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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

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

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

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

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

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

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

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

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

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

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

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

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

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

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

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue


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



Concerning Violence Is a Devastating Essay of Colonization

Göran Hugo Olsson’s profound essay doc aspires to upset in the truest sense. As its vintage footage of the cruelties of colonial life shocks and disgusts, its narration — excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s thundering 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth — demands that Western viewers fundamentally upset their conceptions of everything. A commanding indictment of the exploitative nature of geopolitics, and of Europe’s and the U.S.’s abuse of native peoples around the world, Concerning Violence pairs up hard truths from Fanon — Lauryn Hill reads his words, each blunt and burning like a cigarette she’s putting out in your ear — with damnable scenes shot in colonized countries in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: In Rhodesia, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, we meet local rebels and European soldiers, striking workers and the company stooges punishing them.

As the title suggests, viewers will bear witness to the results of violence that Fanon insists is the only recourse of the colonized. The guts of a Portuguese soldier pinken the Guinean muck, a terrifying but also inevitable image: Colonization, Fanon asserts, “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” Contrast the shots of the wounded soldier with the scenes here of napalmed Africans — a baby with a red-tipped stump of a leg suckles at the breast of a woman with a stub for an arm — only a monster would argue the colonized were wrong to fight.

But since death is so common on film, the images of war might not haunt as much as those of everyday African life
under European rule: beaming white folks, lawn-bowling in crisp shorts, laying out at the pool, attended to by native men and women who live in shanties and barely register to the oppressors as people. Happy Christians in Tanzania explain all the good they’re doing, as black men dig ditches all around them: First these
missionaries will oversee the building of a church, where they’ll disabuse the Africans of long-held beliefs. Then, if everything goes well, they might bother with a school and a hospital. The assumptions of patriarchal superiority are chilling and familiar — these people assume they know exactly what the Africans need, how they should live, what they should accept and what they should wait for.

That’s not a precise match for the troubles afflicting our own country today, but at times this rousing, despairing film plays like a parody of them: There are revelations here for everyone, but this definitely should be seen by every white American who shares MLK quotes on Facebook to tell black Americans to stop protesting.



Ms. Lauryn Hill is more than just a singer, she is the very definition of an artist. Her lyrics are gorgeously composed and are even more powerful when delivered in her lovely voice. Clearly, a talent like hers can’t be contained by just one classic album. She claims two releases — hip hop essential The Score with her former group The Fugees and solo effort The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — to her esteemed name. Unfortunately for us, Hill hasn’t released a full album of new work since that 1998 solo debut, though rumors have been swirling for some time about the possibility of a new collection arriving sooner rather than later. In the interim, Ms. Hill continues to influence new crops of R&B and soul singers, reasserting her relevance with every new voice she inspires. Let’s see how many new stars are born after her Homecoming Concert Series in Brooklyn this week.

Mon., July 28, 7 p.m., 2014



Nas or GZA? Lauryn Hill or Raekwon and Ghostface? Black Star or Masta Killa? These aren’t the pointless hypotheticals hip-hop heads have used to pass the time for the last 30 or so years but actual conundrums you will face at this year’s Rock the Bells festival, the annual tribute to hip-hop past and the throwback rappers (this year, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano) of the present. You don’t have to choose just yet, but know that these artists and more will all be playing their magnum opuses in their entirety. Maybe they’ll even act out the skits.

Sat., Sept. 3, 1 p.m., 2011



Wyclef is releasing a puffed-up alternate history EP about his political run for President of Haiti. Pras is telling the Daily News that he wants to assassinate world leaders. Not the greatest state of affairs, but at least this clears the way for Ms. Lauryn Hill to regain her status as the most together Fugee, and she seems well on her way; after disappearing from the public eye amid rumors of mental instability and religious extremism, she pulled some praise for her performances at this summer’s Rock the Bells festival. Now in her first attempt at touring since her abruptly cancelled 10-date European tour last year, she’s hitting our metropolis hard with six shows in New York and one in Montclair, New Jersey; tonight, she begins a three-night run at the venerable Blue Note jazz club. Fingers crossed for mutual goodwill and a Miseducation fix.

Jan. 3-5, 8 p.m., 2011



Our fingers could not be crossed tighter for Lauryn Hill—that the past decade skirting the spotlight brought her solace, that she wants to rejoin us half as much as we want it, and, not least, that she will actually perform as promised at Rock the Bells. Ms. Hill’s recent trickle of appearances leave us uneasy, but her incredible ability could never be diluted. Also, she’s not running for president of anywhere, so that’s neat. Come prepared for excellent surreality: Snoop Dogg will also perform Doggystyle in full, and A Tribe Called Quest will revisit Midnight Marauders. With Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim & KRS-One, Slick Rick, and more.

Sat., Aug. 28, 2 p.m., 2010


The Disorientation of Lauryn Hill

You’d have had an easier time breaking into prison than infiltrating Lauryn Hill’s free show in Brooklyn last Monday night. For one thing, prisons have fewer cops. By the time the show started at 7:30 p.m., police officers had cordoned off seemingly 10 square city blocks surrounding Wingate Field, bluntly batting off hundreds of aghast fans clutching folding chairs and clamoring desperately for some magical excuse. I know Lauryn! I’m with the press! I live here!

It was a glorious clusterfuck sadly apt given its star attraction, the monumentally talented pop-r&b priestess who rose to power with the Fugees (posited as the Future of Rock on the cover of Rolling Stone) and launched her solo career with the resounding Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which hit late-’90s college dormitories like a wrecking ball. She has floundered since, an avalanche of missed opportunity, cruel rumor, and press hysteria, a Whitney Houston/Guns N’ Roses hybrid whose shows as of late have reached Cat Power levels of unpleasantry. (Oakland was not amused.) The jilted fans stuck a solid half-mile from Monday night’s action groused that it didn’t matter; she probably wouldn’t show up, and would flame out horrifically after two songs if she did. During a desperate cell-phone chat with a photographer camped out inside Wingate itself, I could clearly hear unshakable Brooklyn Borough Prez Marty Markowitz on the stage Lauryn should’ve taken already, trying to soothe a savage beast of a crowd that had beat the police barricades but now stood primed for disappointment and disgust.

At about 9:30, a kind colleague having valiantly bashed us through, we enter Wingate Field proper and encounter an ugly, ugly scene. Opening act Sean Kingston—the teenage reggae-lite sensation who sired “Beautiful Girls,” the “This Is Why I’m Hot” of summer 2007—wrapped it up an hour ago, heroically stretching out his show to the apparent amusement of no one. The dude next to me is now jeering our star attraction in advance. He is impatient. “I hope everyone boos her and after two songs just leaves,” he growls. Markowitz, meanwhile, has rematerialized with a rousing, confidence-building introduction: “Her voice may be a little rough. She’s just done a ton of shows in Europe.” Duly noted. Lauryn’s band hits the stage, an unwieldly jazz-funk orchestra that lays into some horn-saturated fanfare. “Oh, so she’s the queen now?” growls the Growler. “She’s not here. They were lying. They were lying.”

The crowd at large shares the Growler’s disaffection, as Lauryn’s DJ/hype man now discovers.

DJ: “How y’all doin’ tonight?!”

Crowd: [Silent, simmering rage.]

DJ: “Brooklyn! Get your hands up!”

Crowd: [Does not get hands up.]

Lauryn appears.

With a fierce, rusty shock Afro, she looks like funk diva Betty Davis, and looks like Betty Davis sounds. Rough. Like trouble. The band rushes headlong into a violent, jumbled, almost aggro-gospel number, mingling backing chants with Lauryn’s malicious, inarticulate rasp. Her voice is shot to hell, and she shows it no mercy, not so much singing as screaming.

After 10 minutes of this, she stops to assess the situation. “Where Brooklyn at?” she asks. Brooklyn is at wit’s end. “What took you so long?” demands one voice. “Sing something we know!” thunders another.

Lauryn: “We gonna do some new things!”

Crowd: “Uh-uh!

Lauryn [hurriedly]: “And we gonna do some old things!”

Crowd: “Yeahhhhhh!

Lauryn then launches into an old thing that sounds new, as in unfamiliar, as in undesirable, as in uh-uh. To an extent, it’s “Lost Ones,” a seething, precise Miseducation kiss-off now fed through her band’s muddy, cacophonous war machine, a thrashing monolith that disregards swing and heads straight for vaporize. Lauryn’s voice is a breathless bluster, endlessly repeating the song’s hook—”You might win some, but you just lost one”—like a nervous mantra. It’s angry, vicious, unpleasant by design. “It makes my throat hurt,” notes my sympathetic companion. The crowd ain’t having it. People are leaving. A lot of people.

Song ends. Wan applause. Lights go down. Twenty seconds pass. Crowd stirs anxiously. Several teenage girls behind me start exuberantly singing “Killing Me Softly,” a big hit for the Fugees. The crowd applauds that. “Louder!” someone shouts. No movement onstage. This show is over.

Except it’s not. It’s just begun. It will go on for another two hours. Rumble on. Drag on. Toward redemption. The lights go back up, and Lauryn launches into “When It Hurts So Bad” (“When it hurts so bad, why does it feel so good?”), her voice better actually, the band coalescing around a filthy funk riff. Better. Some applause. The girls behind me start singing “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Lauryn’s biggest hit. People are still leaving. The Growler is long gone.

“This is a song off Miseducation called ‘Final Hour,'” Lauryn announces. “Don’t you know it?” This is an honest, frustrated question. Her insistence on mutating five-minute pop hits into 10-minute formless jams is alienating the crowd. (No one likes it when Prince does this, either.)

But first she has to earn a positive reaction from us at all. For a half-hour, this show is absolutely terrifying, a volatile star versus a sweltering, irritated crowd. Apocalypse looms. But Lauryn turns the corner with “Ex-Factor,” a bruising, anguished ballad of tough love and self-abuse that earns giddy audience screams upon recognition. “When I try to walk away/You hurt yourself to make me stay/This is crazy,” Lauryn wails, sounding not a little crazy herself. It’s a song of passion and desperation now sung by someone with plenty of both, who realizes she’s losing a crowd that probably assumes she’s losing her mind—and maybe she is. But as her vocals dissolve into shrieks and wails, she starts winning us over. “You said you’d die for me/I want you to live for me,” she wails at Brooklyn; Brooklyn gets its hands up. She starts chanting either “I want you to live” or “I don’t want you to leave,” or maybe (probably) both. The audience roars. Triumph.

Still 90 minutes to go, though, much of it a slog—bits of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” and Bob Marley’s “Hammer” and numerous other shout-outs welded awkwardly to Lauryn’s own catalog. Her singing sounds incredibly painful; her rapping just is incredibly painful. She shreds her vocal cords further by goading the band: Pick it up pick it up pick it up. She gnaws off another ballad, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” frail and frayed and unhinged in a way you can’t fake. “How Many Mics” as a nearly atonal basher with a metalhead edge. “Killing Me Softly” as wayward, meandering jazz. What’s left of the crowd—about 25 percent of what Lauryn had initially greeted—whoops louder as we conclude, after midnight, with “Doo Wop,” but not before a brief snippet of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” a joke that’s not really funny. Everyone who remains will still love her, but those who’ve already left—an army of fed-up Growlers—never will again. Nonetheless, Lauryn stands triumphant, content to win some even after losing one after another. I’m glad I never have to see this show again.


Still Tryin’

Mayhap your iPod has shuffled a Maxwell or Lauryn Hill tune into your mix lately, and led you to question, “Where they be?” The neo-soul giants of the late 1990s have been taking a chill pill all decade, failing to release any full-length studio albums in the digital download era. But these talents were and are far too outsized to be mere chicken-grease flashes in the proverbial pan. Roll call: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and D’Angelo’s Voodoo, 2000; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998 (a whopping nine years ago); Maxwell’s Now and Bilal’s 1st Born Second, both 2001. Some players, like Jill Scott, have plowed on, but to diminishing returns. What happened to the neo-soul revolution?

My pet theory is that this boho collective (many down with the Soulquarians crew, so loosely knit from the very beginning that they seem to have unraveled) is taking a breather to wait out the music industry’s adjustment to marketing and promotion in the Wikinomics age. Times may have moved on to make way for the mom-friendly r&b proffered by the John Legends and Alicia Keyses of the world, but the fear is still real: How do you avoid your record label flubbing your project when execs are still figuring out LimeWire and Facebook? Badu is set to release three separate albums this year, but the announcement came not through a garish label event, but in the form of a post she made on producer Jay Electronica’s MySpace page.

Be that as it may, Macy Gray keeps on dropping ’em, bless her, but without a viral video like “Dick in a Box” circulating on the Net—or a sudden radio-programmer change of heart (nationwide, Hot 97 types never had much love for a sister)—what are her chances? Lord knows MTV is too busy running Laguna Beach reruns to put her in heavy rotation like in the days of her Grammy-winning “I Try” (1999, incidentally).

Always pushed as more of a crossover artist, Macy collaborating with Justin Timberlake (just as a producer, alas) and releasing her new record, Big, through the Universal-distributed label run by the Black Eyed Peas’ comes as little surprise. (Fergie even makes an appearance!) Even less of a shocker is the high quality of tracks that cooks up for Macy—he’s already effectively abandoned the stigma of a group nobody admits liking and evolved into a producer hot enough to field Michael Jackson’s long-distance calls from Bahrain. The freestyle fanatic lets Macy be Macy, while producing the majority of Big (seven out of 13 tracks) himself.

Specifically, steps to Big the way Prince approached his Svengali side projects decades ago. “Everybody” is tops, a dance-floor burner with blasts of rocked-out guitar and vague anti-war messages (“Takes more to win than a few good men”). If Prince’s famed Linn drum isn’t sampled outright, the beats are programmed to identical effect on “Treat Me Like Your Money.” Full of retro-new-wave leanings, “Money” is a cheeky Vanity 6 outtake if there ever was one, resurrecting ’80s flair better than anything since Kelis’s “Millionaire”—Will rocks the mic (copping from Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That”) while Macy cribs “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” on the bridge, just in case you missed the point. These are beats Gwen Stefani shoulda used for her latest disc.

Many Big songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mary J. Blige record: “Shoo Be Doo,” “What I Gotta Do,” and even international bonus track “AEIOU.” (What makes a CD track a “bonus” in 2007?) But those highlights make the rest of Big sound like a tedious wade in comparison. Of course, this may not mean much when it’s customary to purge the filler you hate from your MP3 player and banish it to digital-wackness purgatory. Aren’t the fans who are still paying attention after The Trouble With Being Macy Gray flopped four years back more apt to just buy Big‘s two stellar songs from iTunes for $.99 a pop? Will this same fate befall Badu and even Hill whenever they deign to reappear? Somewhere, the neo-soul posse are puffin’ on blunts and biding their time; somewhere else, label flacks are taking another long meeting, looking over their shoulders for the next downsize.


Your Own, Personal, Shopper

Personal shoppers are for rich girls with no style—but you secretly wish you had one, right? Instead, you have to rely on friends, who tend to just pick out things that would look good on them. And when it comes to vintage, it’s a matter of dumb luck if you and your dream dress will ever be united.

Most of us think of shopping as either a chore or a guilty indulgence, but rarely do we achieve the art of it. Vintage collector Morgan Yakus is truly an artist, and she’s also your new personal shopper. With the skills of a hunter (a well-trained eye, passion, access) she culls vintage clothing from top-secret sources and sells them at the Chelsea Flea Market and to celebrities, designers, and stores around town. Her stall stands out from the others—there is no polyester to be found, no worn-out, stained schmatas in sight. And a perfect cotton summer dress is usually between $30 and $50 (she also buys older, rarer pieces that, naturally, cost more). At Chelsea, she can be found right in the middle of the lot—she has straight, dark hair and bangs.

As if going straight to the source weren’t enough, Yakus will hunt down an item you have been searching for or fantasized about. She has supplied mint condition ’50s prom dresses and has tracked down that sexy top one customer always dreamed of. If you become a regular, she’ll keep you in mind when she is buying clothes. She’ll know your size, what kind of shapes you wear, and—most importantly—understand your taste. Nothing gives Yakus more joy than finding an item of clothing that truly fits both body and personality. “A dress can be completely simple and ordinary, but really come alive on the right girl,” she says. “It’s very important for girls to look comfortable in the clothes they’re wearing. That’s what makes it stylish.”

While she doesn’t buy clothes she truly dislikes, Yakus does have the crucial ability to understand personal style, which means she can appreciate items she wouldn’t wear herself. When shopping, she often picks up a dress or top and thinks, “I know the kind of girl who would love this,” so she buys it. If you ask her to, she will keep you in mind for those moments, and when you come to the flea market, she will have a stash put aside just for you to look through—something we’ve only dreamed of before. The most amazing part is that, in most cases, Yakus doesn’t charge a fee. The customer pays for the items only—unless what you’ve asked for is very time-consuming to hunt down.

Considering her vocation, it’s almost too perfect to hear that Yakus’s parents met in an antique store. From an early age, she has been honing her skills—at seven she collected pins to wear on oversized men’s jackets (“Molly Ringwald was my main inspiration then,” she explained recently.) Her big break came when she became creative assistant to the design director at DKNY. She also did “vintage inspiration” work for the company, and later at Jill Stuart, meaning she culled fabric, clothing, and accessories from a particular period, and created installations to fuel the designers’ imaginations. She has also worked as a stylist for Lauryn Hill, among others. This all seems to have led directly to her current career, as a new kind of personal shopper, and a savior to many fumbling vintage fans.


Pro-Life Hip-Hop

Hip-hop is the groove of the streets. Got it, you punk-ass, dreadlocks-and-beads sissy? Didn’t you see those Uzis at the end of Wild Style, fool? The lecture must go something like that. You know, the chiding that every positive rapper gets before cutting an album. How else to explain the relentless pledging at the altar of the streets by artists whose interests clearly lie elsewhere? Chuck D claimed to “reach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard.” Dead Prez transposed the RBG of Marcus Garvey’s red-black-and-green to Revolutionary But Gangsta. Perhaps panning the whole idea, Lauryn Hill noted, “Even after all my logic and my theory/I add a muthafucka so you ignorant niggas hear me.”

The Lifesavas don’t share Hill’s comic timing, but they’ve taken her point to heart. On the very first cut off Spirit in Stone, the group dispenses with appeals to street cred. “The streets? The streets can go to hell, I want freedom/The streets is watching the idiot box and cop reruns,” raps Vursatyle on “Soldierfied.” Even the black nationalist reasoning that undergirds most positive hip-hop is jettisoned: “Blame the white man, I feel ya for rough justice and new laws/The White man creates nines and techs to flood schoolyards/The White Man ain’t pull the trigger and took it too far/The White Man ain’t going to jail nigga, you are.”

Like most post-Native Tongues groups, the Lifesavas are locked in a pitched battle against their own earnestness. And this isn’t garden-variety Talib Kweli earnestness either. The Lifesavas are borderline social conservatives, preaching the evils of cloning and pushing Judgment Day fear factor. They claim pro-life, preach family values, and rail against the narcissism of men. They might be more Jerry Falwell than Jay-Z. But the Lifesavas understand better than most of their cohort that to believe you’re right means nothing if you can’t stay on beat and your production is weak.

So while a careful listen reveals the album’s first single, “What If It’s True,” making a “Believe or forever burn!” argument for Christianity, the electro-funky track still bumps, and the obscure imagery provides other things to think about: “She said I need to see your hands higher/All that ground beef dead that/Mama got an Uzi up under her head wrap.” And while “Hellohihey” is just a rant against arrogance, the track’s singsongy hook and acoustic guitar add up to a sweet head-nodder as Vursatyle offers an absurdist take on the absurdity of hip-hop’s braggadocious roots by turning the camera on himself: “Man it’s hard being the best, these MCs get pissed/Cause next to me they almost don’t exist/No dis, but who can really say/That they’ve gone where I’ve gone and played what I’ve played/And that they’ve done what I’ve done and stayed where I’ve stayed.”

Even when the group moves beyond lofty topics, their skills maintain. “Selector” finds them taking up the formidable challenge of trading verses with the gifted J-Live. Vursatyle, especially, is up for the challenge. “The head exorcist blessed with 1200 volts, sending jolts/To your poltergeist, prepare to step bare-foot over broken/Mics and run wild. Timeless hymns I spin seven digits on a sundial.” Not that the group is beyond harangues, as “Resist” painfully illustrates. But by and large, they avoid the didacticism that mars hip-hop’s standard radicals.

MC Jumbo the Garbageman is the chief producer, but working alongside is Chief Xcel of Blackalicious, who play Jay-Z to the Lifesavas’ Memphis Bleek. Sonically, Spirit in Stone is a more focused version of Blackalicious’ ambitious but sprawling Blazing Arrow. While it shows plenty of gusto for samples and instrumentation, its core is pounding rhythm tracks, the perfect plane for proselytizing. Fine. I doubt I’d agree with them Lifesavas about much if we ever engaged in a conversation. But I sure would nod my head if they said it over one of their tracks.