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2001 Pazz & Jop: Not Just Your Old Man’s Takeover

Want to know something else that happened September 11? Sure you do. The Voice’s since-downsized Web radio station first “aired” a show we’d recorded five days earlier to coincide with the release of what I’d dubbed, without the slightest originality or hesitation, “Album of the Year”: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft.” Less than two plays into my late-August advance, as the debut “single” “Po’ Boy” came up again at track 10, I’d become convinced Dylan would win the 28th or 29th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Songful, funny, rocking, pro-life, it was to his runaway 1997 winner Time Out of Mind as, say, PJ Harvey’s Stories of the City was to Is This Desire? Moreover, there was no competition — no Stankonia, no Car Wheels, no Miseducation, not even a Play or 69 Love Songs. Before it had moved copy one, it was a bigger shoo-in than “Get Ur Freak On.”

So please, enough with the dumb idea that the world-gone-wrong events of “Love and Theft” ’s release date induced critics to overvalue a putatively prophetic album. “Love and Theft” was always going to win big, and it did — by most measures, bigger than any album in poll history. How did I know this? Because there is such a thing as aesthetic quality, and on “Love and Theft” it runneth over. Whatever guff musos put out about Dylan’s crack road band, this quality is overwhelmingly verbal. The old-school licks and phrasing would mean bubkes if they didn’t set off and flesh out his best lyrics since whenever. Like the Avalanches, Dylan loves sampling, which modernists called collage. He just takes different liberties with higher-grade readymades — folk, pop, and literary word-bits and music-bits reassembled into something unprecedented that would mean much less if it wasn’t also trad. It’s an old man’s record, absolutely. The old man is ready for death yet still feeling his oats. He fears apocalypse less now that his end is nearer. He thinks this is a hoot. The funnier it seems, the madder he gets about apocalypse. But the fear, somehow, is gone. And as you listen, so is yours.

If this achievement doesn’t move you, that’s your privilege. But I have no patience with claims that it just isn’t there, especially combined with mealymouthed remembrances of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. Never one who ran on Dylan time, I’ve had a lot of fun making such comparisons lately, and gee, Blood on the Tracks did sound grand. Bringing It All Back Home, too. But song for song, joke for joke, vision for vision, risk for dare, their superiority to this year’s winner seemed marginal. Other favorites — Freewheelin’, New Morning, The Basement Tapes — merely held their own. And I was surprised to find that from the unyielding contempt of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the world-weary wind of “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 sounded a little too punk for its own good. I preferred the old man.

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Which old man, it is relevant to note, is only a year older than the one who’s writing his 28th or 29th Pazz & Jop disquisition. At two months shy of 60, I’m very nearly the oldest voter reporting. So maybe I’m just prejudiced, right? Statistically, there’s something to this. With the majority of the record 622 respondents declining to supply demographic info, I didn’t know most ages. But after a lot of e-mailing to my A–C folder and some careful guesswork with D–G, I estimated that where Dylan’s supporters constituted 38 percent of the electorate, among critics 40 and over (about a third of the voters) he pulled 55 or 60 percent. This is a sharp tilt. Note, however, that Dylan still got the preponderance of his points from the under-40s who dominate the poll base, and note too that the gender tilt was steeper. If I’m reading first names right, only 19 women voted for Dylan. The next three finishers — the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes — were far behind Dylan’s 234 mentions at 158, 120, and 106, but all three attracted as many or more women. In an all-female Pazz & Jop, Mr. It Ain’t Me Babe, now d/b/a Mr. I Never Slept With Her Even Once (what, you think he’s Mr. Singing Love’s Praises With Sugar-Coated Rhymes?), would have had some competition.

In an under-40 poll, on the other hand, Dylan would still have won handily. If this doesn’t seem self-evident, that’s because you forgot that his competitors would lose out too. You think arthritis sufferers while away their buyouts listening solely to retrofitted bluegrass and Leonard Cohen. In fact, the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes got about a sixth of their mentions from 40-and-over lifers. If the callow had been as kind to older artists, Cohen, the youngest of whose 20 doddering supporters was 34, would have outrogered the turgid Tool. (41-50, as anyone who checks our highly searchable online list can determine: song-challenged Mary J. Blige, $180-list-and-too-dead-to-enjoy-it Charley Patton, 65-year-old Buddy Guy, Spoon’s career album if you call that a career, garage-punk Brits Clinic, Rick Yorn’s brother, emo-punk Brits Idlewild, Madonna’s brother-in-law, the Ben Folds One, and 67-year-old Cohen.) In fact, the rest of the top 40 is anything but old-guard. In our 2000 top 20 alone loomed 40-and-over perennials U2, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Madonna, and Steely Dan, plus late bloomer Aimee Mann, with more below. After Dylan, the only senior citizens in the 2001 top 20 are ninth-place Lucinda Williams and, out of nowhere or everywhere, 40-year-old world-ska ambassador Manu Chao. Below find comeback-of-the-year New Order, Guided by Voices’ retarded Robert Pollard, and two more new old guys: country-rock vets Alejandro Escovedo and Rodney Crowell edging belatedly onto our list. On the cusp, weirdly, is the Pazz & Jop album debut of all-ages crusaders Fugazi, led by pushing-40 Ian MacKaye. (Note: Full classification of the Langley Schools Music Project had not been completed at press time.)

Instead we get a new generation of standard bearers. Beyond the Strokes and the White Stripes, there’s a good complement of striplings: well-groomed ingenue Alicia Keys, sampledelic cheeze whizzes the Avalanches, serious-as-art-rock Cannibal Ox, cunningly childish Moldy Peaches. But no fewer than nine finishers fall into a remarkably narrow grouping of 30-ish professionals (the youngest 29, the oldest 33) hitting our chart for the second or third time: Jay-Z, Basement Jaxx, Gillian Welch, the New Pornographers’ Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Macy Gray, and the Old 97’s. Fold in slightly younger repeaters Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, Gorillaz featuring 33-year-old Damon Albarn, and former bubbling-unders Weezer, the Coup, and Low scoring Pazz & Jop debuts with their third, fourth, and fifth albums (but exclude System of a Down and the dull Tool, both too old, not to mention arty in the wrong way), and you have a cohort coming into its own. I don’t love all these artists and neither do you. But I like most of them. And I do respect them all. They’re never crass or stupid, at least not at the same time. They’re trying for something.

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Gillian Welch and Daft Punk are about as different as semipopular musicians can be. One is a DIY trailblazer, the other shoots crap in the major-label casino; one fetishizes the authentic, the other the artificial. But though the authentic one may be a little less honest, she’s no less forthright about her immersion in craft. She has an idea of what the world is like and what kind of music ought to sound good there, and she commands skills to match, which she’s sharpening. Welch says that while she and David Rawlings remain an acoustic duo, her self-released Time (The Revelator), which came in 14th (previous finishes: 23 and 33), comprises “really tiny rock songs” rather than her patented Appalachian simulations. And damned if she isn’t telling some kind of truth — it’s considerably less studied, austere, and sanctimonious-by-omission. Daft Punk are two ironic-mais-oui French DJs who pushed Homework onto the bottom of our 1997 top 40 behind an ingratiatingly clever synth-funk dance novelty (and 25th-place P&J single) self-referentially entitled “Da Funk.” Going all-out for airplay, which in dance music is as big a statement as Elvis citations are in folk music, they led the 25th-place Discovery with an irritatingly catchy synth-voice pop novelty (and 13th-place P&J single) imperatively entitled “One More Time.” Their faux pop became actual pop.

Me, I blame Welch for the O! Brother Old-Timey Strip Mine and refer privately to Daft Punk’s hit as “Please, Not Again.” Both artists pursue an aesthetic so ideologically that it narrows their music. But both deserve props just for having a vision, and though others in their cohort may be less self-conscious about it, so do they. Moreover, all have shown an ability to improve on whatever it is they do — which, because critics don’t just pump fave styles but signs of progress, attracts voters who happen to like that thing. An audacious pop album is some kind of wonder whether it sells at Jay-Z or Basement Jaxx or Old 97’s or New Pornographers or Pernices levels, while a competent one is a bit of a bore. Compare the shortfalls of marginal cohort candidates (many miss the 29-33 demo) Folds at 46th, Mercury Rev at 59th, Le Tigre at 77th, Maxwell at 87th, Garbage at 95th, Travis at 98th, Built to Spill at 118th, and (run out of town, the hussy) Shelby Lynne down at 142nd, all of whom — except for Le Tigre, who tried to piggyback more politics onto their vogue and got spanked for it — spun their wheels trying to assure their market share or drove off the road trying to expand it. And note that all of these, Le Tigre once again excepted, got twisted up playing by major-label rules.

The cohort is bedrock, a respectable foundation of artists with a future — some pop and some semipop, some quarterpop and some less. In 2002, it’ll get bigger. But its members aren’t about to change history. So towering over the entire 2001 list is the only genius in sight. With PJ Harvey and OutKast sitting out, Neil Young laying low, U2 at the Super Bowl, and R.E.M. 51st, well — achievementwise, statuswise, who’s even close? Lucinda Williams, maybe. Beatmaster to the stars Timbaland if he keeps it up for 10 years — although, lyrically, James Brown is James Weldon Johnson by comparison, Jay-Z Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, nominating Jigga is carrying this black-male-pride bit perilously close to Clarence Thomas territory, and da judge just signed an injunction to keep him out. Other observers tender faith in some promising pup or other, but though Ryan Adams, Alicia Keys, and/or Rufus Wainwright might have the stuff to take it to the next level, the conceptual effort alone would put them in mortal danger, a risk Adams kisses on the tuchis every time he opens his yap. As for the world’s greatest rock band, fifth-place Radiohead, they made the world’s greatest rock album in 1997 and it didn’t even beat Time Out of Mind. You want a credible challenge to Dylan’s hegemony-that-isn’t, your only resort is the most distant runners-up in poll history — two young bands and one 36-year-old perennial.

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Like everybody but our results page, I think the White Stripes made a better record than the Strokes. But not so’s they earned a free ride, and not so’s the Strokes deserve the drubbing they get for…what? For being white male guitar-bearing counterparts of Alicia Keys and her not-quite-superb major-label album with a sound people were waiting for and looks to match. Like Keys, the Strokes give teenpop glamour a tough undercoat — the hip hop sass salting Keys’s sweet intonation, the punk static pebbling the Strokes’ repetitious rush — and get playa-hated for choosing triumphant accommodation over doomed combat. The various ripoff charges are beyond silly; obviously the Strokes are working a tradition, and just as obviously they sound like no one but themselves. In this they resemble the former blues duo that came in fourth. Both bands end up far from their “roots,” and both are sonically thin by design — much thinner than Dylan’s guys recycling singer-with-backup riffs that coalesce as you listen up. As in much lo-fi, this thinness is a raised finger – guitars matter so much, it says, that we’re reducing them to an ugly essence. But it also begs out of any competition with the big guys. And it provides both with a ready path to progress. Soon the Strokes will shit-can their megaphone and try to think of something to say; soon the White Stripes will send their bills to V2 while continuing to unfold new wrinkles in human relations in 100 words or less.

Some believe Is This It and White Blood Cells represent an alt-rock rebirth, which would be nice. Unless you count materialistic old Spiritualized, the guitar-based hopefuls our college-radio types are always singling out number only three this year, and all are so specialized they make my teeth hurt: slowcore cohort candidates Low, Elephant 6 surrogates the Shins, and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who remind me less of the Jesus and Mary Chain than of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, another dark, catchy garage band whose enduring historical value is as a Pazz & Jop trivia question. B.R.M.C. are traditionalists like our runners-up, with commitment where they have spark. Low and the Shins are eccentrics. You can say that’s good — they defy sociology, ignore category, assert identity, blah blah blah. But that leaves me free to opine that, like Steely Dan’s showbiz kids, they don’t give a fuck about anybody else — and that, partly for that reason and partly because they play too slow, I don’t give a fuck about them either. Culturally as well as musically, they don’t make enough noise. The Strokes and the Stripes, antithetical though their outreach strategies are, both mean to resonate.

Still, Nirvana is so 1991, and guitar bands have long been and will long remain one option among many. Take as a sign our surprise No. 3, who slowly and eccentrically brought off as unmoored an album, groovewise, as has ever hit our chart. Every year I scoff at the shortfall of “techno”/”electronica”/”post-rock,” but in 2001 the Swan Girl of the Oscars helped turn it into a mainstream critical taste — as an option, not the future. Vespertine is oceanic, impressionistic, classically influenced — the kind of album I can’t stand. But its clicks and tinkles and desultory eroticism won me over, perhaps because Björk, like Tyorke, is better off outside the box of rock songform. Desultory to less pleasurable purpose were Björk’s countrymen Sigur Rós, recurring like that dream where you forgot your homework. The rest of our electronica finishers, however, took rock songform as a puzzle to be solved, with the top-20 Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, and Avalanches the payoff. Pomo’s answer to the Archies were our first virtual finishers, and (just like Blur) took hooks too much for granted. Basement Jaxx’s insanely catchy Rooty knew better. But Australia’s Avalanches scored the breakthrough — the long-promised new-songs-from-old-songs trick, in which untrackable samples are stitched together until they mesh into compelling music that never existed before. Unfortunately, the music in question is string-section disco.

Pazz & Jop dance albums are something of a contradiction in terms. The album aesthetics we calibrate, high on lyrics and hard on filler, are a rock thing — dance is the realm of the single and the mix. In 2000, we expanded our singles tally partly in hopes that a few club records would slip in. But it hasn’t worked. Although the old irritation of fave album cuts (which as a DJ I got to declare singles myself in 2001) is down to Stephen Malkmus’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” the now pervasive pop-versus-rock polarity — featuring dance-pop, teen-pop, rap-pop, r&b-pop, the inevitable rock-pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop — isn’t much better. I’m always pleased to see African Americans up top — Keys’s fourth-place “Fallin’ ” and Jay-Z’s third-place “Izzo” swamped by the most dominant single of our computerized era, “Get Ur Freak On.” Missy Elliott’s Timbaland tabla was a world-beat coup rivaling Manu Chao’s in a year that cried out for more of them (Cachaito and Rachid Taha, 55th and 71st, were top 10 for me, and Manteca’s Franco comp would have headed my list if it had seemed fair to put 30 years of genius up against one). But on Elliott’s good but flawed album — as on Destiny’s Child’s, Mary J. Blige’s, Blu Cantrell’s, and Craig David’s — I found songs trickier and deeper than the smash. Bidding to “penetrate pop culture,” in Jay-Z’s words, these r&b artists actually do what antipop ascetics rail against so automatically. They strive for acceptability by sacrificing idiosyncrasy and reiterating clichés, and so evade an essential part of the pop challenge. This tactic can get you great ear candy. But in today’s corporate environment it’s become compulsory.

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A vivid example is the penetrating perpetrator of the hip hop album of the year. The main reason we never get enough hip hop voters is that they don’t need us — why should the alpha dogs worry about propelling late-released Ghostface Killah (91st) and De La Soul (54th) past Low and the Shins? I don’t think The Blueprint got shortchanged as a result, though. As ear candy and public fact it has serious charms, and who can resist a line like “Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs”? But its cavalcade of hooks is smarmy and proud — a Puffy album with flow and gangsta cred (attention NYPD: “Still fuckin’ with crime ’cause crime pays” may hold up in court!). Compare the edgy samples and ’tude of 1999’s Vol. 3 and it’s like pitting Nelson Riddle’s Sinatra against the Don Costa version. As the most accessible hip hop album since Mama Said Knock You Out, The Blueprint sure beats The Chronic, but it bodes ill for the genre’s mainstream — countless wannabes will try to duplicate Jigga’s formula, and none will succeed. The underground, leached by the usual puritanism and fertile anyway, has more jam, with the complication that it now nurtures as many up-and-coming white artists as black. Another hope is that some bud among the profusion of r&b also-rans, many of them debuts — down to 100, Bilal, India.Arie, Don Costa’s girl Nikka, Res, Angie Stone, and Maxwell — will develop material nobody can deny. Final respects to 73rd-place Aaliyah, who died proving it was possible.

I’m grateful I can care, and grateful too that Aaliyah, whose garish funeral was one of many media phenomena that seemed to grow more grotesque after the WTC carnage, can now accrue dignity on the strength of a good album. This was a shitty year before it got so much shittier, and one way it was shitty was that it was subpar musically. I don’t have much doomsayer in me, and my basic belief is that in my lifetime a musical economy has been created that nothing can destroy. Good music has become such a spiritual necessity that no amount of corporate brutality can prevent people from producing, distributing, and consuming it. Nevertheless, I note that the Dean’s List, my annual catalog of recommended albums, shrank markedly in 2001, falling below 80 for the first time since 1997. Maybe it’s because for two weeks there I didn’t listen much — one more productivity hit. Or maybe the doomsayers are right, and fewer talents and lucky stiffs can afford the indie/DIY career option, which accounted for 15 or so of the voters’ top 40 albums and two thirds of the Dean’s List. That a cohort has learned to work around the moneychangers doesn’t mean we should thank capital for providing the opportunity.

The only finisher to confront this fact rather than allude to it was an overachiever on the scale of Vespertine. Ignoring its withdrawn WTC-bombing cover with the ingrained impiety that makes rock critics the permanent no-accounts of cultural journalism, the voters awarded eighth place to the Coup’s Party Music, which in its endless verbal dexterity and revitalization of an old-fashioned groove resembled “Love and Theft” more than anything Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch will ever record. There’s a lot of bluff on this record, and some bullshit too, though less than in most Dylan. But people know it — at S.O.B.’s in November, Boots Riley’s unsubstantiated claims that we were murdering babies in Afghanistan were far less warmly received than the off-kilter funk of his assaults on the rich and the racist. Riley is one of the few artists in rock’s whole history to make effective music out of the inhumanity of capital. It’s poetic that he got respect for it in the year that reminded or convinced many of us that other brands of inhumanity are probably even worse. One nuclear bomb they’re gonna blow it all away, as the New York Dolls once told us on Mercury’s dime. But every time we struggle for better music, and all of us do, we’re reminded that we have no business letting capital be.

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Top 10 Albums of 2001

1. Bob Dylan: “Love and Theft” (Columbia)

2. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA)

3. Björk: Vespertine (Elektra)

4. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

5. Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol)

6. Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway)

7. Jay-Z: The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella)

8. The Coup: Party Music (75 Ark)

9. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Poses (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 2001

1. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “Get Ur Freak On” (The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra)

2. Gorillaz: “Clint Eastwood” (Virgin)

3. Jay-Z: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (Roc-A-Fella)

4. Alicia Keys: “Fallin’ ” (J)

5. (Tie) Coldplay: “Yellow” (Nettwerk America)
Pink: “Get the Party Started” (Arista)

7. Eve featuring Gwen Stefani: “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (Interscope)

8. Mary J. Blige: “Family Affair” (MCA)

9. Weezer: “Hash Pipe” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ryan Adams: “New York, New York” (Lost Highway)
Daft Punk: “One More Time” (Virgin)

—From the February 19, 2002, 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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Black Nativity Is Regrettably Not a Parody

I think it was when Nas wandered on set for his second guest verse, toward the middle of Black Nativity, and summarily rhymed “the holy one above me” with “Obi-wan Kenobi” — during, I might add, a dream sequence in which a Christ is born to a homeless couple in modern-day Times Square while a white-afroed Mary J. Blige belts out a gospel-style carol around them — that I began to wonder whether this was a parody.

Regrettably, it was not.

Now, I realize that the nativity story isn’t cherished because of its adherence to historical realism, and that the musical is by nature embellished by forays into outright fantasy. You prepare yourself for a degree of inanity.

But the extraordinary liberties taken by Black Nativity are enough to make your local kindergarten’s Christmas pageant look like a paragon of verisimilitude. Geography collapses in thrall to the whims of contrivance. Chance encounters prove duly life-altering.

The film’s major twist, almost unbelievably, is revealed to us by way of a neck tattoo, exposed at climactic gunpoint — a moment so ludicrous I have to applaud the actors for not cracking up. By the time the credits rolled, my eyes were sore from all the rolling.

Such triteness is intended, I suppose, to encourage a broader appeal, to make this message of hope seem universal. But what is the point of contemporizing a traditional story if the world is rendered unrecognizably artificial?

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The Rolling Stones

It may have taken the Rolling Stones until the end of 2012 to figure out how to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but there’s no question they’re doing it in style. On the heels of releasing the epic, 80-track greatest-hits comp GRRR!, they’ve already staged two raved-about live celebrations in the U.K. that featured ex-Stones like Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor and non-Stones like Mary J. Blige and Jeff Beck. As of press time they haven’t leaked any surprises for tonight or the coming week’s two New Jersey shows, but whatever they do, it will surely be big.

Sat., Dec. 8, 8 p.m., 2012

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VOODOO NIGHTS

Need a good reason to head out to Long Island’s Jones Beach Theater tonight? We have two. First, there’s Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul, who remains one of the biggest artists in r&b two decades after dropping “Real Love” on an unsuspecting public and long after “hip-hop soul” ceased to be a genre that anyone actually refers to. Second is D’Angelo, the leading figure—mmm, that figure—of another long-defunct genre, neo-soul, who is putting the finishing touches on the album that will be his first in 12 years and third overall. Bring the whole family, or—on second thought—don’t. With Melanie Fiona.

Sun., Aug. 19, 7 p.m., 2012

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‘Paradizo’ w/ Karizma

Alone or with co-producer Spen, Karizma has done work for artists including Roy Ayers, Mary J. Blige, Lenny Kravitz, and Everything But the Girl. That diversity carries through to his set lists, where edits of Gil Scott-Heron and Robert Flack rub basslines with serious house tracks of his own or from domestic and continental peers. He’ll push a mixer’s effects to the limit, but the tricks never overshadow his love for the music.

Sat., July 14, 10 p.m., 2012

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Beyonce’s Odes to Joy

How’s this for an understatement: Beyoncé’s fourth album finds her hollering, “I care.” That’s like a hurricane saying, “I blow.” Beyoncé doesn’t merely care! Her essence trembles with feeling! She seizes with emotion! Her voice flutters with the intensity of a hummingbird! She brims with the creativity that could fill half a dozen albums in the time given to create one (she reportedly delivered a whopping 72 tracks to Columbia in advance of 4). Caring is something you do while sitting on your ass, and we’re talking about a woman who put “bootylicious” in the dictionary by doing virtually everything but sitting.

Beyond these indications, the words “I care” come off as oversimplified because of the force behind them, a torrent of gut and throat. In the face of this ironic delivery, you may wonder if words alone could even describe the inner workings of the storm that is Beyoncé, anyway. Her lyrics are, after all, the most ordinary facet of her output—boxy vessels to get her from point A to point stratosphere.

“I Care” is one of several 4 songs in which deceptive calm gives way to intensity-cum-chorus. Clearly, she will not be contained. She builds tracks like jack-in-the-boxes being wound slowly until out pops Sasha Fierce, her wild-eyed, wild-haired, flying man-eater of an alter ego. Last year, Bey told Allure that she had “killed” Sasha “because I’ve grown and now I’m able to merge [Sasha and Beyoncé].” The result is as volatile as smashing atoms.

On 4, the ballads bang (even the Dianne Warren–penned weepie “I Was Here” knocks harder than anything on 4‘s bloated predecessor, I Am … Sasha Fierce) and the up-tempos clang. The faster songs possess a Fela Kuti influence that she translates into a marching-band aesthetic reminiscent of Destiny’s Child’s 2004 hit “Lose My Breath.” They’re passé in the best way possible—they are mini-parades.

Other references are just as unfashionable. Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” provides one in the tangled collection of hooks that is the whirlwind career highlight “Countdown.” Martika’s “Love, Thy Will Be Done,” is conjured in the Frank Ocean–written “I Miss You,” which boasts a sound design of ambient synths that expand and contract as they progress through their chords, maintaining an even level of intensity throughout. The mid-tempo “Party” sounds right out of the S.O.S. Band’s catalog (its plodding tempo is the only thing that lets you know she isn’t quoting a particularly poetic, desperately meth-seeking craigslist m4m ad: ” ‘Cause tonight/I’ll do it every way/Speakers knocking till the morning light/’Cause we like to party”). “Love on Top” bops around on the easy listening/easier dancing boogie vibe of Raydio’s “Can’t Change That” and New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man”; before it ends, it has ecstatically, hyperactively changed keys half a dozen times.

None of this is cool, per se, thus it all suits Beyoncé. No generation’s King Diva has ever been cool (certainly not in temperament, but also because of the constraints of popularity), and she isn’t one for innovation. She is an executor, and that’s why she can get away with replicating Lorella Cuccarini’s performance art or making an album that, despite all the huffing and puffing, is little more than a snapshot of one woman mid-evolution. (It’s the sonic equivalent of a mountain made from a molehill.) Beyoncé’s art is delivery, and 4 is a gorgeous frame for her voice at its absolute best.

Bey’s lack of coolness is why the pseudo-edgy sampling of Major Lazer in 4‘s failed first single, “Run the World (Girls),” rang false (and why Kanye West’s dorky “Party” pun—”You got the swag sauce, you drippin’ Swagu”—feels about right). “(Girls)” is no more informed or activistic than I Am …‘s first single, “If I Were a Boy,” but at least it’s frolicking in femininity as opposed to wondering, “How much is that penis in the window?” (Evolution is evolution!) Similarly progressive, “Best Thing I Never Had” isn’t as iconic as its reference point “Irreplaceable,” but nor is it as shady. Reducing her sneering, Bey takes the opportunity of a failed relationship to count her blessings (“Thank God you blew it/Thank God I dodged a bullet”). Optimism is helium in 4‘s balloon.

Really, 4 is about joy, and that may prove too much for people who expect our R&B stars to be tortured at least some of the time, who expect life’s lemons to produce sourness instead of lemonade. Few know the details of Beyoncé’s private life, and sadness is relative, but the perception that Beyoncé has had it easy, and thus doesn’t carry the scars to make her authentically soulful, is not an unpopular one. Mary J. Blige, as good of a Bey counterpoint as any, once griped, “There’s no school for organic,” in reference to Bey’s supposedly smooth path and its effect. But if happiness is at the root of Beyoncé’s soul, 4 could be just as much her truth as My Life was Mary’s.

And why shouldn’t 4 find Beyoncé enamored with life? This multimillionaire was well rested when she started recording this thing, having come off a multi-month break; by virtue of the fact that she’s one of the most famous women in the world, her will alone is a force. Girls don’t run the world, but you can see how a woman of Beyoncé’s stature and with her justified self-interest could make that mistake.

But then she’s a tricky one; a few gasps before she assumes de facto world domination, she talks about her place on earth in the most uncertain of terms: “I Was Here” finds her longing to “leave my mark so everyone will know I was here,” as if she hadn’t already accomplished that a decade ago. The way her voice gnaws at this song till it bleeds might make you wonder if her joy comes from within or if it’s dependent on approval from without. But this question only comes up in the fleeting moments that her joy isn’t overwhelming your senses, rendering the distinction irrelevant.

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SMALL WONDER

Selene Luna has proven that not all celebs need to be five-foot-ten to get ahead. The pint-size performance artist appeared last night at Bergdorf Goodman for Fashion’s Night Out, all three feet and 10 inches of stardom shining alongside Victoria Beckham, Mary J. Blige, and Sarah Jessica Parker. Luna got her start in the cabarets of the West Coast, took New York by storm in Margaret Cho’s Off-Broadway show The Sensuous Woman a few years back, and has gone on to find celluloid success in My Bloody Valentine 3D. Now, Luna tells the story of her rise to fame as the biggest little person in showbiz in Selene Luna: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, a one-night, one-woman burlesque and comedy show detailing her journey from Tijuana to Hollywood.

Sat., Sept. 11, 8 p.m., 2010

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Donna Summer’s Crayons

Donna Summer is special. You are not Donna Summer. All them other divas who flirted with paganism before discovering Jesus are just pretenders: Donna doesn’t even need to mention them by name. As the chant of ever-circling overdubbed Donnas surrounds you on the self-explanatory “The Queen Is Back,” one of the more memorable tracks on her first album since the first Bush administration, you feel sorry for Mary J. Blige and the other narcissistic infidels who continued Lady Summer’s practice of conceiving albums as installments in the life of someone better than us.

And she was. Blessed by the company she kept—including Harold Faltermeyer, Springsteen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Stock-Aiken-Waterman, and someone named Giorgio Moroder—she essayed every popular genre of the day, her only discernible motif being that multi-octave bazooka of a voice whose buoyancy signified her sheer joy at being a star, singing these songs, and working with these people (the undimmed power of Summer’s voice scrubs lines like “The more you reject me/The more I want from you” of celebrity vampirism). We don’t identify with the famous—they bring us to them, inviting us to share their magnificence as we sit in our rooms gawking at the cover of Live and More. On Crayons, it’s like no time has passed at all, and of course it hasn’t: As Lloyd Richards says to Margo Channing in All About Eve, the stars never die and never change.

Fans who might balk at the T-Pain chirp in “Science of Love” or the ghetto demotic of “Stamp Your Feet” (“make a big-ass sound,” “you got game”) forget what an avid chart-follower she was back in the day. Summer’s enthusiasm for the big-ass arena-rock dynamics of “Stamp Your Feet” is thrilling to hear in a fiftysomething. Also hear the commitment: Tina Turner’s professionalism looks cynical in comparison. As if to remind us that her weird streak remains intact, Summer attempts the faux Tropicália of “Drivin’ Down Brazil” or the updated blues (complete with slide guitar and harmonica!) of “Slide Over Backwards,” the latter an attempt at Summer’s own “Nutbush City Limits” or something. Once Upon a Time and Bad Girls fans will both agree that Crayons’ second half is a victory lap with no Summer in sight—she’s already past us. She still rides paradoxes as adeptly as she rode Moroder’s sequencers; she’s human because she believes in staying superhuman.

Donna Summer plays the PNC Bank Arts Center June 18 and the Nikon at Jones Beach theater July 19, livenation.com

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Live: Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige Come Home

Adult swim!

Jay-Z + Mary J. Blige + The-Dream
Madison Square Garden
May 6, 2008

So Jay-Z has officially entered the bourgie Vegas-glitz stage of his career, the part where he can happily, triumphantly coast on past achievements from now until whenever. He doesn’t make music for kids anymore; he makes expensively produced grown-folks soul-rap that leans enormously on his own iconic persona. This is Sinatra/Billy Joel territory; he’ll be able to effortlessly sell out Madison Square Garden anytime he feels like it for the rest of his life. Entering center-stage alongside Mary J. Blige with a massive dressed-up twenty-some-piece band behind him last night, getting the obligatory “Can’t Knock the Hustle” out of the way first, he looked like someone with nothing to prove. Every past Jay-Z hometown show I’ve seen has been a staged spectacle of some sort, a deluge of surprise guest-appearances and headline-grabbing pyrotechnics. This one wasn’t like that; it was the second of a three-night Garden run, another stop on a long tour. I’ve heard reports from other cities that Jay seemed detached and unmotivated onstage, as well we might expect. Since this tour started, after all, he’s married Beyonce, signed an absurd $150 million LiveNation deal, and entangled himself in a bitter quagmire of a blood-feud with Washington Wizards shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson. And still he’s routinely responsible for great moments like this YouTube clip of him and Bun B in Houston. Jay just might become the first rapper to successfully enter that classic-rock arena-staple zone where he can tour on past hits forever and nobody cares whether or not he’s still putting out new music.

Judging by last night’s show, he can pull it off. Even if his suited-up live band routinely cluttered up his tracks a little too much, drowning out samples and eliminating all empty space, his voice never came close to getting lost in the mix; Jay is the rare rapper who doesn’t have to shout to be heard onstage. And as glitzy and expensive as his current stage-set might be, no show that makes room for “P.S.A.” and “U Don’t Know” and “Jigga My Nigga” (the three most dependable highlights of any Jay-Z show) is going to be entirely free of grime. And even at a relatively routine show like this, Jay always seems happy to be home; last night had that extra intangible exhilaration that only seems to happen at MSG shows. The big moments came, too. During a long segment where Jay played snippets of past hits, Beyonce danced across the stage, never touching a microphone and departing after like twenty seconds. (She was Jay’s only surprise guest all night, unless Memphis Bleek counts, which he absolutely doesn’t.) And during “Blue Magic,” Jay stopped on the “fuck Bush” part, did the first verse of “Minority Report” a capella, and then flashed Bush’s scrunched-up face on the screen behind it so everyone could boo and throw middle fingers at it. When that ended, he said, “I think it’s time for a change, don’t you?” as the screen behind him showed Barack Obama’s face. On the night when Obama may have locked up his party’s nomination, this was good enough for goosebumps from me. But the moment ended as soon as it started; Jay clarified that Obama in no way endorsed him, said we should get back to the party, and launched into a spirited rendition of I forget what song. As long as Jay wants to keep stepping onstage and effortlessly breezing through his hits, I’ll keep showing up.

Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z’s American Gangster
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come
Voice feature: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Jay-Z
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse
Voice review: Selwyn Seyfu Hinds on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z’s Vol. 3 … The Life and Times of S. Carter
Voice review: James Hunter on Jay-Z’s Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life

So Jay’s autopilot is better than just about anyone else’s full-speed. But Mary J. Blige doesn’t appear to have an autopilot setting. This tour is billed as a coheadlining outing, and Jay and Mary finished the show onstage together, but Mary’s solo set came before Jay’s, and I wondered before the show how a massive star like Mary might feel after being relegated to glorified opening-act status in her hometown. Turns out I had nothing to worry about; the crowd, from what I could tell, was there as much for her as it was for Jay. When her band played “I’m Goin’ Down,” she just stood onstage grinning while the crowd sang the whole song back at her, the same thing Jay did for “Big Pimpin’.” Mary also had the most euphoric, unexpected guest-spot of the night; she brought out Method Man for “You’re All I Need,” and he looked ecstatic to be sharing her stage. And her show had a really satisfying arc to it, starting out with her smoother, more restrained early tracks before building into her gut-ripping screamers and then ending with a set of joyous uptempo club-jams that felt earned in their happiness. Mary’s whole career has relied on that narrative, of overcoming hellish personal demons and fighting for peace, and the show neatly encapsulated it. Mary’s self-help ambitions can sometimes make for moments of serious kitsch; on “Your Child,” for instance, three actors came onstage to hammily pantomime the lyrics. But those moments coexist with flashes of catharsis that you’d be an asshole to dismiss. By the end of “Your Child,” Mary was either actually crying or doing an impeccable impression of someone crying, and as she finished the song, she told us that “the system has messed up the minds of all the men since the Vietnam War.” By the time she got around to “No More Drama,” her whole face was slick with sweat, and she stomped across the stage and pounded the floor, uncorking those great raspy wordless wails like she was screaming at God. And even though breezier dance-tracks like “MVP” and “Be Without You” and “Just Fine” were hardly free of emotional force, they still felt like sweet relief after all those teary pyrotechnics. Mary didn’t quite upstage Jay-Z; nobody can do that. But she came a lot closer than I expected.

Voice review: Alfred Soto on Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains
Voice review: Jason King on Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough
Voice review: Barry Walters on Mary J. Blige’s No More Drama
Voice review: Arion Berger on Mary J. Blige’s Mary

Opening an expensive, elaborately choreographed show from two pillars of black-pop royalty, both of whom could’ve easily sold out the Garden on their own, R&B goofball The-Dream (I hate that hyphen so much) came off like a complete clown. Performing in front of Jay and Mary’s curtain, Dream’s whole stage-show consisted of four backup dancers pulling egregious stripper-moves and two basketball hoops with Christmas lights on them. Dream wore leather pants and put on a different hat and jacket for every song he sang. I’m not sure why anyone picked this guy as an opener; I can’t imagine that even the people who inexplicably like “Shawty is the Shit” getting all whipped into a frenzy when it comes on. Dream at least kept it brief, doing his three singles and disappearing, which at least was nice; I couldn’t take much more. Once this guy’s moment ends, R&B will be better off.

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Otis Redding and Marie Queenie Lyons

Whither soul? Nowadays, any poseur with a whiskey-voiced rasp gets tagged as a soulster, but even with such credible singers as Sharon Jones and Bettye Lavette working within the critical confines—blaring horns backed by a thunderous rhythm section—nobody in this age of prefabricated cool (with the exception of Mary J. Blige) willingly mines the depths that true soul requires. Even Aretha—yes, she’s still the Queen—hasn’t gone gut-bucket in years.

It’s a shame, because as these reissues prove, nothing sounds more vibrant, urgent, and alive than this music. Recorded on July 9, 1965, Otis Blue showcases the premiere soul singer at his zenith. Backed by members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Redding’s gritty genius overcomes the bloat of this double-disc, 40-track “special edition,” featuring mono, stereo, and live versions of the same 13 songs. Mercifully, he’s so great that he makes the constant repetition—six versions of “Respect,” for example—worth it. He brings gravitas to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of three Sam Cooke covers; a percussive singer, Redding vocally stutter-steps through “Wonderful World,” gleefully teasing the word “biology” out to “bye-ow-low-gee” just to fit the meter. He transforms “Shake” into a romping duel with drummer Al Jackson Jr., while his intuitive interplay with the band makes the Stones’ “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)” all his own. And ballads don’t get better than “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” wherein Redding musters up more pure feeling in the fade-out than today’s warblers eke out during their climaxes.

A similar spirit infuses Marie Queenie Lyons’s Soul Fever. Released in 1970 on James Brown’s King label, it was her first and last effort—according to the liner notes, she disappeared shortly after its release. That’s unfortunate, because Lyons had an exceptional voice, able to instantly shift from a sultry croon on “Daddy’s House” to the gospel shout of “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears.” Another strength is her unbridled fury, which keys ribald tracks like “Your Key Don’t Fit It No More” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Have It but You.” Plus, her take on the Godfather’s “Try Me” aches to the bone. These days, such truthful artistry is long gone: 38 years later, Soul Fever‘s cover—a beautiful black face, surrounded by encroaching darkness, struggling to be seen—has become a sadly apt metaphor for modern-day soul.