexual singer Ian Isiah’s cyborg r&b, juke wizard DJ Rashad’s Chicago futurism, Junglepussy and Princess Nokia’s tentacled raps, and intergalactic ferocity from DJ Larry B, T.E.A.M.S., Boychild, and Michael Magnan. At 8, Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23rd Street, 212-614-6932, thegramercytheatre.com, $30 ALEXIS STEPHENS

 

The Bad Plus

 

There has always been a dollop of ceremony in the esteemed trio the Bad Plus‘s rerouted pop tunes and noble-nasty originals, so when they spend New Year’s Eve at our most venerable jazz club, there’s some version of extraordinary in the air. Plus, they’re smitten with surprise, and it’s always nice to feel that anything can happen on the cusp of a new 3-6-5. At 9:30, Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, villagevanguard.com, $150 JIM MACNIE

 

Andrew W.K.

 

An Andrew W.K. show is less concert than purification ritual. The band is hairy and huge in sound, its frontman a case of Red Bull distilled into sneakers, denim, and a tight white T-shirt. Tunes like “Party Hard,” “Long Live the Party,” and “Party Til You Puke” are moronically marvelous. (He also sings about girls, cars, and getting high, but with somewhat less gusto.) And for New Year’s Eve? Imagine a party going to a party. At 8, Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, irvingplaza.com, $40 RICHARD GEHR

 

Antibalas

 

Since forming in 1998, a year after the death of Nigerian afrobeat creator Fela Kuti, Brooklyn-based 12-piece Antibalas has built on the sound’s elastic formal perfection, polyphonic pleasures, horn-heavy arrangements, and rabble-rousing lyrics. Having worshipped at Fela’s musical temple in Lagos, singer Sifu Amayo is a charismatic conduit of deep Yoruban soul and spirit. And as longtime members of the Daptone stable, Antibalas definitely know how to throw a party. At 8, 10, and 12:30, S.O.B.’s, 204 Varick Street, 212-243-2940, sobs.com, $40–$160 RICHARD GEHR

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The Secret of Joy

Faith Evans obviously spent a lot of time with Jill Scott’s debut. No crime in that; we all did. And for good reason: Scott gave the genre of the urban woman’s confessional in song—the blues by any other name—license to wax poetic, spin prolix narrative recitative, and elasticize melody like Bird and Sarah Vaughan were in the house. If Mary J. Blige brought the sound of pain and suffering back into the mix, Scott displayed how much introspection and harmony that wail could contain. Her raising of r&b’s art bar undoubtedly helped Evans aim high, making The First Lady her tightest set yet—song for song, production is crisp, ingenious, and bumping; lyrics meet the Chaka Khan criteria in communicating a complete thought; and Evans, often mistaken for a Blige without pitch issues, owns her emotions and isn’t afraid to paint romantic pictures of them that leave pathos for the tabloids.

While her well-known backstory as Biggie’s widow could have made for more melodrama, Evans brings ebullience and the secret of joy instead. The world expects Black women to carry tragedy like it wasn’t nothing but a spare tire, to come out swinging and shining when it’s raining inside, but Evans doesn’t sound like she’s pretending for the public. There’s a bodacious lilt and effervescence to her vocals that suggest her life off-mic is better than ever. Mad kudos to the producers, especially the unknown-to-me pair of Ivan Orthodox Barias and Carvin Rassum Higgins—we’re loving all the old-school changes and funkdafied ear candy, fellas. Plus the steel-pan air that makes you want to whirl about the room like Fred and Ginger on “Jealous,” the Andy Summers-ish guitar that supports “Ever Wonder,” and the duet with additional producer Mario Winans all give up rock attitude without the faux-rock bombast common to these fusions.

The Scott influence is strongest on “Catching Feelings” and “Get Over You,” where songbird Evans floats heart-wrenched, goose-bumped feelings on resilient gossamer wings. For the born-again there’s the closing “Hope,” strangely credited Twista Featuring Faith—until you hear motormouth come out the box from the giddyup, spitting a bevy of mile-a-minute verses about God and the ghetto while Evans supplies the gorgeous, uplifting hook. Weakest is the Pharrell-produced opener, “Goin’ Out”—more video concept than tune and surely meant to display how 30-pounds-lighter Evans is ready to compete in our telegenic, bootylicious Blackpop world, where body-by-Beyoncé currently trumps jazzing-like-Jill.

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Scenography and Sisterwit

Cinematographer Arthur Jafa once wrote that racism had so diminished black men’s humanity that making a movie in which a brotha simply utters the word “sorbet” would be an intervention. I suspect North Philly soul songstress Jill Scott, who sprinkles her sophomore studio album with terminology like “glutinous” and “polyurethane,” has been making a similar intervention on behalf of the sistas. Her 2000 debut, Who Is Jill Scott: Words and Music Vol. 1, upped neo-soul’s ante by discarding Badu’s cosmic aloofness for round-the-corner sisterwit, all the while expanding on Kedar Massenburg’s template for slick boho marketing. While towers fell and oil wars waged, Scott laid low, surfacing only to placate the soul babies with a 2002 live album, Experience: Jill Scott 826, that served no real purpose but to prove what we already knew—the girl ain’t no studio concoction—and to jump the broom in 2003 with longtime beau Lyzel Williams.

While black women continue to find chart success by dippin’ it low, Scott conjures up more introspective and literary worlds. I’ve always maintained that her scenographic detail and narrative economy put her in a league with a songsmith like Suzanne Vega, and anyone wanting proof should check out her slice-of-life ode to kinship (and the O’Jays), “Family Reunion”: “Niecie made her famous potato salad/Somehow it turns out green/Maybe it’s all the scallions/Could be the celery.” On “Rahsool,” a morality tale about urban violence, Scott spares no detail in describing her title character, down to his “bubble goose” jacket and “car’mel complected” skin. Two things prevent her music from becoming cerebral, however: the immediacy of her big-band projection, equal parts Shirley Bassey (minus the vinegary camp) and Minnie Riperton (minus the dog whistles), and her willingness to ground her sensibilities in the everyday honesty of the blues.

Her musical collaborators are mostly the usual Philly suspects (the Roots’ James Poyser, A Touch of Jazz) bearing the expected jazz-hop grooves. But there are fewer hooks to go around this time; the soundscapes are more chilled-out, ambient even. Since D’Angelo, neo-soul metronomes have been locked to the draggy PCP-inspired funk tempos for which Sly holds the patent 30 years later, and like her peers, Scott would benefit from shapelier, upbeat grooves. Beautifully Human offers little follow-up on the jolting thrill of her 2002 single “Gimme,” a refreshingly adventurous ’80s synth-funk throwback. One of the few tracks that fire her up here is “Golden,” a minor-chord disco thumper so exuberantly jazzy you half expect Masters at Work and Roy Ayers to take cameos. Between albums, some of Scott’s most compelling releases have been the handiwork of house remixers like Jay J Hernandez and Chris Lum, whose skills at digital compression transformed slow jams like “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” and “A Long Walk” into inspirational dancefloor anthems. (Strange that it’s now DJs who remind us that soul is a feeling, not a tempo.)

But if Beautifully Human runs low on adrenaline, it’s no less significant an achievement—and no less marketable in the long run. No one has a more sophisticated take on the retro-soul favored by folks relegated to getting their Black Love fixes from Arabesque novels and UPN-9 sitcoms. Downy ballads like “The Fact (I Need You)” reaffirm how artfully Scott’s wry intellect elevates simple moments of intimacy—like taking a romantic long walk—to thought-provoking gravitas, more Richard Linklater than Terry McMillan.

The publicity machines tell us that partner Lyzel inspires her songwriting, and it’s his present-absence in the music that renders her matrimonial bliss less cloying and more abstract than that of such hubby-and-wife teams as Ashford & Simpson, Kenny Lattimore & Chante Moore, and Kindred the Family Soul. Beautifully Human isn’t quite the conceptual masterpiece it strives to be: Too often, the music falls short of Scott’s lyrical brilliance. It’s a sure bet, though, over the next Will Smith & Jada Pinkett single.

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Urban Organics

“Irresistible: class with an edge,” Matthew Cooke of Amazon.com writes in a Best of 2000 Editor’s Pick for St. Germain’s Tourist, and if that makes him a yuppie, at least he’s honest. Class with an edge: alive and off-center but nary a foul breath. The hook is the illusion of the organic, the projection of a kindred interiority into crass environments. The forms change, so where Muddy Waters donned overalls in the 1960s while touring Britain, Johnny Cash sings Nick Cave and Will Oldham songs for his supper in 2000. But I’m interested here in music a shade more cappuccino-friendly. St. Germain is NPR techno, ideal for L.A.’s Morning Becomes Eclectic show on KCRW. David Gray is a Celtic wannabe with a claim to the earnest half of the Dave Matthews set. Jill Scott pins a Roots badge on her decorous soul. All three are small-scale critical and commercial hits. See, you teen-pop and rap-rock skeptics? Quality can too sell, especially when packaged as such.

The gimmick with Tourist, the second album by Ludovic Navarre, is that every song is an excursion into a different African-diaspora genre: jazz, Caribbean, r&b, Latin jazz, blues, house, dub, funk, and wherever you slot the unfortunate “So Flute.” But the CD sounds of a piece, too, a compound of samples and live Parisian musicians composed enough, in both a jazz and a club sense, to make Blue Note’s first excursion into this domain, US3, seem like schlock. It’s music for people whose beyond-postmodern convolutions now demand the auteurist inauthentic—background textures with a persuasive sense of design rather than trashiness or rainforest ambience. This predisposition used to be called Quango, but where that label’s compilers culled widely to achieve the effect, Navarre pulls it off virtually solo. True, when he needs a little vivacity he samples John Lee Hooker or Blue Note vocalist Marlena Shaw, or hires Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. But the nut is that St. Germain provide an individualized sense of order and care without demanding to be heard as personal expression.

It’s possible to call David Gray’s music a natural refinement of Everything but the Girl’s club-informed song-pop, but just as arguable that he’s working changes on stuff like Bruce Hornsby’s eternally bland “The Way It Is.” Gray, a singer-songwriter whose romanticism led him from Manchester to Wales, recorded White Ladder on his own shilling back in 1998, emphasizing stripped-down arrangements featuring the cool, jittery pulsations of his partner McLune on drums and bass. The album charted first in Ireland, then in Britain, and now gradually in the U.S. on his touring sponsor Dave Matthews’s ATO label. And deservedly so: “Please Forgive Me” is a fetching love song with Dylanesque chord changes, “Babylon” a poignant monster chorus, “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” the Van Morrison-tinged pastoralization of a Soft Cell original. Gray’s voice is pure comfort food as he warbles, “It takes a lotta love these days to keep your heart from freezing/To keep your spirit free.” White Ladder is spare and elegant, but at its core it’s an emotional massage for corporate mushbrains who’d unwind to Dan Fogelberg if their need for social differentiation didn’t push them to keep Travis on display.

The charm of Jill Scott is that she’s bourgie and boho in equal proportions: Listen to how she turns cleaning her house into the sensual act of an Isadora Duncan in “The Way.” The thank-you list in the credits includes her eighth-grade English teacher and the Canadian cast of Rent. As a singer, she’s a self-conscious poet, setting lovelorn scenarios in a world where you listen to hip-hop coming home from the theater or symphony. (Why not? Don’t you?) When she hones this sensibility into a playful lyric, the results can be as bravura as anything released this year, like “Exclusively,” where she rolls out of bed after sex, and the woman at the grocery store clucks at her purchases and IDs the man she’s about to make breakfast for by smell. Or “Love Rain,” in which a cad picks her up talking Mumia, reparations, and vintage sneakers.

Scott, a Philadelphia native, got noticed when she wrote “You Got Me,” the Roots hit sung by Erykah Badu. She’s not as innately bizarre as Badu—Scott’s pose seems more stylized, like she’s itemizing her credentials—and the grooves her producers have come up with don’t cut as deep as Badu’s latest. More variety along the lines of the algebraic flamenco-funk “One is the Magic #” would have kept sequences like “He Loves Me” and “It’s Love” from bogging down. But Scott is canny. She speaks and sings her lyrics, knows how to hit every word like it’s capitalized one moment, then croon wordless passion; she segues from biblical citation to pulling out her earrings and going off in a rival’s face. This year, she’s the class of the classy.

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Music

Love Jones



Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. Regrettably, he did not live to witness neosoul singer and spoken-word artist Jill Scott follow hip-hop crew the Spooks on a bill that also featured cerebral MC Common. Scott gave the SRO Hammerstein crowd a guided tour through her love suite: romantic (“It’s Love”), unrequited (“Love Rain”), and every sentiment in between. Her instrument was equal parts operatic and sotto voce, with shadings of Phyllis Hyman and Pirates-era Rickie Lee Jones. Ironically, Scott’s debut disc, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, sometimes sounds like decaffeinated jazz and merely hints at her gorgonizing live performances.

Common suffers from the obverse—his scintillating wordplay is best experienced on CD, though 60 Minutes commentator Ed Bradley strummed an air guitar next to me and swore, “Common speaks to me, and I’m 59.” Reverential, Common took the audience on an odyssey—matching outfits included—through JB’s soul, Parliament’s funk, and hip-hop’s preschool. But on joints like “Cold Blooded,” Common and his band vied for preeminence, and negated one another. And even as he dropped his underground anthem, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” all I wondered was: Is this crowd really downwind of the wisdom he’s spitting? The Roots’ ?uestlove executive-produced Common’s latest CD, Like Water For Chocolate; you might think Common’s reading magic realist novels. But ever the Big Punster, Common’s water comes from a fountain and the chocolate is his people: Can you say segregation?

With Jill performing, this could have been a largely Illadelphia evening, but they added Brooklyn’s Spooks, who were inaudible and ungainly. Aside from their side-splitting Jeffersons parody and cherubic-voiced singer, they could have sat by, or taken tickets at, the door. —David Mills


Misreading Mapped

Anyone who uses “truth” and “deconstruction” in the same breath must be making some kind of joke. A French school of thought imported to American English departments in the 1970s, deconstruction supplanted concepts like “truth” with “signifiers” and “signs.” Yet when a festival called “The Truths of Deconstruction” opened last Thursday at Tonic, not only were there no signs of such truths (or truths of such signs), there wasn’t even a palpable punchline. Founding doyen Jacques Derrida certainly could have provided one. He was a block away, lecturing at the Orensanz Foundation, before the show began, but he never made it to the club, where John Zorn’s Cobra opened a “Derrida Special,” premiering a piece titled “Cobra + n (aural-oral deconstruction).”

Deconstruction was never intended as a way of doing music (or poetry or anything else), but as a method for critiquing it; the word has become shorthand for everything from “destroy” and “read closely” to, in Zorn’s case, play as loudly and discordantly as possible, with trombone wah-wahs, Rush-like drumrolls, and Marc Ribot’s guitar-god histrionics. It’s hard to know what’s being deconstructed, though. It wouldn’t be very deconstructionist of Zorn to claim there is a stable category of music itself, would it?

The most successful musical deconstructions have never been labeled as such: Charlie Parker transfiguring “How High the Moon” into “Ornithology,” John Coltrane stretching crumpled sheets out of “My Favorite Things,” even Zorn’s own plundering of klezmer with Ornette Coleman’s vocabulary. While Zorn has claimed artists from Walter Benjamin to Burt Bacharach as part of his “Radical Jewish Culture” movement, I wonder if Derrida would make the cut, considering the revelations of hermeneutical-mafia co-don Paul de Man’s collaborationist journalism. Because of that baggage, deconstruction went out of vogue over a decade ago. Zorn may have believed that he was latching on to a hot academic trend, but that would be a misreading. —David Yaffe


Frankie Crocker, 1937-2000

Long before the morning-show “shock jock” gig became the most lucrative position in commercial radio, the role of a top-ranking DJ had much more dignified and socially responsible connotations. This was particularly true within the black American community, where access to public airwaves became part and parcel of the civil rights struggle.

That is why we mourn Frankie Crocker. The loss of this tristate-area legend, who died of pancreatic cancer on October 21, underscored the passing of a creative attitude toward radio programming that the current state of the industry renders impossible. Crocker came into his own during the 1970s as the afternoon host and program director of black-owned WBLS-FM. Determined to make WBLS the top-rated station in New York, Crocker rotated a mix of cutting-edge r&b, Latin, rock, and pop music that appealed to black, Latino, and white listeners—proving crossover listenership was the only way advertisers could be persuaded to pay (almost) equally high rates to black stations as to white. Once WBLS started topping listener polls under Crocker’s guidance, Top 40 stations began trying to copy its success; the musical mix first tagged “urban contemporary,” then CHR, and now Churban, thus became a leading national format.

Frankie was working for WKRS at the time of his death, but his input there never matched that of his WBLS heyday. Crocker’s boldness through the late ’70s and ’80s in showcasing rock acts like Devo, Blondie, Bowie, and the Clash alongside breaking hits by Luther Vandross, Steel Pulse, the Furious Five, Wayne Shorter, and Gato Barbieri reflected a commitment to quality that refused to be limited by the prevailing racial, socioeconomic, or cultural stereotypes of the day. —Carol Cooper