Fresh like, unhh; Impala, unnh

3/22/05

If you want to critique culture, you better stay abreast of it, which is why I subject myself monthly to an hour of “Top 20 on 20” on the XM Radio, which plays a loop of the nation’s biggest hits of the moment. It’s an excellent crib sheet to remain aware of what’s selling, and like a good workout, it’s exceedingly painful with occasional rewards.

Before I say anything else, I’d just like to point out that I have rocked as hard as any other middle-class white kid. I moshed to the Clash when I was 15 at William & Mary, I threw toilet paper at Dinosaur Jr. in 1993 and I took ecstasy while watching a Japanese noise band play vacuum cleaners at a warehouse in New Orleans.

I also studied violin for twenty years, piano for twenty-three, and my tastes admittedly run in the high-harmony Brit pop clusters of the Beatles, Squeeze, XTC and the twisted orchestral pop of the Smiths and Cocteau Twins. Yet when I first heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, I made my mom pull the car over so I could take it all in. In short, I feel like I’ve done the fucking work. I still look for those moments of epiphany. I am not some ninny-come-lately who thinks that all new music is crap; I long for decent new music, I breathe in it.

So it is with genuine innocence that I ask: what the blithering motherfuck is going on with current rap artists? No, I don’t mean Outkast or anyone doing something intelligent, I mean shit like “How We Do” by The Game Featuring 50 Cent. The music is terrible; it’s just a terrifically boring sample played over and over to a soulless synth beat, with these two guys talking, basically, about themselves.

This is what I don’t get: I love hip-hop/rap that is funny, is about subject matter like the universality of love, or even giant asses (“Baby Got Back”), political treatises (Public Enemy, The Roots) or something insanely catchy (Andre 3000 and Big Boi, De La Soul). Even if the song lacks all music, I’ll listen to any rapper expound upon anything external, but FUCK! All they’re really good at is yammering about their own solopsistic bullshit. What do today’s teens really see in these songs? Most of these tracks don’t even have a decent beat.

When Rashad McCants, star of our Carolina basketball team, makes a 3-pointer, he usually does the “diamond” symbol of Rockefella records (home to Jay-Z). What is Rashad really saying, that he believes in the ethic of Rockafella? And what does Jay-Z talk about, other than his own navel? I’m at a loss here. I just don’t get what there IS to these songs.

Yes, yes, I sound like an old fart. Too fucking bad. Someone has to ask the question. When our parents hated KISS in 1979, it was because they hated their style, their sentiment, their incredibly silly makeup, and it was just too darn loud. Our parents objected to what these bands were – I am not making the same mistake. I am wondering aloud what “How We Do” actually is, because I can’t see it even when I strain.

The rest of the Top 10 may be trite, but at least they’re trying. Green Day, despite their faux cockney accents and deep derivativeness, have excellent politics, and the songs actually have chords; they are trying to put forth an actual notion. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is just Em G D A (like about twelve other pop songs I could name, including, basically, “Wonderwall” by Oasis) but they are attempting something – and, I believe, succeeding.

But the ease with which rap artists can make a releasable track is indicative of how artistically shoddy these things are. There is a new number one song each week, and getting to number one is pathetically easy. It will soon get to the point where every artist will have one song, then disappear. You’ll have someone like Kelis release “Milkshake” and that will be it, every time. Rock and Roll Jeopardy will be insanely hard when covering this decade, unless each question can be answered “Who is Beyoncé?”

I’m all ears. Someone please tell me the appeal of “How We Do” and the like. The answers “you just don’t get it” or “the aural cortex of human beings has changed over the last 15 years” or “go back to listening to Erasure, ya ponce” will not be accepted.

0 thoughts on “Fresh like, unhh; Impala, unnh

  1. flaco

    Sage Francis, “A Healthy Distrust”
    dälek, “Absence” (also check out his collab with
    Faust!!)
    Mike Ladd, “Negrophilia — The Album” (jazzy triphop)
    Aesop Rock, “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives”
    MIA, “Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1”
    MIA, “Arular”
    Pedestrian, “Unindian Songs, Vol. 1”
    Lateef & The Chief, “Maroons: Ambush” (awesome new stuff from Quannum collective)

    Reply
  2. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Thanks to you, I now have the following lyric rolling through my brain, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like, it’s better than your’s, damn right, it’s better than your’s, I’d teach you, but I’d have to charge.”
    I am not familiar with “How We Do” — is it anything like “In The Club”? I have not been impressed with top 40 tunes in a long time myself, at least not since Alanis Morrissette’s “You Outta Know.” Now, THAT was a song!

    Reply
  3. Sean

    It isn’t that you don’t get it, but it is telling that you mock Kelis and celebrate Outkast, without realizing that Kelis is featured on Outkast’s latest album, and that Andre 3000 is a huge fan of hers.
    If you listened to KISS and said, “There really is a song about how they want to Rock and Roll all night and party every day? That’s, frankly, just stupid”, you’d be right. If you don’t take Kiss with a giant grain of salt and a postmodern sensibility, then you don’t get it. And frankly, I don’t and I don’t. Kiss is a terrible band, boring, assinine, useless and appealing to the shitheads that used to kick my ass in high school.
    I know you have a copy of “99 Problems” by Jay-Z, so go listen to it twice. It’s as meaningful and twice as fun as anything by De La Soul, who’s “Me, Myself and I” is certainly “yammering about their own solopsistic bullshit”.
    And, despite your excellent ear and yearning for more music, you don’t buy a lot of new music and you don’t go see live music very often, so you are irrelevent to the music industry. I’m not saying that you don’t get it, but mostly that it doesn’t really matter to the people making music if you do. I’m in the same boat, by memorizing “Rubber Soul” we’ve spent too many hours listening to the same great music and not enough investigating new stuff to matter to anyone making new music.
    Aesop Rock
    Atmosphere
    Common
    Prefuse 73
    Pharcyde
    Just to name a few.
    One last thing- complaining about the top ten is shooting fish in a barrel. I don’t think “Hairdresser on Fire” was ever a number 1 song, although you’d know better than I would.
    I’ll make a hip-hop mix CD from my extremely limited knowledge, so you can hate pop music all you want but you won’t be able to hate Hip-Hop. By the way, everything I said about Kiss goes double for Erasure. God, I hate that band.

    Reply
  4. TJD

    Sean – Erasure appeals to the shitheads that used to kick your ass in high school? You had a very different set of shitheads than most, I’m thinking.

    Reply
  5. Sean

    Kiss fans kicked my ass, Erasure fans… yeah, they probably kicked my ass too.
    I got beat up by the drama club.
    The girl’s dram club.
    The junior high school girl’s drama club.

    Reply
  6. Ian

    Sean, your defense of hip-hop, while always ferverous, doesn’t answer my basic question. I want to know what aural part of these rap songs such as “How We Do” – or any of the other music-free flows that concern nothing but their own bullshit – appeals to kids buying (or downloading) tracks.
    Just saying that I hate hip-hop is reductive and totally false. I LOVE at least 15% of what I hear, mostly from the artists you list above. But just because Andre 3000 likes Kelis doesn’t meant that she’s any good.
    As for KISS, I didn’t like them either, I was just using them as an example of what parents disliked in our youth. But even “Rock and Roll All Night” has chords and is supposed to be funny. “How We Do” is not supposed to be funny, even though the lyrics are positively fucking ridiculous.
    I like “99 Problems,” there’s always going to be exceptions. But before you say it’s more meaningful than anything by De La Soul, please look at some De La lyrics – I think you’ve forgotten how brilliant those guys were.
    This is not an indictment of hip-hop. This is an earnest question about why so many kids buy the hip-hop currently in the Top 10. I would love a mix CD of the bands you’ve named, but be honest, have any of them cracked the Top 100?

    Reply
  7. Annie

    In the Ferrari the Jaguar
    switchin four lanes
    with the top down
    screamin out
    “Money ain’t a thing–”
    What amazes me about this late-90s Jay-Z song (aside from Jermaine Dupri’s insanely infectious sampling and production) is how much is evoked on so many levels in so few words. “Economy”–it’s a skill we try to learn in writing poems, how to say more by saying less–and I gotta admit that Jay-Z proves himself some weird sort of zen master, at least in this song.
    Some might say it’s nothing more than shallow self-promotion (“I’ve got cars and more money than I know what to do with, look at me”), but to me these few opening lines establish a fairly complex premise more efficiently than any other song, rap or otherwise, than I can think of. The imagery! Ferrari/Jaguar/switchin four lanes/ top down/screamin out–all concrete images. You can see it, hear it, feel it, instantly. It might not be where you want to be, but you know exactly where you are. Also, to me the cry of “Money ain’t a thing” throughout the song has a darker side that this opening volley sets up with breathtaking deftness, an undercurrent of nihilism or desperation that seems to live just under all this “we’re having more fun than anyone else” bravado.
    There’s much more to say but I’ll resist going further into that analytical zone…sometimes I think of rap artists as being to this culture what the traveling bards were back in medieval Europe, or what tribal storytellers have been for millenia…their occasion being to celebrate who they are, who their/our culture is, nihilistic or materialistic though it may be at times. There’s just something great about that.
    Keep on burnin the candle, too hot to hold
    too much to handle, in the back seat low he know
    if she look, she go
    ba-ba wit Da-da
    an I ain’t got to say no mo
    I’m the truth like A.I.
    Type a proof dat stay fly
    Type a shit you could never buy, know why?
    Cuz I write the songs that the whole world sing
    I don’t know bout y’all, but at night I swing

    Reply
  8. kaz

    okay, i don’t know how it fits into the discussion exactly, but i must suggest checking out the audio section of found magazine:
    http://www.foundmagazine.com/
    for a sampling of the brilliantly earnest ypsilanti all-starz. with titles like “Ass-Whomp Bustin’ Out of Yo’ Back Pocket,” it’s hard not to chuckle. but there’s not an ounce of anything original or meaningful in the riffs except the heart of their effort. i give them points for that…

    Reply
  9. Sean

    Current top ten hits have chords and lyrics. They also suck as much as ever. I do think that How We Do is supposed to be funny, or lifestyle-celebratory like Kiss. A gaggle of douche-bags thought Kiss was singing their anthem, and a bunch of stupid kids may think that about 50-Cent, it’s the same kind of song. Both songs could be called “We Are In Favor of Enjoying Ourselves In A Rare And Wonderful Way.”
    (I, of course, am being ludicrous here because I’m defending a song I’ve never heard, by an artist I’ve never heard, playing on top 40 radio, which I haven’t heard in two years. So, I should fuck off right away…)
    My point isn’t that hip-hop is good, I know you agree with me. My point is that this is hardly the nadir of popular music. Sure, there was a time when songs could be made by ugly people with tons of talent, it was around the same time that movies and TV starred ugly people with tons of talent, and ugly people don’t get to be famous anymore.
    But, Lord, there was a stretch three or four years ago when boy bands were vying for the top spot with underage heroin hookers and Cher. Right now, 50-Cent is talking shit about his car, and I would rather have that on an endless loop then have to hear “Believe” all the way through once. At least 50-Cent has the decency to have already been shot several times, Cher is still alive and we are all the worse for it.

    Reply
  10. cullen

    I can cope w/only very few hip-hop flavas, like Citizen Cope and the like for originalities unrivaled by so much of the mainshitstream. Turning youth onto acts like these is an uphill battle though.
    I’m fucking upset to find out what Rashad’s diamond symbol means. I’d feared as much. Thanksalot.
    However, if we get to the Final Four and Jay-Z can come through on scamming me some tix and Beyonce can sit-on-say my lap, all will be forgiven.
    Little heels are literally kicking and screaming (& hiccuping) for a national championship.
    Ann Humphreys once loaned me a James Taylor cassette; now she’s analyzing rap crap. I’d say we’ve come full circle (a few times).

    Reply

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