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

2003 Pazz & Jop: Reasons to Bother

How laughable, cracked wiseacres in re the 30th or 31st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, for hopefuls in this nation’s other flawed, fragmented democratic exercise to claim hip-hop — Howard Dean enlisting Wyclef Jean, Dennis Kucinich employing a campaign rap called “Go Go Dennis” (sounds great, huh?), and, drop the bomb, Wesley Clark quoting “Hey Ya!” before assuring young supporters that breakups needn’t be permanent, just look at him and Bill. But it doesn’t seem so funny to me; not much does these days. Why shouldn’t they claim hip-hop, and mean it as much as they mean anything? In 2003, hip-hop became America’s official pop music. If it’s no surprise that John Kerry’s theme remains “Born in the U.S.A.” (as classic as “Hey Ya!” plus the Vietnam thing) and King George’s “Wake Up Little Susie” (progressive as of 1957), well, tastes differ. Anyway, Wyclef Jean ain’t Lil Jon any more than OutKast are 50 Cent.

I give you our 2003 champion, and hell ya, I’m down. As in 2000, Atlanta duo-for-life OutKast swept both our competitions, with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s three-to-two edge matching Stankonia’s, and “Hey Ya!” ’s three-to-two dwarfing “Ms. Jackson” ’s. There’s never been a one-artist album-and-single combo like it. But though OutKast thrashed the White Stripes — aptly, given Jack White’s stated belief that rap is a low form stuck in 1986 — they were far from our biggest winner ever. Nirvana, Hole, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” and, most dominant of all, Beck’s Odelay (over the Fugees’ The Score, take your pick) each won by at least 1.80-1. As I hope you noticed, these are all white artists; the strongest black finish came in 1987, when Prince’s Sign ’O’ the Times defeated Bruce Springsteen’s indelible Tunnel of Love 1.63-1. Racist? Us? Can’t be. It’s just that Euro-Americans make more aesthetically commanding popular music than African Americans, year in and year out. History shows that, right?

I’ve bewailed Pazz & Jop’s institutional racism before, and except to say that I don’t exempt myself I won’t excavate it now; should another periodical choose to devote dead trees or living megabytes to the question, I’ll sit for an interview. The numbers are always there, and in 2003 the poll put bells on them. Not that hip-hop albums finished so strong: the four in the top 15, including foreign interloper Dizzee Rascal, were tailed only by female principle Missy Elliott and white Southerner Bubba Sparxxx. Nor were the six black top-10 singles unprecedented. The difference was the commentary, where voters couldn’t stop raving about “Hey Ya!” and other beat treats but rarely waxed evangelical about albums. This undercut my custom of letting respondents speak up for their fave longforms in “Top 10 Plus,” where I settled for a meta-ironic Radiohead squib and had to solicit the arguments the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and the New Pornographers’ Electric Version deserved. So this year, “Plus” means singles.

As fans of the downloading wars know, this shift is poetic and hip. From utopians feeding slugs to the heavenly jukebox to suits letting the MasterCard/broadband equipped purchase music online, it is agreed that people want songs, not albums — in our archaic parlance, singles. But it’s one thing to plug in the jukebox, another to select 10 among millions of selections: BMG666, TH5446, BE45789? So though some 1,461 different singles were cited by the 508 voters (out of 732, up from 2002’s 695, hubba hubba) who listed singles, the consensus naturally favored songs that had gotten through gates narrower than Google’s or Kazaa’s. And though radio remains basic, its alternative/college/public/Internet version didn’t exert much clout on our singles chart. Beyond Johnny Cash’s video-driven “Hurt,” a sentimental favorite that came hauling a fine death album and an outtake box, these were radio/TV hits that with only two partial exceptions going down to No. 16 — focus cuts from the year’s Nos. 2 and 3 albums — got goosed on the dance-club cum singles-bar circuit. This went for white artists as well as black — Junior Senior and Electric Six are groovesters, and Justin Timberlake is a wannabe no longer.

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Although I don’t barhop like I ought to, this trend suits me fine if that’s what it is. I always hear music differently at the hop or in da club than in my lonely room — “Get Low,” hidden at the end of an album whose importance (and offensiveness) my daughter had flagged, blindsided me at a Halloween bash — and I cherish that difference. Nor is beatmastery the main reason. Our singles list is a token of sociability in a hermetic subculture, and something positive in a year when my political pessimism, which has never been deeper, has fed on my fears for the future of music, which are new — an infrastructure unlikely to strengthen in an economy based on overwork and the planned destruction of social-service jobs produced the shortest Dean’s List since 1996. A year ago the bad war I’d seen coming the minute the second plane hit made the woe-are-we at the major labels seem trivial even if it was true. But as we acclimate to long-haul horror, we look around for reasons to bother, and Tower has gotten pretty depressing. Though the death of the majors won’t equal the death of the record business, much less popular music, I’d rather they stay solvent, properly chastened. The singles that got the voters excited sounded rich-and-famous. And with Naderites, Chomskyites, and Strokes fans alike ready to vote for any ambitious glad-hander the Democratics deem electable, let me mention this — the profiteering vulgarians who run record companies are rarely Republicans.

As usual, our album chart could care less. Independent labels bankrolled some 15 of our top 40, maintaining the high level of recent years, and an unprecedented four of our top 10. But that doesn’t mean the quality album is now an indie specialty. In a revived farm-team model, the top-five White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs cracked the poll indie and then panned for gold; the Drive-By Truckers mixed it up, putting their DIY Southern Rock Opera on consignment at Universal’s Lost Highway Quilt Shoppe before bolting to Austin upstart New West for Decoration Day. But beyond Warren Zevon we register no exodus of superannuated status symbols following Tom Waits to Anti- and such. And of course, our charts aren’t Billboard’s, or even CMJ’s. Less so than ever.

Precisely two of our rock finishers went platinum. One of them, duh, is Led Zeppelin. But the other, hey, is the White Stripes, who garnered not only sales but notoriety — Jack insulted rappers, courted movie directors, and punched no-talents just like that other Detroit White. Two more broke their labels’ venal little hearts by stopping at gold: the Strokes, whose low-affect-high-IQ TRL run was clearly a misunderstanding, and Radiohead, whose hot-ticket tour failed to generate the sales levels of Kid A. If anyone might save Pazz & Jop’s prognosticating license with a late surge, it’s third-place Fountains of Wayne, who once “Stacy’s Mom” proved Collingwood & Schlesinger pop as well as “pop” were ready to surpass 1999’s 19th-place Utopia Parkway. They were up for two Grammys — including, NARAS does love a joke, best new artist — and though they got shut out, let’s hope the EMI mafia follow the sly “Mexican Wine” down the road to “Hackensack” and “Fire Island.” This is conceivable because, as our voters want to tell the world, Welcome Interstate Managers is through-crafted, one bittersweet tune after another as humane and unsappy as the rest of its vision of premarital suburbia. But FOW’s “single” was a teen novelty that downloaded up there with OutKast and Beyoncé‚ and their album never broke 115 Billboard.

Chart peaks aren’t sales totals, and by now Fountains of Wayne have surely moved more units than Grandaddy, Belle & Sebastian, or the Shins, all of whom, remarkably, did break 100 in Billboard. But with Radiohead less meaningful than rumoured, the Strokes not worth the covers they’re plastered on, Liz Phair a disgraced hussy among Adult Top 40 Recurrents, and the White Stripes getting on people’s nerves, it would help me feel better about next month if not next year were this deserving critics’ record to transcend its fluke renown and make a bunch of bizzers a load of loot. Because though 2003 was hip-hop’s year in many ways, not least how many partisans believe it’s fallen into enemy hands, I’d appreciate a market-based correlative to another story evident in comments and results, one sure to bore futurists even more than hip-hop: rock and roll revival.

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Some will scoff. Revival is so 2001 — neoclassicist Strokes/Stripes guff, swept away by the DOR swank of Interpol and the Rapture. The latter surrounded their epochal 10-word single with a literally sensational 2003 album joined on our chart by all manner of consumer electronics: the jolly Danes of Junior Senior, the tame tunes of converted selbstaendigrockers the Notwist, the multilayered, multireferential pop-funk-soul-techno post-house of Basement Jaxx, the eccentric retrotech of Four Tet, and — speaking of through-crafted — what-him-emo Ben Gibbard topping his 34th-place Death Cab for Cutie album with the Postal Service’s sweet synth-pop one-off, which floated out of the ether to finish 17th. That makes six — are you impressed yet?

These are estimable records, Europeans notwithstanding; Rapture-good Interpol-bad, Basement Jaxx and Postal Service highly kraftwerked, and I’ll take “post-rock” Four Tet over not just Sigur Rós but My Morning Jacket, the Mars Volta, Kings of Leon, and — right now, as of this possibly anomalous and certainly slight record — the bulk of the indie-rock boys-boys-boys elbowing onto our chart. But no matter what the now people dig in Ibiza and Indonesia, P&J’s self-made aesthetes still favor aggregations of misfits making physical contact with guitars. It’s a Yank thing — with a boost from Britain, home of my two favorite young bands: punk-as-a-drunk-junkie Libertines, a solid 23rd, and beat-shrieking femme-fronted Kaito, riffle-riffle-riffle, here we are, page eight, tied for 252nd. Call them pop, call them slop, call them behind the times. But from Grandaddy to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re all rock and roll and you know it. And you also know they’re not going away.

Is Pazz & Jop the world? The nation? Rock criticism? Of course not. Hell, maybe we’re part of the problem by now. Maybe we’re the American arrogance that bombed Iraq, or the alt myopia that frustrates managers into mandating a makeover and leaves my paper looking like Britney Spears on her wedding night. I plead innocent, but I can see why some might make such cheap charges. Obviously the poll’s imperfect. We never get out the hip-hop press. Our rolls are larded with part-timers who buy many records and miss many more. And they’re joined annually by newbies who learned to write from literary theorists and honed their opinionizing skills in the dog-eat-dog cenacles of college radio. These latter tend to festoon their ballots with arcane faves — mostly negligible song-crafters or art bands, or so I infer from artist-title-label, hearsay, and their more familiar choices. But most voters still like songs, obscurities rarely rise to the top, and with a partial exception or three — say Postal Service, Rapture, Broken Social Scene — a decent smattering of over-40s supported even our freshest-faced finishers. Furthermore, though the boundary between rumor and fashion is never what it should be, unlikely records like Four Tet’s Rounds do emerge from the depths. No songs on that one — just instruments or their simulacra clashing and converging playfully and prettily as they shuffle tune and beat. Without Pazz & Jop, I wouldn’t have given it a chance.

If I’ve strayed from loose talk about rock and roll to articulated ambivalence about indie-rock, well, the two are obviously connected. But they aren’t identical. Not all or most indie records are indie-rock records, and some that are barely achieve the synergy/energy that for rock and rollers is manna and chocolate-chip ice cream. The synergy half is crucial, and tricky. Broken Social Scene, for instance, are a collective held together by a bass player, not a band — only that isn’t such a bad definition of a band, and you can hear how their cohesion-in-disarray might be a paradigm for a post-youth bohemia where friends are always screwing around and moving away. More typical are Belle & Sebastian, always static on principle, but with a flow, only this time Trevor Horn revved them up and they rocked even less. Similarly, Cat Power’s chart debut is merely the most interactive of Chan Marshall’s misleadingly labeled singer-with-backup albums, and Death Cab wear their origins as a solo project on their arrangements. And then there are the Pernice Brothers, who are just slow. None of these moderns rocked with nearly the commitment of putative singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who translated roadhouse raunch from metaphor into music, or Warren Zevon, who recorded his cancer-fueled farewell in his living room so he could save what life he had left for the important things, like getting the guitar solo of the year out of Bruce Springsteen.

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In general, though, indie-rock happens in bars, and bargoers are noisy. So unless you’re Chan Marshall telling Kurt he was right to cut and run because nobody understood him, you try and drown them out — even if you’re Fountains of Wayne or the Shins, although maybe not Grandaddy. And once we get to the soi-disant pop of the New Pornographers, or the soi-disant dance music of the Rapture, we’re boogieing, one might say. Though one record is fulla songs and the other fulla synth, both bands put their backs into forward motion. Of course, so do several finishers I have doubts or worse about, from floor-dragging My Morning Jacket to leaping Ted Leo to molten Fiery Furnaces, although not certifiably Latino Mars Volta, so enamored of melodrama and its shifting rhythmic accoutrements that they could have learned clave from Kansas.

Me, I found 2003 longer on intricately propulsive song than fiercely clamorous beat: Fountains of Wayne tightening up, Yo La Tengo slacking off, Shins bearing in, Drive-By Truckers hiring Jason Isbell as if Patterson Hood wasn’t writer enough, and Wrens fusing heart, soul, tune, harmony, and artificially massed guitars in a Sisyphean labor whose near miss is poetry. (41–50, viewable online along with 1,952 other albums: endlessly circling Jayhawks, dull Thrills, refulgent Wrens, NAACP Image Award nominee R. Kelly, born vocalist Lyrics Born, Can’t-Catch-a-Break Timberlake, Joe Strummer R.I.W., Irish folksingers Ryan Adams and Damien Rice, and Electric Six, who do not exist in real life, thank God.) But born-againers aren’t raving about songs (much less singers, who beyond Rufus Wainwright and an ailing Johnny Cash got shut out). They’re raving about grooves, half a dozen strong: White Stripes and Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Libertines, Kings of Leon and the Darkness. Without these bands’ variously formalist, fecund, facile, clever, and stuck-in-the-mud songwriting, their grooves would go nowhere fast, and sometimes they do anyway; sometimes that’s the idea. Sometimes, too, they boogie only conceptually — they’re not friendly enough. But within a recognizable rubric that isn’t hip-hop, each moves in a distinct way that moves its crowd. Call them old-fashioned, but try to pin down exactly which punk or blues-rock or metal they echo and you’ll end up claiming the Strokes are Television.

For these bands, irony is a bigger nonissue than emo, which despite its three albums in Spin’s preemptive top 40 topped out at 130 Pazz & Jop (Thursday, who deeply regret to inform themselves that politics is anguish), unless you count the outrageous nu-hair-metal of the Darkness, the funniest thing-yet-not-the-thing since the Pet Shop Boys (but remember, it is the thing), or believe the Strokes are lying about their insincerity (which they never would). All these bands seem to feel whatever it is they feel, and though as with emo it’s often painful, instead of wallowing they do their best to run it over — usually, strange to tell, without benefit of much musicianship, and in two cases without a bassist. Virtuosity comes with the Darkness’s concept, and after that the best band-qua-band here is the Strokes. If the Libertines have a model it’s the Heartbreakers not the Ramones, if Kings of Leon have a forerunner it’s the Uniques not the Stones, and though Brian Chase plays a lot more drums than Meg White, the groove of each band is left to a protean guitarist — plus such old reliables as speed, swagger, abandon, and shards of noise indicating that you just don’t give a fuck. For the Stripes and Strokes to take such a groove pop is a tribute to Jack White’s talent and the Strokes’ good looks. I doubt the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will follow, and I’m certain the Libertines won’t. The Darkness are huge in England and making their stateside move as I write. Which leaves Kings of Leon, a band so ordinary I tried to ignore them.

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Kings of Leon excite fans of the Southern, the primitive, the trad, the blues-based, and their backstory, in which the home-schooled sons of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher are saved from a life of virtue by rock and roll. This is rock’s starter myth, irresistible for anyone oppressed firsthand by the culture of rectitude. But a thousand bad bands with their dicks in their hands have made millions turning it into organized irreligion, and Kings of Leon didn’t reinvent its clichés. Even early on the Drive-By Truckers delved so much further into Southern low life, and rocked harder too. Yet what hurts in a year when Pazz & Jop takes a backseat to another democratic exercise (if by some miracle the big one goes well, the music business can take care of itself) is that I need what Kings of Leon represent: the South, some effective portion of its rectitude-ridden, home-schooled-or-worse, class-consciously anti-intellectual masses-yearning-to-be-free. If they don’t speak to me, hell, I don’t speak to them either. Yet we have to get together somehow. That’s one reason John Edwards has been my glad-hander of choice.

Anyone expecting me to claim that our Georgia-based winners resolve this dilemma should get serious. But the metaphors are there. My hot year in hip-hop wasn’t like the critics’ because it was more critical. Only four of the 13 hip-hop albums on the Dean’s List are mainstream, and though both of my undie-rap top-10s are by nonblacks, all but two of the others are African American — unlike most undie-rap fans, and also unlike most name undie-rappers. Give it up to Britbeat original Dizzee Rascal, but to me it’s pathetic that voters should pump 50 Cent and Jay-Z here and Ted Leo and Grandaddy there, yet ignore the indie-rock resourcefulness of the differingly devout Lifesavas and Brother Ali, or at least bohos for life Mr. Lif and Jean Grae. It’s inconvenient for my argument that I can’t add North Carolina’s 80th-place Little Brother, Native Tongues surrogates with a bad case of Arrested Development. But I’ll shore up my pretensions to objectivity by noting that Jean Grae was the only New York rapper her homeboy A-listed this year. S. Carter took an album’s worth of guest shots (just wait) and killed with most, but compare the casual vanity of his Beyoncé to the casual avuncularity of his Missy and the casual geopolitics of his Panjabi MC and you’ll hear why the mulitplatinum Black Album seemed puffed up to me. As for the multiplatinum F. Cent, he could slur the most infectious Drebeats this side of M. Mathers and I’d still wish crime did not play. Same goes for Neptunebeats — but maybe not Timbobeats. I leave it conditional because Timbaland didn’t altogether convert me to Bubba Sparxxx, who for all his class-conscious good-heartedness declines personal responsibility for the post-racist future he’s clearly committed to — in that fatalistic Southern way, he just declares it inevitable. I don’t hold it against him, an American dilemma is an American dilemma, but his people better be talking to Russell Simmons’s people.

Timbaland was also the genius of two of my mainstream rap picks. But he was the auteur of only one, as Missy Elliott abandoned dreams of a singles threepeat to through-craft the first true album of her hitcentric career — a show of confidence whose eccentricities were so decent professional insomniacs slept on them. But though OutKast’s beats were less thrilling, which isn’t to say Prince and P-Funk won’t grace any inaugural ball I DJ, their eccentricities were impossible to miss, and sleeping on them proved impractical. OutKast’s Janus move is uneven, as I’d figured. What I didn’t figure was that Big Boi’s Clintonisms would flag a bit while Andre 3000’s skits and falsetto showpieces jawed at me all night. With all flaws and flat spots assumed, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below means to prophesy structurally: Big Boi is the self-created positivity of the gangsta culture both rappers long ago moved beyond, Andre the national aspirations they make so much more of than Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. They’re defiant yet reliable, rooted yet progressive, male yet female they wish, hip-hop yet pop yet something like indie-rock, for God’s sake.

As music, as good as we could have hoped, human error included. Nevertheless, what it portends about the immediate future of the South, new or dirty or pivotal or yearning to be free, isn’t what we’d wish. Lil Jon with his blindsiding single, he’s Atlanta, all the way to the back of the strip joint. OutKast are black consciousness, with prevailing influences from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Plainfield, New Jersey — the black consciousness that almost every American institution still underrepresents, yet that itself addresses only a subset of the war on the nonrich now being waged in King George’s name by both Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. They’re a reason to bother, the best music could hold out the promise of in 2003. All I can say to anyone who was hoping for more of a happy ending than that is that I’m hoping for one too.

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Top 10 Albums of 2003

1. OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)

2. The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)

3. Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve)

4. Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (Interscope)

6. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)

7. New Pornographers: Electric Version (Matador)

8. Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (Astralwerks)

9. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)

10. Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (XL Import)

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Top 10 Singles of 2003

1. OutKast: “Hey Ya!” (Arista)

2. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z: “Crazy in Love” (Columbia)

3. The White Stripes: “Seven Nation Army” (Third Man/V2)

4. Kelis: “Milkshake” (Star Trak/Arista)

5. 50 Cent: “In Da Club” (G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

6. Johnny Cash: “Hurt” (American)

7. Fountains of Wayne: “Stacy’s Mom” (S-Curve/Virgin)

8. R. Kelly: “Ignition — Remix” (Jive)

9. Junior Senior: “Move Your Feet” (Atlantic)

10. Panjabi MC featuring Jay-Z: “Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)” (Sequence)

—From the February 11–17, 2004, issue

 

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

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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

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

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

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

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

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2000

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

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

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

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

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

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

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

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

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

—From the February 20, 2001, issue

 

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

 

Categories
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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692630″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

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)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1998

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

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

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

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

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

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

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

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

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

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Double eXcel: Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa and OutKast’s Big Boi

When Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa laughs his exceptionally big, gregarious laugh and answers my question, it’s like he’s pulling some kind of long con. Not because he hasn’t given me a perfectly good answer. He has. But because his answer to the question “How does one achieve hip-hop longevity?” is the exact same one Big Boi of OutKast had given me a few hours earlier.

Just listen:

Big Boi, 1:15 p.m.

“You gotta always consider yourself a student. Even though you might have mastered certain things, you gotta always be a student to it. And, I mean, I’m always trying to learn new things.”

Masta Killa, 4ish p.m.

“The true understanding a master reaches is that he’s always a student. See, life is the ultimate teacher. So even though you’re the master of your destiny, you have to remain open to new things, because that’s the only way you learn.”

Be humble, basically. Or, in Big Boi’s Southern, to-the-point parlance, “Don’t ever get to a place where you can’t be told nothin’.”

Both Masta Killa and Big Boi have been in the rap’s public realm for 20 years now, a phenomenon as rare as an atheist in a foxhole or a depressed Trader Joe’s cashier. Rap artists either burn out (DMX, Bone Thugs), fade away (Biggie, Tupac, Eazy-E), find Jesus (Ma$e, Hammer), find Hollywood (RZA, Andre 3000, Ice Cube), or become sick parodies of themselves (I’ll let you fill this one out). And while their answers on some common topics are the same, both longtime artists have new albums that are wildly different. Masta Killa’s is Selling My Soul (Nature Sounds); Big Boi’s is the no-less-ominous sounding Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Def Jam). Different, yes, but they’re both incredibly good. And both make the same statement in similar words: We’re here because we’re know what the fuck we’re doing.

On Selling, Masta Killa leans back on the Wu-Tang sound of yore: soaring samples of old-school soul and stuttering, slow-tempo beats and production by longtime Wu associate 9th Wonder, plus kung fu samples, the whole bit. On “Dirty Soul,” the album’s last track, he outright lifts old Wu-Tang lyrics—Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Hippa to Da Hoppa”—in salute to his fallen comrade.

“I heard the beat, and the first person that I thought of was Ol’ Dirty,” says Masta of the song. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is the kind of beat'”—a rolling bassline over a thick, filthy organ—”‘Dirty would love right here.’ It’s such a soulful beat he would’ve loved it. It felt right to rap his words over it, and give tribute.”

Masta keeps Selling mostly in third gear, seldom amping up the BPM to anything that will quicken the pulse. This is music to smoke blunts and lounge to. Fitting, considering he is doing exactly that on the album’s cover. “I listen to a lot of old music,” says Masta, adding that he spent a lot of time before the album cruising the city listening to old pre-disco Bee Gees. “And a lot of it has a laid-back feel, which inspired me.”

Selling harkens back to what’s old, but according to Masta, that’s what makes it new again. “A lot of people haven’t heard this classic Wu sound in a long time,” he says. “And, matter of fact, because RZA didn’t do any of the beats, and the title’s Selling My Soul, that’s all being perceived as I’ve deviated from the classical sound that everyone once loved. It’s going to surprise people.”

About that title: Does it foreshadow what it takes to stay in the hip-hop game for 20 years?

“Well,” laughs Masta Killa, “most of the time when you hear that phrase, ‘selling my soul,’ it’s perceived as a negative. But in actuality, when you think about the soul, the essence of one’s self—when you’re being creative and being productive from the inner self—that is a part of the soul, brother. You can feel it in your soul. You’re selling your soul.”

Vicious, on the other hand, leans forward. Way forward. Pop hooks abound all over its 15 tracks, and the album features many guests, both expected (T.I., Ludacris) and not (Phantogram, Wavves). “The music has to evoke a certain type of emotion that’ll make you feel a certain type of way,” says Big Boi about the album. “That’s when I know I’m done—when I feel a certain type of energy.”

“With every album, even from OutKast albums up until now, it’s always been about evolution in all ways,” he adds. “Trying to just find new sounds. You never wanna re-create something you’ve already done. When you’re searching for new sounds and new things, you try new things. I like to always say the music is organic, we create it—never genetically modified.”

“After 20 years of records and songs in the catalog, it’s important to stay excited,” says Big Boi. “Me as an artist and a producer, too, I try to create something that you’ve never heard before. Something I’ve never heard before.”

Following along that “something you’ve never heard before” vibe, certainly, are three songs (“Lines,” “CPU,” “Objectum Sexuality”) produced by or featuring slinky pop-duo Phantogram. On “Shoes for Running,” Big teams up with the gauzy Nathan Williams of Wavves. All the tracks are outliers on a hip-hop album, injecting a new wave touch that definitely lives up to Big’s lofty billing.

Masta Killa lays in the old-school cut. Big Boi is never happy in familiar surroundings. Both are students, speaking different languages, but getting the message across.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Big Boi of OutKast Talks His New Album and Why Andre 3000 Isn’t on It: “He Said He Had To Do Some Gillette Shit”

Big Boi just touched down in the city where nearly two decades ago he was booed mercilessly. While accepting an award for “Best Rap Duo” at the oft maligned Source Awards (beating hometown heros Smif N Wessun), he and his partner Andre (he wasn’t even 3000 yet) were met with jeers at the podium. “The South got something to say!” exclaimed Andre before they exited stage left.

Well, these days Andre 3000 doesn’t have much to say unless it’s his lines in a Gillette commercial. Big Boi however, has got more to say than ever before. Although many uninitiated folks claimed Andre was always the real talent, it has become more and more apparent that Big Boi is no slouch when it comes to making the timeless, funk/soul induced compositions the duo was known for.

See Also:

Big Boi Is Not Too Artsy
Excerpt: Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, And The Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop, Wherein Scarface Recalls His Mental-Health-Ward Days

And while Andre was on a mission of change from album to album, giving up weed, alcohol and normal clothes, Big Boi managed to evolve as well but held steadfastly to many of his original aesthetics. The combination worked because Andre pushed boundaries while Big Boi kept the original fans happy. That’s not exactly true, though. They were dubbed “The Pimp and the Poet” by the media, but it doesn’t take a rap genius to know they were both pimps and both poets and both were all about pushing boundaries.

With his second solo album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (third if you count Speakerboxx) due out on December 11, Sir Luscious Leftfoot is out to push Stankonia’s city limits again. Just before his much ballyhooed listening party last night at Converse Rubber Tracks in Brooklyn, Big Boi spoke with us about his new album, his rhyme partner’s lack of, er, rhyming, and how his three kids are his best A&Rs.

OutKast always had interesting album artwork. Tell me about VLADR‘s art?
Basically, this artist Justin, he wanted to do something in a similar vein to previous albums I was involved in, but more iconic. My whole thing with this album is if you don’t know me by now, you ain’t never gonna know me, you feel me? That’s why there’s no Big Boi logo or nothing. If you don’t know that motherfucking face then you ain’t gonna know it. It’s just me in the purest form. And the colors just represent emotion.

So we were talking about how your albums are complete thoughts. Not scattered at all, just cohesive bodies of work. How do you maintain that similar mind-set throughout the recording process?
I still bounce all over the place, but I just don’t work on the same songs. If I get tired of a sound or topic or style, I switch to another. It’s like building a house. My foundation is my beat selection process, just corralling all the beats together. Some might get bumped later on, but that foundation gives me direction.

How do you pick which songs might get bumped and which are going to make the album?
I’ll record 30 or 40 tracks, and I just ride to them for months, sometimes even years. I play them for my kids. They’re like: “What’s that Dad? I like that!” The ones the kids pick I always put them shits to the side.

Wow. Any other trusted ears you rely on for picking songs?
My kids, man, my kids. Eleven, 12, and my oldest daughter is 17. She actually put me on to the Weeknd and Wiz Khalifa. I ain’t know nothing about none of that shit, you feel me? And my two younger kids listen to everything from Future to Guns N’ Roses because they’ve been exposed to all of that coming up.

So A$AP Rocky is on the album. Is there a specific reason you sought him out?
Nah, wasn’t even about seeking out. Like I’ve said, the albums are organically created. I was in Atlanta and was doin’ an interview with Greg Street, and he came up to do an interview after me. He came in, and it was just like, “Hey what’s up?” I told him I was on my way to the studio, he said he wanted to come through. So as soon as he left the radio station, he called me up and showed up at the studio. He stayed for a few hours and knocked his verse out. And he merked it. It’s not like I sat down and was like, “Who can I get on the album that’s hot?”

Do you ever think that way in terms of features and production?
Nah man, no way. I don’t need the hottest nigga to get on my song. My shit’s hot.

You’ve been putting out music as long as Nas has. How do you always manage to come up with new, fresh sounds?
It comes down to really living this music. For me, the recording process never stops. Like we’re mastering this record on Wednesday. I had to take my hands off it last night and just leave it be. And it’s being mastered in Atlanta while I’m up here in New York City, so I don’t even know what they’re doing [laughs]. It’s like sending your kids to school for the first time. But anyway, it’s not yet mastered, and I already have music for the next album. We record. We make music. Unless we’re on tour or acting, we are making music. That’s how you stay fresh with it.

Speaking of acting, you did a good job in ATL. Any other acting gigs in the future?
Yeah definitely. I’ve just been turning roles down because of I just love music the most. But I have to go read for Colin Farrell when I get home.

Do you regret turning any of the acting jobs down?
Oh, man. Yeah. I had never heard of Sons Of Anarchy before, and they wanted me to play a recurring role for six months or so. I was supposed to be some big-time dude, I think his name is Pope or whatever. But I was in the middle of this album, and I was like, “I can’t really do this right now.” My brother was looking at me like, “You’re crazy right now,” but that’s how strong my love is for the music.

So let’s talk label bullshit. Last album Laface was fronting on clearing Andre 3000. Is that still the case?
No, that’s all cleared up now. He could’ve been on any song he wanted to. I gave the motherfucker about five songs, but I guess he was just too busy. He said he had to do some Gillette shit [room erupts in laughter]. No for real. He said he had some contractual obligations.

OK. So what happened with Little Dragon’s former label not clearing them for “Mama Said”?
Well, they left their original label and signed to Universal, so it was like bad blood between Universal and Peace Frog. So when it came time to negotiate clearance it didn’t go so well. But they’re still on the album, and Kelly Rowland is just singing the lyrics Yukimi wrote.

So last thing: “For Your Sorrow” was my shit on the last album.
Mine too, that was my favorite song, hands down. I still play that.

Me, too. At least a few times a week. My question, though, is how do you keep coming up with these formulas for such timeless music?
To me, the secret is that the shit is fun to me. Finding a new groove to make a new song, that shit is fun. When you get the beat right, and then the hooks and the bridges and the lyrics and it all comes together, it’s like this feeling that you get like you hit the jackpot. I can only describe it as trying to unlock the combination to a safe. Once you get inside it, boom.

Yeah but that doesn’t ever wane a bit and leave you stressed and overwhelmed trying to match and even outdo what you did the album prior?
Hell yeah, hell yeah. Last album I was like, “I don’t now how I’m finna do this shit again,” but it’s been like that since Southernplayalistic . . . When in doubt, you just gotta go to work.

Swans’ Most Terrifying Songs
On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, And Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us
How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide


 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

André 3000, Most Valuable Supporting Player

It’s hard to pick the best bar from André 3000’s fantastic 2011 output, but one is most important—”I only say this in cadence, so it don’t get negated”—which he drops in the middle of a rollicking verse on Ke$ha’s “Sleazy.” That’s the mission statement for the erstwhile OutKast member who has spent much of his time from 2003’s massively successful SpeakerBoxxx/The Love Below warbling on his own tracks, while only occasionally gracing songs of the moment and lacing them with lacerating verses that usually address his own insatiable libido and incredible skill while admonishing and advising the youth of America about the truths of this country: I’m rapping, but I’m saying something, but mostly I’m rapping absurdly well.

André hits tracks hard and smacks them to left field. On “Sleazy,” he lampoons his host’s concept of him (“This crazy lady Ke$ha is guessin’ my Mercedes/Would be all new and froo-froo, but it’s a 1980’s”) and the idea of being down (“I call her Keisha/She like it because it’s hood to her”), but he begins with the idea of a mother taking baby pictures to make sure the father remembers a child and includes the lament, “two-parent dwellings and spelling has gotten so underrated.” On Beyoncé’s “Party,” he becomes the scowling wallflower, boasting, “I ain’t worried ’bout them fuck niggas over there” before sighing, “Kiddo say he looks up to me/This just makes me feel old/Never thought that we could become someone else’s hero” and affirming “Grandmom and them, they never forgot, and nothin’ else really mean nothin’ to me.”

“Dedication to My Ex (Miss That)” finds him constructing his own version of the popular rap-is-a-woman metaphor (“I don’t use a cordless microphone aboard them/They don’t feel real to me, meaning real woman”) and imagining a lost lover finding inferior partners (“Now somebody you don’t e’en know got you in bed/Betcha buddy don’t e’en know you don’t like red”) despite conceding his own dissatisfaction with prior arrangements (“Hate that all of our memories happened in a Hyatt”). It’s a scathing kiss-off to the rap world André flits into and out of like a comet.

Guerrilla critiques like these sound good on paper but better on tracks because André is a fantastic rapper: He rhymes “borrowed,” “pharaoh,” “Cairo,” “stars so,” “marbles,” “car doors,” “call those,” “whole carload,” and “raw hoes” in the space of three bars on “Interlude,” the best verse on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV, before wondering, “How come the only girls that are thought of/Are the light ones?” That query is echoed on “Play the Guitar” (“Why the world sleepin’ on black girls? Hey, I don’t know, man”), which he blisters with “According to the Internet, 3000 got a big ol’ dic…/…tionary fulla words; he must know how to use ’em/It also says I play the violin, and that ain’t true, but,” the best Wikipedia correction ever, before encouraging kids to pick up instruments and eat their vegetables. And on “The Real Her,” he rides a Noah “40” Shebib beat perfectly before wondering why strippers “that can laugh” sit off in a corner and making the best Boise State reference ever.

This stealthy pedagogy isn’t new or unique to André, but he’s the best at it today, in part because he has made scarcity part of his appeal. Listeners know that Three Stacks on a track is a seal of approval, and that’s why he gets tabbed for songs like Young Jeezy’s monogamy fantasy “I Do”—André imagines a daughter who will “love books and cook” and “tote a .22/The laser version”—despite a price tag that could induce sticker shock: No one does cadence that won’t get negated better.

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Toxic Shock

Even those people going into a Britney Spears show cold, like some Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer-type who had been put into the deep freeze sometime before 1996, would know that she was a symbol. Last Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum she was painted as a wanted woman; the interstitials between her performances of the tracks from her most recent album Femme Fatale (Jive) focused on a shady-looking, Spears-obsessed character who watched her every move from a bunker, looking like a distant cousin of her ex-husband Kevin Federline while uttering cants like “Bring your best game, because tonight, you and I are dancing a vicious dance.”

The irony there, of course, was that Spears’ dancing barely reached “possibly rabid” status, let alone anything worthy of being described as mildly vicious. The biggest characteristic of the promotional campaign for Femme Fatale, from the leaks of snippets to the tour that’s currently winding its way around America, has been the hyping of the void at its center by its supporting cast: Britney Spears (the brand) might need Britney Spears (the person) most, but the assists from her producers and her social media team were just as crucial to its existence. The interviews she gave in the run-up to the album’s release were often appended with (conducted via email) apologia, and her producers were more verbose about her artistic contributions than she was; even Carson Daly, who rose to fame lobbing softballs at Spears and her teenpop peers on TRL, bristled at how little access he was actually allowed to have.

Tuesday night’s show further revealed Spears’s seeming disinterest in her own career. Sure, she addressed the audience with hi-love-you patter a couple of times, but she sat down more often than that—on risers and fake motorcycles as her dancers busted (very impressive) moves, on a swing that sailed into the rafters as an aerialist attempted to distract attention from her by hovering between her butt and the ground. She didn’t look happier all night until the moment when Nicki Minaj, who had opened the show, returned to turn in her blistering verse on the apocalypse-now barnburner “Till The World Ends,” which served as the night’s finale.

On Sunday afternoon, her taking a load off made even more sense. Big Boi—the Atlanta hip-hop star whose Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son Of Chico Dusty (LaFace) was a top-10 Pazz and Jop finisher, someone whose musical output would likely never get denigrated the way Spears’s can be by the more snobbish musical commentators out there—was, after being busted for drug possession in Miami on Sunday afternoon, reduced by the shock factory TMZ to being “rapper for the popular group OutKast.” His bust for possession of unprescribed Viagra and Ecstasy launched him into Twitter’s trending topics, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think that much of the peanut gallery had never spent time bickering over whether Speakerboxxx or The Love Below was the better half of OutKast’s 2003 Pazz and Jop-winning double LP.

People can spend hours in comment-section purgatory debating whether Boi needs to reunite with Andre 3000 and put out an OutKast record lickety-split, or whether Femme Fatale holds a gas-station lighter to the blissfully ruined night that was Spears’s 2007 chronicle of her lowest point Blackout. But the facts put forth by police reports and paparazzi photos—a drug charge here, an umbrella-whacked paparazzo’s vehicle there—are incontrovertible, and serve as watercooler flashpoints in the discussions of people whose name recognition might send up a flare of search-engine optimization or a “oh yeah, that guy.” Controversy outweighs product; Googleability outranks listenability. In this light, then, Spears both leaving the heavy artistic living to her cadre of pop Svengalis and becoming most comfortable when the spotlight was off her makes sadly perfect sense. That her show ended with her ascending toward the rafters, strapped into a swing so that it looked like we were all watching an angel gain admission to what was surely a paparazzo-free heaven, was probably no accident.

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‘The Governors Ball’

Now that we’re entering the balmy days of summer, we Gothamites deserve outdoor festivals, right? Still no word about All Points West, so we might have to make due with Rock the Bells, River to River, and this one-day, two-stage mini-fest. The big attraction today is Girl Talk, who’ll pull half the crowd onstage while mashing up classic rock and rap, but this is also a chance to see Big Boi (who does Outkast songs in his set) as well as indie-rap smarties Das Racist and a DJ set from Passion Pit. The fest will also offer beer-pong, ping-pong, volleyball, and basketball, but organizers have warned concertgoers to leave their explosives, umbrellas, and nunchucks at home.

Sat., June 18, noon, 2011

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Greg Dulli Finds Religion

Uptown again: riding shotgun in some dealer’s Chrysler, peeling out of a motel parking lot with the darkness at the edge of town nipping at your bumper. And you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” Luckily, your driver has the answer, because Greg Dulli albums never bury the lede: “Whenever you’re here, you’re alive.”

That’s the first line on the sixth album by the Twilight Singers, led by one of the most rewarding, formally inventive, and charismatic songwriters and performers to emerge from ’90s alternative rock. For almost 20 years, Dulli has been making quagmires, bad deals, late nights, fuck-ups, felonies, and emotional terrorism sound like a party. But on Dynamite Steps, despite that opener, it seems like someone might have finally shot out the lights.

During the gradual breakup of the unbreakable Afghan Whigs (as they named their career retrospective), Dulli debuted the Twilight Singers under a blue light, scented candles burning, with Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers. That 2000 album, co-produced by Fila Brazilia­—a down-tempo duo whose name rings out in cafés and clothing boutiques across parts of London (10 years ago) . . . (actually, they’re not bad)­—was a morose and muted affair, full of synth strings, off-brand Timbaland programming, and falsetto whispers about how he once wanted to be king. It was at once Dulli’s break from the “Motown as played by Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life band” sound that made the Whigs’ 1998 swan song, 1965, such an utter joy, and the first sign of the musical restlessness that has defined his output since.

But as the Singers turned into a real band—if one with a fluid membership encompassing more than a dozen present and former members, including Pigeonhead’s Shawn Smith, who presumably left to sit on a pile of “Battleflag” money and listen to Zapp—their sound, understandably, began to resemble that of the late-period Whigs. 2003’s Blackberry Belle was a sleek, tuned-up pop-rock record, with tributes to the Who and songs that could have been sold to the Goo Goo Dolls for a pretty penny. The follow-up, and still the band’s peak, was 2006’s Powder Burns, a terrifyingly accurate account of one bender too many, told from a variety of perspectives (dealer, user, etc.) that still found enough time to throw in an OutKast reference, keeping listeners on the toes of their dancing shoes.

I mention the Triple Stacks nod because, despite having a go-to palette of sonic tricks and recurring themes both musical (Hüsker Dü guitars run through ’60s soul arrangements) and lyrical (sex, drugs, and co-dependency), Dulli has always been at his best when his ears were open, even seemingly in jest. One of the Whigs’ greatest songs, 1965‘s “Crazy,” features an even-then-anachronistic but still amusing clip of Diddy asking, “Who’s hot? Who’s not?”; a song deeper into the album slyly invokes Nas. And one of Dulli’s greatest gifts is to make the most depressing, grimly accurate material sound, at times, ecstatic, uplifting, and cathartic.

Dynamite Steps, though, sounds somewhat cloistered: Cut off from the outside world, it hands out the uplift sparingly. While it may have been “shot on location” (Dulli the ex-film-student’s preferred substitute for “recorded”) everywhere from Joshua Tree to L.A. to New Orleans, it’s filtered through a stained-glass lens regardless. He’s nothing if not indulgent, reveling in sin and confession with equal amounts of passion. This is, after all, a man who openly admitted to having a dick for a brain back in his Whigs days, and sounded like he was getting as much of a kick out of confessing it as having it in the first place. But on Dynamite, he’s not just stopping by church for a quick penance—he has decided to stay a while.

“All rise with me, all take your place,” he sings in “On the Corner,” one of many sermons featured on this very religious and, subsequently, very dark album. Superficially, the songs feel like your usual Greg Dulli tracks, depicting people stifled by relationships that have become simultaneously unsustainable and inescapable (if this guy ever wrote a Modern Love column, it would probably just read, “Kill yourself”). But it doesn’t take a believer to see the hand of God and the work of his fallen angel all over the place. “Get Lucky,” for instance, combines the high-stakes emotional poker that Dulli’s characters often play with new, nearly mythic overtones: “Careful when you look into my eyes/You’ll turn to stone/And I am not that strong to let you go.” Elsewhere, on “Be Invited,” an addict goes way past bottom, plunging into hell itself as Dulli prophesizes, “Soon you’ll be stealing from the odds and ends who once were friends but now you demonize” before warning, “There’s something at work here.”

It’s not really surprising that Outkast references and Nas shout-outs are nonexistent here; the music matches the mood. Gorgeously produced by the Syndicate, many of these tracks are piano-driven, mid-tempo dirges that take a while to get rolling; occasionally, as on “Be Invited,” they just circle the block. Often, the songs start with Dulli alone, wallowing somewhere with his keyboard set to “screwed-and-chopped Journey chords,” scaring his flock with wounded, howled tales of falling into the fire.

And despite some snatches of light—the unhinged, serrated guitars of “Waves” (harkening all the way back to the Whigs’ Congregation) and the lovely, Ani DiFranco–assisted “Blackbird and the Fox”—Dynamite waits until the very end to allow us release. The closing song, title track, and album high point has a decidedly sunnier disposition, and for good reason: There’s no more pain to feel, no more lies to tell, no more promises to break. As handclaps punctuate our singer’s invocation of “reckoning,” a classic Dulli crescendo envelopes you: strings swirling around buzzing guitars, and the sound building as the story’s ending is laid bare: “You’re never going to feel like you felt last night/Ever wonder where went your guiding light?/Wake up in a field with a second sight. . . . You’ll love me.” Yeah, well, catharsis aside, here’s what we learn: Satan is real. Heaven is whenever.

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Big Boi+Calvin Harris

While we wait for the the much-anticipated next OutKast album, we’ve been fortunate to have half of its membership release one of the most critically lauded rap albums of the year. Boi’s funk gets pretty gritty now (heavy P-Funk-style stank), but that’s definitely a plus with this type of music. And while Calvin Harris can headline arenas in the United Kingdom, his humorous dance music gets passed over here, usually in favor of LCD Soundsystem, which ain’t entirely fair.

Wed., Dec. 22, 8 p.m., 2010