Monday, February 18, 2008
Beats I can dance to. Words I can't stand.
It amazes me how far Djays, producers and musicians have come in their quest to make the most mind-blowing, cutting edge beats in the history of hip hop. Wizard-like producers like Timbaland and Pharell. Dan the Automator, DJ Q-Bert, Prince Paul and Gorillaz. And don't get me started on Kanye West, Danger Mouse (both separate and as part of Gnarls Barkley) and Aphex Twins. It's a beat revolution out there.
Timbaland and Pharell took the twee falsetto voiced, Britney Spears lovin', teen pop singer Justin Timberlake from being the dopey kid with the blond afro in Nsync to a soul sex symbol. The first R&B album since Tina Marie's first joint that had black folks going to the record store, trying to buy that "Justified" while hiding it underneath that copy of Jay-Z and pervert Kells "Best of Both Worlds" LP. Hoping no one would notice.
But a brilliant album is a brilliant album. And when his second album came out it was like he'd transformed fully into a legitimate soul artist, black credentials stamped, ready to go. Black folks could openly say they liked J. Timberlake, even though some folks will stay they just bought it for the beat.
That's what a good beat, a masterful producer can do for the right artist.
But for every great beat that is given to someone who can throw it up in the air and turn the joint into sunshine (see: Beyonce "Crazy In Love" or Keysha Cole on Diddy's "Last Night"), there are countless magical baselines and riffs wasted on marginal rappers and singers with borderline tedious lyrics.
Case in point: T-Pain's "Buy You A Drink" and 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology"
Both songs in the beat department are beyond excellent. The production quality is futuristic in both cases finding innovative things to play along with the vocals and melody.
On T-Pain's self-produced track, the melody works it way up to an Ecstasy-laced, euphoric. It's harmonic heaven -- if you don't listen to the lyrics. For all T-Pain's skills in crafting the beat, he doesn't provide jack shit in the way of lyrics. Shallow, the song focuses purely on trying to "buy you a drink" and "take you home with me." Wow. There's no songs on the radio about that shit. That's novel, son. A song about getting a girl drunk and screwing her and calling it "sawty snappin.'" Blacks have only be writing about that since Cab Calloway penned "Minnie the Moocher," mentioning her penchant for a little cocaine every now and then.
The melody has some complexities and romance, but T-Pain and Young Joc offer up nothing more than the same tired rap cliches, only now within the slightly less sexist confines of R&B.
But as effective as T-Pain was at orchestrating a sonic, danceable sound, the master of making a beat that can truly challenge the listener is Timbaland.
On "Ayo Techonolgy" Timabaland brings his "A" game with an especially novel, future-funk-forward beat that I'd argue is almost as good as Kanye West's Daft Punk mix on "Stronger." Everything about the beat is novel. The digital beat is heightened with a modified cell phone-style ring that would have been pitch perfect for a skilled, fast delivery-style rhymer like Chicago's Twista.
But who do we get? The mush mouthed, lethargic tones of the king of over-rated, 50 Cent.
I'm not going to hide my very partisan view of 50 Cent. I never liked him, not even when Dre and Em were trying to ram him down everyone's throat with his "second coming of 'Pac, I've been shot" alleged brilliance. It's been humorous to watch the devolution of his music since his debut. In 2002-2003 he was battling with fellow facsimile, Ja Rule, calling him a "Wanksta" and deriding him for making 10,000 crappy songs with an equally marginal and bland Ashanti in an effort appeal to a more commercial, i.e. "weak," fan base. He didn't need to rap with R&B singers.
And then comes this turd of an album in 2007, "Curtis." And who's on there playing back up? The whitest falsetto spitting, fey R&B singer boys in the world - Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake.
Justin shows up on "Ayo Technology," improving this Fiddy-mangled song by trying to interject some life into it. But even he's dragged down by Fiddy's anemic delivery and the borderline moronic subject matter of the song.
Fiddy prides himself with being "hood," but how "hood" can your 'roided up ass be if your big "hit" is an ode to masturbating to internet porn? At least other sexist rappers actually make it to a titty bar to sing about actual strippers (see T-Pain "I'm N' Luv Wit A Stripper"). Internet porn is the equivalent of gorging on the fast food of sex. It's something you do in the dark that you don't tell anyone else about. You don't write an ode to it where you ask her to "make it rain" for you.
Fiddy turns a brilliant beat to trash. I've never understood who this song was meant to appeal to? It wasn't romantic enough to get women into it, unlike "Buy You A Drink" which actually involves trite compliments and offers to buy you beverages. I guess the song could pass for being "hood" and attract horny knuckle heads who's pants hang so low they trip over them, but what are they going to do with it? Slap it on as a soundtrack for their internet porn?
Too many rappers take too many cutting edge beats and render them mediocre with more of the same "let's get drunk and have sex" paradigm. Or in "Ayo Technology's" case, "let's go get drunk and jerk off to internet porn."
"Buy You A Drink" and "Technology" have beats there are of Gnarls Barkley, OutKast meets Gorillaz level of quality. Yet the songs are reduced to trashy club music to accompany the most stretched-marked of pock-faced, tattooed strippers as they kick up their four-inch clear plastic heels at the Pink Slip in Washington Park.
Why aren't rap lyrics advancing in creativity and quality at the same pace as the beats? Why is every rapper still exploring territory Ice T, Eazy E and Jay Z gave up on years ago? How many songs about strippers or getting drunk can a person write?
Evolve, people! Evolve!
Or if you can't be deep, if you only want to write about women, thuggin' and liquor at least get your flow to match the quality. Even Snoop tailored his lyrics, ever so slightly, to work with the outrageous beats Pharell Williams cooked up. I'm not down with all the Crip talk on "Drop It Like It's Hot," but at least that song and his latest "Signs" (which, ironically, features Justin Timberlake), I'm not ashamed to get up and dance.