Posts from February 2001

Feb 01

Francisco Lopez: Untitled #104: Pitchfork Review

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Francisco Lopez: Untitled #104: Pitchfork Review: Francisco Lopez composes art music, Pitchfork reviewer doesn’t like it, Pitchfork reviewer gives it 0.0, Pitchfork gets hits off of people who take its marking system too seriously, everybody is happy except for F.Lopez who I doubt cares.

The one good thing about marking systems is that you can pull stunts like this – ‘stunt journalism’ in the British music press will have infuriated or excited every reader at some point, and American writing is sadly lacking in it. The Lopez review alas doesn’t really qualify – it lacks the fists-raised, come and have a go madness of the best stunt journalism, the sense of a writer willing to put their reputation, such as it is, on the line. Spencer Owen’s piece is simply somebody really hating a record, but it’s somebody hating – or loving – the principle of a record that makes for the most dynamic writing.

Pop Eye

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Pop Eye: two polls, the Outkast/Atomic Kitten showdown, and the worst joke ever to appear in pop-eye, which is saying something.

Feb 01

Speaking of which….

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Speaking of which….

Am I Cool Or Not?

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Am I Cool Or Not?: you’re getting harsher every week, I swear. Anyway last week’s victim faces judgement, and a new sucker takes the AICON plunge. I think this week’s comments are…well, interesting, and not neccessarily in a good way. And not just because I disagree with the outcome, either.

Part One in an occasional series by your unofficial showbiz correspondent:

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Part One in an occasional series by your unofficial showbiz correspondent: Celebs in the Pub.

Here’s my list in chronological order. You may notice it is heavily reliant on a) slightly obscure soap stars and b) North London, postcodes N8 and N6:
1. Daniella Denby-Ashe aka Sarah ‘Bible Basher’ Hills from Eastenders/daughter from ‘My Family’/dizzy bird off ‘Office Gossip’. Spotted in pub whose name escapes me in Highgate.
2. Phil and Lisa (Steve McFadden and Lucy Benjamin) also from Eastenders. Not strictly speaking actually in the pub but they walked past the Railway in Crouch End when we were sat outside.
3. Det. Matt Boyden from the Bill (you know, the older grumpy one who is often on the desk) – spotted in the Hogshead in Crouch End and also in the Manhattan Coffee Shop which is in no way a pub.
4. Vas Blackwood who I remember from Lenny Henry but according to my slightly more up-to-date source was in Snatch and Lock, Stock…

Proper celebs have VIP rooms to drink in – an ex colleague of mine saw (deep breath) Robbie and Janine off Stenders, Tony and Lewis off Hollyoaks, Fiona off Corrie who is now someone else off Holby City AND – saving the best till last – SClub 7!!! All in the VIP room of the apparently vile Cafe de Paris.

I will be keeping my eyes open. (I have also spotted Jessie Wallace aka Kat Slater off Eastenders but that was in a club I’m afraid.)

Face Slap

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Face Slap: in my DJ Marlboro article, I mentioned my suspicions that the lyrics to Brazilian ‘funk’ hits were probably as dodgy as their booty-bounce cousins. I wasn’t far wrong, although I’ve not come across any booty lyrics as violent as this.

Rubbish Grammy Article

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Rubbish Grammy Article found by Ian. An I-Spy game of cluelessness but my favourite line is this: “popular music has been enveloped by the “cultural attitude” of MTV. That is, the attitude of rebellion”. Pop music and rebellion? Whatever next, eh?

If I Was Lush, I’d Be Pretty Pissed Off By Now

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If I Was Lush, I’d Be Pretty Pissed Off By Now: replace “making history” with “making money” and you’ll be nearer the mark, eh BBC? All Freaky Trigger has to say at this point is: go on Shaggy!

Fantasy Pop League

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Fantasy Pop League: finally updated! Notice that the managers who have actually been playing are doing better than those who haven’t (with the regrettable exception of Vinny – sorry old chap but there’s always next fortnight). For the rest of you, enjoy the mercilless and entirely objective assessment of the last two weeks in the heady world of pop. NB: scores adjusted before this week’s chart shocker. Can nothing stop the Kitten?

Feb 01

Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: JA RULE – “Rule 3:36”

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Some records join every dot. Last year, for instance, the Kelis album and the Jay-Z album and the Romeo Must Die soundtrack turned hip-hop around for me. They made sense of a lot of things – my latent love of the genre, my excitement over R&B and its transformation of pop, and my dissatisfaction with the ‘undie’ records I’d been buying and hearing. You know the ones: Company Flow, New Kingdom, Black Star – very proficient, quite abrasive, mildly interesting, but lacking the spark that made me play “Do It Again” or “Try Again” or “Good Stuff” fifteen times over, lost in their paranoid platinum dreams.

Often these records had the jitters – either musically, in the microbeats and synth wobbles underpinning the tracks, or emotionally, in the fug of doubt, panic, anger and mistrust that sometimes infected the music. There was bliss, too, most of it in the force of the rhythms and the playful anything-goes leap into electronic sounds. But even some of the most upbeat songs, like “Good Stuff” or “Big Pimpin”, sounded brittle and nervy, half-swagger half-bravado – effects achieved respectively by the arid rattle of the Neptunes’ beats and the Joker-grin maniac joy in Timbaland’s endless flute loop.

But when the darkness hit, it hit bad: Jay-Z’s “Come And Get Me” was a clammy death-trip, culminating lyrically in Jay’s creeped-out round-up of his guns and sonically in the rotten ambient churn Timbaland drops the track into halfway through. These records felt different from the hip-hop I’d been hearing three or four years before – then the emphasis was on gangs, crews, localities, an us-against-them mentality to be sure but at least the us implied people you could rely on. There was less of that in Jay-Z’s or DMX’s music, even in Aaliyah’s: rappers and divas alike walked alone through a world where even the fittest would not neccessarily survive.

In joy and dread alike, this was brilliant, propulsive city music, exactly what you’d have wanted pop to sound like in 2000, and an aesthetic partyline developed: electronic pop textures and ping-pong off-centre beats were good, so was black humour and musical tension, so was anything which didn’t sound like old skool hip-hop. Lyrical flow was important, but nobody seemed to care too much about the content. Every other week it seemed I’d hear some phenomenal new track, culminating with “Bombs Over Baghdad”, Outkast’s head-switching collision of future-now beats and psychedelic funk.

Outkast had next to nothing to do with the shiny, skittery hip-hop I’d been swooning over all through 2000, though, and Stankonia confirmed it: shockingly modernist in places, it was still a looser, happier experience than coiled-spring thug music seemed likely to serve up. But then the thugs started to unclench a little too – Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You” was a stoned, groovy mess, and Nelly’s “Country Grammar” seduced the charts with a heathazed lazy lope.

The only problem for me was I didn’t like either of them, or most of Stankonia for that matter, very much. Neither the hooks or the production held my attention like the tunes of six months or a year before had done, and they just felt too damn slow. At the same time though, they felt somehow fresher than new tracks coming out in the jitter-beat style: when a music is moving as fast as hip-hop has been, critics have little time for stock-taking. Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy?” put a new and funny spin on the whole thing by matching palpitating rhythms with the rapper’s panting horndog persona. But a turn to the organic and my own changed circumstances (moving out of the city) meant my interest in current hip-hop started to dip for the first time in a year. I rediscovered the Wu-Tang Clan, started exploring bass music, and restricted myself to occasional attempts at enjoying Stankonia as much as everyone else seemed to.

So Ja Rule’s Rule 3:36 album is the first new street rap album I’ve bought in a while, and listening to it it’s hard to think that the break has done me or the music any good. The record sits uneasily between uptight DMXian wrath and a looser, more tender style which seems musically and lyrically to spring straight from Ja Rule’s discovery of E. “Ecstasy”, as Tim Finney and Simon Reynolds have both pointed out, is one of the first hip-hop E anthems. I don’t think Rule takes the golden opportunity to rhyme “thug” and “hug”, though, as mostly the song is about what a great fuck he is when he’s on X. B-Boys on E is, as Reynolds has written, a tantalising prospect in theory. Unfortunately “Ecstasy” sounds like the meeting-point between Will Smith’s “Miami” and the Happy Mondays’ “Grandbag’s Funeral”: a leaden house trot entirely unenhanced by Rule’s mediocre rapping.

I’ll talk about Rule himself more in a minute, but it’s worth asking again why “Ecstasy” doesn’t work, because it sheds some light on the potential problems with street-rap criticism as it stands. Throughout Rule 3:36, and throughout a lot of current hip-hop, sounds and techniques familiar to 90s dance listeners crop up: acid squelches here, Beltram stabs and hoover hovers there. These were unexpected and exciting, and often still are – the ravey helium vocals on “6 Feet Underground” make it this album’s most enticing track by some way. But they can’t be the be-all and end-all of a track. Reynolds, for example, is rightly intrigued by the musical possibilities an influx of Ecstasy in the clubs might unlock for hip-hop producers: but if those producers are simply revisiting old ravey ideas, then ennui sets in rapidly. It’s hard to shake a suspicion that a lot of Reynolds’ love of street rap – particularly as its personae seem to repel him so much – is to do with a simple nostalgia trip at hearing these old noises again.

That’s probably unfair, but then it was Reynolds’ recommendation that led me to shell out for Rule 3:36 in the first place. And when a track like “Die” hits your headphones, with Ja Rule raps over something very similar to Miami Vice chase scene music, questions must be asked. On “It’s Your Life”, the weedy pop-reggae skank finds the dread phrase, “I don’t like cricket….I love it” springing to lip. The production on the album isn’t generally so bad – compared to the scholarly rigour of a Rawkus record it jumps like a box of bees – but it feels heavy-handed and stale. Pizzicato string-plucks and parpy retro-keyboards: all very nice, but haven’t we been here already? Assuming of coursethat you can tune out Ja Rule enough to get a handle on it.

Where underground rap prides itself on its verbal convolutions, street rap is all about finding a persona and sticking with it. This may seem an odd thing to say for a style so obsessed with realism, but like an autobiography (or a weblog!), street rap is a kind of self-play, creating a ‘you’ just exaggerated enough to excite. The audience need never know how real it actually is, they just have to buy it for sixty minutes. So Jay-Z plays the sly, arrogant hustler, and DMX plays the thug as trapped, tragic antihero.

And Ja Rule? Well, sadly, Ja Rule mostly comes off as thick: a big, blustering comic heavy with precious few jokes. His love songs are better than his other songs but take “Between Me And You”: the track is a lacy, sulty Eastern groove and Christina Milian takes it into the same silky territory as Eve’s “Gotta Man”, all bubbling, barely-composed lust and delight. And on top of this Ja Rule bellows like a wildebeest. The overall effect is like those endless, feebly bathetic scenes in The Incredible Hulk where the rampaging creature would pause to tenderly caress a deer and weep hammy tears reader-wards.

The street-rap critical position is too-often boiled down to “lovely sounds, shame about the raps”, which is a generalisation and then some – it was none other than Mos Def who pronounced that if you didn’t like Jay-Z’s flow, you didn’t understand hip-hop. But the one-liner has a grain of truth – certainly I’ve learned to tune out offensive content and what Reynolds calls “nigga-tivity”. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes I don’t care, occasionally I can really get off on the strut and the sex.

But Ja Rule is where I draw the line because his raps are both so in-your-face and so utterly banal. “Between Me And You” says that everything that happens between Ja and his girl is between her and him. In “Love Me, Hate Me” we learn that people either love Ja Rule or they hate him. The low point comes with “One Of Us” where over a tiresome pop-funk groove Rule asks, yes, “What if God was one of us?”. It was trite as hell when Joan Osborne did it, and Rule isn’t getting away with it just because he’s using some neat 80s keyboard sounds.

Some records join every dot, some rub the lines out. Hip-hop is still the hottest music in America – and it’s gratifying as hell to see it taking over the British charts too – but records as drab as Rule 3:36 suggest that not all that’s platinum is gold, and that transplanting the thrills of the Rave Nation to urban America may be a more fraught critical process than it seems.