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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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STEP IN THE NAME OF LOVE

With his ’80s and ’90s statutory rape allegations and indictments returning to the news, R. Kelly seems to be ending 2013 in decline. That said, the Chicago crooner’s year took a turn for the worse in late summer back when Jaheim released his own “Age Ain’t a Factor,” the best r&b sex jam in years. The track finds the singer promising to pleasure his aging love, assuring her that, like a fine wine, she’s only getting better with time. The following album, Appreciation Day (I won’t tell you what he appreciates, but you’ll probably guess it on your second try), contains more of the same, as should today’s Stage 48 show.

Sat., Dec. 28, 4 p.m., 2013

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K. Michelle

K. Michelle’s 2012 mixtape 0 F*cks Given detailed her piques and pains with a specificity and vocal dexterity befitting mentor R. Kelly at his secular, pre-revivalist peak but without his impersonal use of artifice. The dissonance between title and content is not rooted in the self-delusion that Ms. Michelle’s reality show, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, frequently exploits. Rather than feigning implacability, 0 F*cks asserts a defiant, radical vulnerability, as intimated on the bare-all cover photograph.

Tue., Feb. 19, 8 p.m., 2013

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Happy Birthday Ignition: Let’s All Bounce, Bounce, Bounce to R. Kelly’s 11 Best Food Lyrics

R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” celebrated its 10th birthday yesterday (which means the crooner is probably giving the song a second look right about now — sorry!). The tune was one of Kelly’s best, and helped convince exhausted party-goers everywhere to hit the hotel lobby before going home.

In honor of this modern anthem, we’ve gathered 11 of our favorite R.Kelly food lyrics. Some of these are a stretch, as Kelly isn’t known for his culinary prose, but for the man who shoots a mid-song nod to Angela Lansbury, we’ll let it slide.

No more hopin’ and wishin’, here’s the list.

11. Pregnant (Untitled, 2009): “Take you out to eat, wine and dine/Shoppin’ spree, you sexin’ me/See, I’m not cheap or selfish, babe/Girl, I’m just thirstin’ for that booty, babe.”

10. In the Kitchen (TP-3 Reloaded, 2005): “Cuttin’ up tomatoes, fruits and vegetables and potatoes/Girl, you look so sexy while you’re doin’ the damn thing.”

9. Sweet Tooth (Double Up, 2007): “I can’t wait to drink your milk/You’re lookin’ like a big ol’ piece of cake/I’m all up in your middle/Ooh it taste like Skittles/I’m just keepin’ it real with you Girl/I got a sweet tooth.”

8. Honey Love (Born Into the 90’s, 1992): “You listen, just like a lollipop, you’re so sweet, babe/And your body’s like a lemon drop/Sure tastes good to me.”

7. Etcetera (R., 1998): “Picture this you and me in the kitchen babe, on the counter/Feeding each other fruits babe.”

6. R & B Thug (TP-2, 2000): “On the low, fruit bowls and whipped cream/We can get up on a fancy suite/Thugged out with some Hennessy/See, see, see/Lock your body up and throw away the key.”

5. Don’t Say No (TP-2, 2000): “At the Cheesecake with all of your friends and family/Who’s gonna front the bill? Me/Valet your gator at the club plus buy you drinks/Who gon’ show you love? Me/Spend lots of money winin’ and dinin’ in expensive suites.”

4. Rock Star (Double Up, 2007): “And I’ll, I’ll lick ya, I’ll lick ya down, you taste like cinnamon And I’ll grab a little bit of that whip cream.”

3. Sweet Tooth (Double Up, 2007): “Girl set the table, now let me feast/Strawberry shortcake with whipped cream I can taste it, my mouth is waterin’ for you/Come here girl let me show you.”

2. In the Kitchen (TP-3 Reloaded, 2005): Sex in the kitchen over by the stove/Put you on the counter by the buttered rolls/Hands on the table, on your tippy toes/We’ll be making love like the restaurant was closed.”

1. Ignition (Remix) (Chocolate Factory, 2003): “Hot and fresh out the kitchen/Mama rollin that body/Got every man in here wishin/Sippin on coke and rum/I’m like so what I’m drunk/It’s the freakin weekend baby/I’m about to have me some fun.”

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R. Kelly Got Jokes

Now 20-plus years, 1 million hits, 2 million double entendres, one disturbing sex tape, one not-guilty verdict, and one giant color photo textbook, Soulacoaster, about his life into his career, there are a few things we know about R. Kelly.

In song, he has had sex on other planets (“Sex Planet”), in the jungle (“The Zoo”), and in the kitchen (“Sex in the Kitchen”). By the stove (“Sex in the Kitchen”). On the counter (“Sex in the Kitchen”). By the buttered rolls (“Sex in the Kitchen”).

He wants his women in nothing but his XL white tee (“Put My T-Shirt On”) or in the buff (“Naked”), two at a time (“Double Up”) in 12 different positions (“12 Play”).

He has compared his dick to, among other things, a remote control (“Remote Control”) so powerful it can “put that ass on pause,” and a key that can start a woman’s engine (“Ignition”). He has compared the female anatomy to the marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal (“Lucky Charm,” for the Isleys) and kush (“Sex Weed”), and in “Sweet Tooth” he coos, “I’m all up in your middle/Ooh it taste like Skittles,” because he’s a total fucking romantic.

With the release of Write Me Back this summer, he’s 16 albums in. This week, he’s releasing 20 more chapters of his outlandish, please-God-make-it-stop, please-God-don’t-ever-let-it-stop hip-hopera Trapped in the Closet, which he claims will conclude after Chapter 100.

R. Kelly is a horny, hungry, funny, prolific student of anatomy.

Of his insatiable sexual appetite there is no debate. But people, over the years, have oft wondered about Kelly’s knack for the comedic. Not whether it’s there, which is undeniable, but whether he knows it. Does R. Kelly know he’s funny?

He does.

The confusion on the subject is twofold and can be explained partly by the fact that he has never met an obvious joke he didn’t greet with open arms. He makes a Uranus joke on “Sex Planet,” and on the remix to Raheem DeVaughn’s “Customer,” he’s full of sex/food analogies, none, given what we know is on that sex tape, more unappetizingly on the nose than “Shorty, if you thirsty, I got some good, good lemonade.” (You know, just in case his song “Number One” didn’t make you feel uncomfortable enough.) He’s more Catskills hack than Louis C.K. perfection. Either way, the man knows he’s writing jokes.

But Kelly’s overearnestness on the flip side of his catalog doesn’t help folks believe in his comedy cause, either. Many of his ballads—”I Believe I Can Fly,” “I’m Your Angel”—are packed tightly with platitudes sung with a crystal clear sincerity and rocket-fuel intensity. Kelly is an entertainer and a salesman, and it’s hard to believe he can be filled with the kind of genuine empathy it takes to sing a song like “U Saved Me” or “When a Woman’s Fed Up” only to turn around and be the joke-cracking super freak he is on, say, most of Double Up or TP.3 Reloaded. It’s hard to believe he can be a mountain, a tall tree, and a sexasaurus.

But that’s what makes him great. On his last album, Love Letter, he was Sam Cooke. On his Single Ladies Tour, complete with a ladies-only VIP section, he is Marvin Gaye. On the songs in which he invokes God, he is still very much the young choir-singing boy we meet in Soulacoaster, learning to sing in service to his lord. Elsewhere, he’s an r&b thug. He’s a sinner, a saint, and a clown, a riddle wrapped in an enigma stuffed in a too-obvious metaphor about his cock.

R. Kelly is Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and Bernie Mac and T.D. Jakes and P. Diddy.

R. Kelly performs at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, November 21 and Friday, November 23.

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ASTRONAUT STATUS

He’s wearing Gucci, and he’s wearing Bally at the same damn time. He’s on the phone, and he’s cooking dope at the same damn time. He’s on Pluto, and he’s on Mars, yes, at the same damn time. He’s Future, the deeply Auto-Tuned Atlanta rapper whose recent debut is innovative, hard, lyrical, catchy, and even a bit sentimental, often at the same damn time. Singles like “Tony Montana” have gotten most of the attention, but don’t sleep on album cuts like the softer, rambling “Truth Gonna Hurt You” or the R. Kelly duet “Parachute.” Tonight, Future touches down at Irving Plaza with Pusha T, one half of the Clipse’s brothers Thornton, opening.

Mon., June 4, 8 p.m., 2012

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R&B Serenity Now: R. Kelly, Ne-Yo, and Others Keep the Quiet-Storm Flame Alive

When a perennially chart-topping r&b superstar compares his lover to a number-one hit—as R. Kelly does in “Number One Hit,” a cut from his new Love Letter—just how psyched should the lover be? I mean, a number-one hit—that’s definitely good! But Kelly’s had, like, a zillion of ’em; “Number One Hit” isn’t even his first song about a number-one hit. (Number one among those? “Number One,” from last year’s Untitled.) So doesn’t that mean that Kelly’s metaphor says less about the lover’s uniqueness than it does about how readily she’ll be replaced?

That may well be the singer’s point, of course, given the nearly philosophical aversion to monogamy depicted in his “Trapped in the Closet” serial. But the ambiguity sticks out on the commitment-pimping Love Letter, much of which plays like a modest about-face from Untitled’s unabashed raunch. “Even when I’m dead and gone,” he sings in the Sam Cooke–styled “When a Woman Loves,” “I’m gonna love her from the sky.”

Whatever the true message of “Number One Hit,” you can’t blame Kelly for having Billboard on the brain: Music’s fourth-quarter release schedule has been unusually packed with classically minded r&b albums, all of them in competition for those holiday-shopping dollars not already earmarked for Speak Now or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In addition to Kelly’s latest, new discs are out (or coming) from Ne-Yo, Jazmine Sullivan, Charlie Wilson, Faith Evans, Eric Benét, El DeBarge, Tank, Sunshine Anderson, Avant, Keyshia Cole, and Ron Isley. Even the high-minded Chrisette Michele, whose Let Freedom Reign features typically brainy cameos by Talib Kweli and Black Thought, gets in on the chart-jockeying act with her own tune called “Number One” (which is actually about the struggle for self-empowerment, but still). Like everything else this fall, these records have been thoroughly overshadowed; their simultaneous appearance, though, seems to reflect the industry’s belief in a robust soul-music market currently underserved by the fashion-forward likes of Ciara, Keri Hilson, and The-Dream.

Some of these throwback specialists throw back further than others. On Libra Scale, the follow-up to 2008’s masterful Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo pays loving homage to vintage solo Michael Jackson, floating his meticulously multi-tracked vocals over shimmering arrangements long on creamy keys and disco-derived bass lines; sometimes, as in “Cause I Said So” or “What Have I Done,” you’ll hear a lick that sounds like Ne-Yo simply broke apart the notes in one of Jackson’s melodies, then reassembled them in a slightly different order.

Jazmine Sullivan aims for an adjacent early-’80s pleasure center in “Don’t Make Me Wait,” a very Purple Rain–ish highlight from her solid Love Me Back that actually repurposes a considerable chunk of Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It.” Ne-Yo’s producing partner, Chuck Harmony, shows up later for the finger-wagging “Good Enough,” and again you find yourself thinking about Prince—though not as much as you think about Ne-Yo in “U Get on My Nerves,” which he co-wrote, co-produced, and hijacks for the first verse. If Michele seems in search of more modern ground in the spookily minimal “So in Love,” she evidently forgot to clue in Rick Ross, who peppers his guest verse with references to such icons of ’80s-ness as Tony Montana and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Ron Isley similarly hooks up hip-hop’s help for “Put Your Money on Me,” wherein T.I.’s barrage of luxury-brand shout-outs confers some ostensible currency to a sad little comeback jam in need of a good deal more luxury. On Tavis Smiley last month, Isley admitted that the track was originally intended to be the first single from Mr. I, his first official solo album after decades of operation under the evolving Isley Brothers banner; alas, T.I.’s recent re-incarceration left the rapper unavailable for a video shoot. (Isley had to have understood: The 69-year-old himself got out of prison earlier this year following a bid for tax-evasion charges.) Forced to improvise, Def Jam led instead with the silky “No More,” which presents Isley in a much more flattering light as he likens a lover to “a timeless record,” “an old-school ’64,” and, perhaps most endearingly, “my favorite TV show.”

The song’s subtext, of course, is the fortification of Isley’s legend status in the Age of Auto-Tune. At one point, he sharpens the conceit to a point his old collaborator Kelly might appreciate: “Just like a record in the studio/They don’t make ’em like you no more.” Demonstrably untrue, obviously. Yet Isley squeezes the sour grapes so effortlessly that you’re willing to indulge his White Striped paranoia. Former Gap Band frontman Charlie Wilson seems far less worried about his legacy on Just Charlie, an appealingly breezy set that takes its old-school timelessness as a given—he even convinces the perpetually anguished Fantasia to lighten up for a sweet, sleek rendition of “I Want to Be Your Man,” care of Roger Troutman, whose oft-sampled talk-box indiscretions paved the way for such robo-soul interlopers as T-Pain and Jason Derulo. Then again, maybe this G.O.O.D. Friday veteran is just more sure than Isley of his next-gen appeal.

That understated confidence also drives Faith Evans’s first album in five years, which serves as her first indie release following stints with Bad Boy and Capitol. (Because it’s that time of year, allow me to heartily recommend the latter label’s 2005 offering A Faithful Christmas, on which the former Mrs. Biggie Smalls offers up some of the most emotionally complicated holiday music I’ve heard.) Something About Faith features high-wattage guest shots by Snoop Dogg and Raekwon (each of whom claims the singer as his homegirl), but with its cozy home-fire thematics and tasteful quiet-storm arrangements, the disc always feels like Evans’s grown-up show. An r&b traditionalist with hip-hop history, she makes no bones about her old-fashioned value system, as she outlines in literal laundry-list fashion on “Real Things”: “Security, serenity, stability,” she sings. “Loyalty, honesty, sanity.” For who else would that constitute a hook?

Evans goes frothier for her own cameo on Eric Benét’s “Feel Good,” a precisely calibrated (and thoroughly delightful) classic-Chic pastiche that proves the former Mr. Halle Berry wasn’t kidding when he titled his new one Lost in Time. Elsewhere on this crafty album, Benét expertly channels the plush balladry of mid-’80s Luther Vandross (“Never Live Without You”), the propulsive zing of early-’70s Philly soul (“Paid,” featuring Eddie Levert himself), and the frantic cheer of last-days disco (“Good Life”). His most impressive trip backward, though, comes in “Sometimes I Cry,” which couldn’t sound more like an outtake from Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night if it sprouted pretty wings and flew the urban hang suite. “Two years since you walked away from me,” Benét falsetto-izes over a spacey electric-piano groove, “since all of our scattered dreams were just thrown away.” That line may or may not be Benét’s attempt to claim a point of inspiration predating Maxwell’s 2009 return. Either way, its invocation of a powerful memory feels firmly like a product of its time.

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The Eerie Relief of Sam Amidon

“We’ll do an old murder ballad,” announces Sam Amidon with laconic good cheer, acknowledging our demand for an encore. It’s an early April Saturday night, and the tentative onset of spring buoys the collective heart of the respectfully silent crowd, who had regarded tonight’s opening act while sitting cross-legged on 92Y Tribeca’s concrete floor, since risen to their feet and buoyed further by the softly whimsical deadpan of Amidon himself. He cycles between acoustic guitar and dexterously plucked banjo, singing gentle and slightly eerie folk tunes of somewhat scrambled, Reality Hunger–esque origin (“They’re old songs that I found in different places—I changed them around some,” is the way he’s described an earlier record, 2007’s evocatively titled But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted) in a frail, bright, mournful voice, contrasting nicely with his occasionally loopy lyrical concerns (he plays the one about the falsehearted chicken), beyond-loopy stage banter (we’ll get to it), and taste for the odd R. Kelly cover.

Don’t worry. It’s a sweet, gorgeous, life-affirming, not-at-all-hokey R. Kelly cover. We’ll get to that, too. But let’s talk for a second about the old murder ballad.

“Wild Bill Jones” is a bluegrass staple—everyone from the Stanley Brothers to Alison Krauss has taken a hack at it. The narrator sees his true love out walking with Wild Bill Jones and shoots him, basically. (Shoots Wild Bill Jones, not the true love.) Whereas interpreters often opt for a pleasantly paradoxical peppiness about it at all, Amidon’s version is slow and funereal, ringing acoustic-guitar chords with plenty of space in between for silence, dread, regret. “So I drew a revolver from my side/And I shot at the poor boy’s soul,” he sings, in a pleasantly paradoxical warm monotone, his face blank. Another verse begins: “He rambled and he scrambled all along the ground/And he let out a dreadful moan.”

And then Amidon actually lets out a dreadful moan. More of a stabbing, high-pitched shriek, really, held for a truly disconcerting 30 seconds or so, his facial stoicism unchanged. Iiiiiieeeeewwwwwwwww. Legitimately terrifying. Some real Sunn O))) shit. Some people giggle, some people cringe. And when he runs out of breath, Amidon inhales again and continues right on with the song, nonplussed as ever.

It’s these bizarre little jolts that really get him over. Tonight, we are celebrating the release of I See the Sign, his second
record for Bedroom Community, the label run by Valgeir Sigurðsson and prominently featuring orchestral-wizard-to-the-indie-rock-stars Nico Muhly, who embellishes Amidon’s spare inclinations with frilly, elegant horn and string arrangements. As the CD booklet’s cheerfully erudite “Note to the Listener” (sample wisdom: “It would behoove you to listen to a lot more Sonny Rollins”) explains, several tracks are derived from “children’s singing-game songs” picked up by Bessie Jones in the Georgia Sea Islands, refashioned by Amidon into light frolics with the angelic-voiced Beth Orton. The mellow, lithe “Way Go, Lily” synthesizes all of this into the alarmingly lifelike specter of Nick Drake, though generally the results get to an even starker, weirder, more temporally disorienting place.

To that end, the 92Y Tribeca set begins with I See the Sign‘s title track, another respectfully scrambled traditional number, Amidon strumming his guitar forlornly alongside soft, insistent drums (a couple dudes, including opening act Thomas Bartlett, he of arch cabaret-pop purveyors Doveman, chip in on percussion, ghostly piano, burping electronics, and the like). The lyrics come in brief, surrealist snatches—”Sign in the fig tree,” “Loose horse in the valley,” “Two tall angels,” “Dark clouds arising”—Amidon attacking the first word of each phrase with an amateur’s zeal and an expert’s care. “Prodigal Son,” from 2008’s All Is Well, is another highlight: “I believe I’ll go back home,” he moans, “and acknowledge I’ve done wrong.” As the song intensifies, he takes a step back, crouches slightly, raises his hands as if trying to block out the spotlight, and holds there for a spell, a strange sort of supplicant vogue posture, a little creepy and a little endearing, just one more puzzle to work out.

And verily, as a rambling banterer, Amidon is world-class. Early on, he gets on the subject of jazz: “It’s the music where you have to have the brains. Really smart brains.” There’s a long recounting of his harried travails in a U.K. airport that ends, happily, with him on a plane, watching It’s Complicated. Even more labyrinthine is his spiel about falling asleep on his friend’s couch and dreaming that he’s asleep on his friend’s couch, except his pillow is a donkey that’ll bite his hand if he moves.

No one’s quite sure how to take any of this, but when he gets around to asking us to sing with him, we’re more than happy to oblige. He does so a couple times, actually: For “Way Go, Lily,” we chipped in the word sometimes, as in “Gotta roll with the hickory (sometimes)/Gotta roll with a shotgun (sometimes).” But the evening’s true zenith is his cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief.”

Now, R. Kelly covers are dangerous business: Too often, they’re toxically ironic, condescending, guilty-pleasure faux-slumming, attempting to parody someone already 10 steps ahead of anyone trying to mock him. Amidon, though, takes pains to let us know he’s sincere. “I thought R. Kelly had done something really amazing,” he explains. “He’d written a song that had no bearing on reality.”

“Relief,” indeed, is almost ludicrously optimistic, its chorus pairing the phrase “What a relief to know that” with somewhat dubious assertions: We are one, war is over, there’s an angel in the sky, love is still alive. To this end, as we help him sing the stirring, delicately crescendoing chorus at his insistence, Amidon offers a few quick asides:

What a relief to know that
We are one
What a relief to know that
War is over (that’s not true)
What a relief to know that
There’s an angel in the sky
(that’s debatably true)
What a relief to know that
Love is still alive

We all crack up, but we all somehow start to believe it, too. Goes without saying, of course, that we also demand an encore.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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The-Dream Syndicate

Assessing Love vs. Money upon its March 2009 release, I regarded The-Dream’s lyrical obsession with name-brand luxury goods as evidence of a heart as cold as the moon on which he claims to walk on the album’s Kanye-assisted single. (Further evidence: “If you got a booty, shorty, show me your thong.” Poor form, bro, even when you’re throwing down with Lil Jon.) Yet after nine months of continued listening—and several viewings of a fascinating TheLifeFiles.com interview wherein the man born Terius Nash describes his wedding-day outfit in lovingly meticulous detail—I think I’ve got a firmer grip on this self-anointed Radio Killa. Unlike plenty of his power-hungry hip-hop peers, The-Dream doesn’t wield his Dolce and his Louis and his Tom Ford equestrian boots like top-dollar truncheons; instead, he uses the stuff as designer armor to protect what may actually be r&b’s most self-consciously sensitive soul. In a year conspicuously absent an album of Kanye’s own, Love vs. Money illuminated the violence of vulnerability more compellingly than any other.

Well, any other that didn’t sound exactly like The-Dream wrote it, that is. Although his and his producing partner Tricky Stewart’s highest-profile studio project, Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, didn’t quite deliver on its artistic and commercial promise, 2009 was deeply saturated with his sensibility anyway. Consider “Number One,” the latest triumph from longtime inspiration/foil R. Kelly, whose seminal debut so affected The-Dream that he titled one Love vs. Money cut “Kelly’s 12 Play.” (The two slow-jam specialists carried on a kind of flirty intertextual back-and-forth all year. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly about his album’s Grammy snub shortly after the release of Kelly’s Untitled, The-Dream expressed his perfectly reasonable outrage by more or less quoting the Kelly disc’s “Like I Do”: “I don’t know how to dunk. I don’t know how to throw a football 50 yards. But I know how to write some motherfucking r&b songs!”)

My favorite 2009 Dream knock-off was the title track from Robin Thicke’s Sex Therapy, an intoxicating Polow Da Don production in which the sitcom-star scion flips Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” atop a steamy shower-stall synth wash. “It’s your body, we’ll go hard if you want to,” Thicke croons lusciously. “As hard as you want to, soft as you want to.” Recognizable sonics aside, this is an acutely familiar Dream theme, one that crops up nearly as appealingly on “Birthday Sex” by the crafty Windy City newcomer Jeremih, who advertises action and passion in equal measure while riding a sensual talking-drum groove seemingly lifted from J. Holiday’s “Bed,” one of Dream’s earliest (and still finest) hits.

There were also, of course, The-Dream’s own gigs, which, for the most part, were more notable last year when he was writing for men than for the women who facilitated his ascension to behind-the-boards royalty. Snoop Dogg’s “Gangsta Luv,” for instance, occasioned a moment of sweet light-funk effervescence on Malice N Wonderland, an otherwise workmanlike effort from hip-hop’s least motivated MC. How to Be a Lady: Volume 1, by The-Dream’s woefully underpromoted girl-group Electrik Red, provided some cheap distaff thrills, not the least of which was getting to hear lines like, “Ooh, shit, damn” sung oh-so-sweetly over early-’90s throwaway Prince licks.

So what does The-Dream’s ubiquity (in both its real and virtual iterations) mean for r&b? For starters, it speaks to a newly accelerated star system: Remember that “Umbrella,” the Rihanna smash that’ll probably be paying the guy’s bills until he’s dead, only came out in 2007; his and Stewart’s other cross-over triumph, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” surfaced roughly 16 months ago—crazy recent when you consider how inescapable their signature style now seems. (In contrast, two years after he helmed Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Timbaland was still doing time on albums by Playa and Nicole.)

Yet The-Dream’s real accomplishment is the tonal shift he’s triggered throughout his chosen field—and I do mean “throughout his chosen field.” Despite the fact that it failed to seduce Pazz & Jop’s sizable Animal Collective contingent—never mind the Playskool-emo through-line connecting AC’s “My Girls” and Dream’s “My Love”—Love vs. Money received the most points of any album per ballot “by a wide margin,” according to the Voice‘s statistics guru. Those who liked it really liked it; those who voted for it really voted for it. In other words, r&b devotees grasped the significance of what the dude has done, even if “Trapped in the Closet” tourists didn’t.

Is that a disappointment? Sure—but for an evolving Pazz & Jop constituency whose indie-rock chauvinism continues to deepen, it’s certainly no shock. That said, even someone resigned to the genre’s rock-crit marginalization (a thousand Wurlitzers swoon) has to scoff when “Stillness Is the Move”—the perfectly lovely Dirty Projectors number that earned an affectionate redo by Beyoncé sis Solange Knowles—is celebrated as the year’s finest r&b song, with more than twice as many votes as “Pretty Wings,” Maxwell’s diaphanous comeback jam. No disrespect to the xx, whose sleek goth-groove debut finished seven spots ahead of Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night, but is our need for baby-making music really now being met by a group of sickly looking Brits?

Considering how unclear it is where The-Dream is headed in 2010, they may soon be all we’ve got. His squalling contributions to Rihanna’s Rated R—particularly “Rockstar 101,” the dark grunge-crunk jam in which she makes the unlikely announcement that she “don’t really give a fuck”—signaled a definite break from the warm and cuddly vibe of “Umbrella.” And Jennifer Lopez’s late-fall comeback jam, “Louboutins,” was wack-wack-wack. Making matters fuzzier still, The-Dream has threatened that this year’s reportedly forthcoming Love King will be the last album he releases as a solo artist.

Even if he fades away as quickly as he appeared, though, fans can take solace in the fact that we’ll always have “Pregnant,” the full-circle Untitled closer that finds R. Kelly paired with The-Dream and Thicke—oh, and Tyrese, too—for a state-of-the-art master class on the Weird New Sensitivity. The song’s conceit is classic Kelly: Our narrator’s at the club scoping the scene for potential one-night stands—”See, I’m a player, so I ain’t trying to take her on no dates,” he explains—when he spies a chick “with an unbelievable booty,” which leads somehow to fantasies of “this big old house with a picket fence and a dog.” (A dog!) Yet it’s Thicke and The-Dream who flesh out the scenario so wonderfully: First, Thicke promises, “If you choose me, I guarantee that the rest of your life would be man-drama-free,” then The-Dream suggests putting “those pills on chill” before telling his baby-mama-to-be, “I’m-a take care of you, and I’m-a still hold you like we brand-new/So don’t get it twisted/For 30-something weeks I’m still gon’ hit it.”

A Prada-wearing papa whose carnal understanding exceeds his demand for mathematical precision? How could so many of you resist this guy?

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Devendra Banhart and R. Kelly, ‘Maturing’

Let’s back into thisone with the sort of SAT analogy that can help us tidy our thoughts, like “painting is to frame as freak is to cage“—yessir, that’ll do. That’s the primary lesson of the chapter on sideshow freaks in Janet Davis’s history The Circus Age: The all-important cage, she explains, transformed ape men and one-eyed monsters from pitiful curiosities into objects of subtle male envy. This was back in a Victorian time when the loss of America’s wilderness stoked fears that the loss of America’s manliness was next.

Roughly 100 circus seasons later, the American male wilderness lives on in the work of two modern-day freaks: Devendra Banhart (28, centaur progenitor, primary architect of what some describe/deride as “freak folk”) and R. Kelly (42, sexual degenerate on-record if not in court, and a “dog when I’m walking through the mall”). On their new records—What Will We Be and Untitled, respectively—these two pansexuals flaunt personas as silly and erotically liberal as ever. But if they imagine themselves as virile objects of male envy, they’re also objects of pity, trapped as they are by the cages in which freaks tend to roll through town. The thought holds especially true of R. Kelly, who, on Untitled, sounds more like a prisoner of his appetites than a creature of them.

Actually, the same might hold for Banhart, whose primary hang-up involves exiling himself into an aural dreamscape of sepia-toned, old-fangled sentimentality. Partly, that kink comes through in Banhart’s voice, which resuscitates various 20th-century weirdos gone/not forgotten: He can coo haunting quivers alongside blackface’s creepiest minstrels, croak a hernia-inducing Cat Stevens groan of dog-tired protest, and bellow with enough Halloween boom to reanimate Jim Morrison, but what he really brings to Weirdolandia is a willingness to dive lower on the regression/immaturity scale than even the Lizard King would crawl. We’re talking psychedelic baby babble, hoots, inexplicable cackling, giggling gibberish, zany iambic pentameter, and general fun-loving Peter Pan–isms that counterbalance the aged sagacity of, say, Cat Stevens.

Often, however, Banhart’s self-exile to the Age of Cute teeters between childlike and childish—his antics can be as glib as the aged sagacity they’re designed to diffuse. Me, I like to hear some motion in my psychedelic folk, to hear the eccentrics involved navigate the perilous road between the all-purpose recalcitrance of adolescence and the more principled recalcitrance of acquired folk wisdom.

Luckily, that’s what Banhart’s up to here. On “Rats,” he matches monkey hoots and giggly hiccups with fully fleshed rock riffs that signify as macho, manly, mature. For “Foolin’,” he moans his silly ghost/blackface impression over a world-weary Upsetters-style skank that signifies as wise. On “Baby,” a newborn somersaults into Banhart’s world, presumably displacing Banhart himself: “Holy moly, you crack me up,” the singer remarks to the babe whose arrival has awed, humbled, and humanized the Mountain God. What Will We Be is neither trim nor consistent, and its excess seems to flow from carelessness, not exuberance. But it’s good growth for the freak involved—and for men, generally.

R. Kelly’s new opus, on the other hand, hits all the sweet spots—with 808s and piano rolls mixed in a place still called the Chocolate Factory, the production is as efficiently romantic as you’d expect. And yet, in contrast to Banhart’s messy maturation, Untitled feels like a petty, disappointing accomplishment. 2007’s Double Up featured imaginatively self-aware dramas like “Same Girl” and “Real Talk”; this time, Kelly all but concedes his creative fatigue on “Like I Do”: “There’s only two things in this world that I’m the best at,” he croons. “Number one is music/And baby girl, number two/Can’t nobody rock your body like I do.”

But about that: In 2009, both talents sound ever more like they stem from the same skill set. Yes, Untitled packs beaucoup horndog lyrics—”Kells gives sex seminars,” ha, ha, ha, etc. But his sex talk is increasingly employed as a metaphor for the audience-artist relationship: Every amorous come-on is voiced at the rhetorical “you,” his listener. The crafts of lovemaking and songmaking preoccupy Untitled, especially on the Europop number “I Love the DJ,” in which Kelly’s crush on a she-J doubles as celebration of r&b’s current trajectory. Then there’s “Number One,” which is either a No. 1 record about having sex, or a No. 1 record about making sex that’s as good as a No. 1 record. Draw your own sex-music-sex infinity loops.

Still, any attempt to thread larger themes from Untitled‘s sex seminars dies quick, considering that R. Kelly is presently invested in only one kind of sexual encounter: the conquering, pin-her-on-the-wall, victorious-tears-of-joy style prevalent in the innocent fantasies of idiotic boys. Check the hyperbole. In the course of Untitled, R. Kelly has you 1) sounding like you’re screaming from a mountain peak; 2) banging the headboard; and c) grabbing your ears. On “Echo,” he even makes you yodel—yodelayheehoo.

This is what is meant by the term “trappings of success.” The more clubs, charts, and ladies R. Kelly conquers, the more his art becomes about the sad gilded cage than the freak locked in it. He pops a “$1,000 tab” on “Crazy Night,” but sounds less thrilled than vindicated to be getting drunk off the per capita GDP of Pakistan. You can hear it in his voice, which sounds torn with raspy stress lines, and carries memories of the 2Pac ’90s, when success = vengeance.

It’s tragic to see a master of r&b finesse fall back onto a childish, domineering bent that comes off as boorish, entitled, and mean-spirited. Lest we doubt R. Kelly’s reluctance to slide into the gentler, more bemused Hugh Hefner phase of bachelorhood, the album ends with “Pregnant,” a thoroughly repugnant track that the NAACP will probably have to publicly disown. “Girl, I just wanna get you pregnant,” Kelly declares. “Lay you down.” Whether she’s being laid down on the living-room rug or in society isn’t clarified, or maybe it is: “I’m ’bout to handle my business,” he concludes, “and put that girl in my kitchen.”

Question: How can a record so intent on handling business and/or demonstrating mountain-peak, yodel-inducing levels of man prowess be so simultaneously juvenile? Maybe because America’s dysfunctional marriage system, of which Kelly is a product, helps consumer culture glamorize an endless summer of adolescence—or, relatedly, because the pressure on men to remain forever virile sells Cialis and stirs inner demons on both sides of the sideshow fence. A man willing to go a little soft in his forties, though—now that would be the great American freak, monster, perv.